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.
A Workingman’s Home-Life
(From “The Ragged-Trowsered Philanthropists”)

By Robert Tressall

(The life-story of an English house-painter who died of consumption, leaving behind him a manuscript portraying the pitiful lives of the half-starved English artisans. Published in book form, it proved to be one of the literary events of the year 1914)
“HARK!” said the mother, holding up her finger.  1
  “Dad!” cried Frankie, rushing to the door and flinging it open.  2
  He ran along the passage and opened the staircase door before Owen reached the top of the last flight of stairs.  3
  “Why ever do you come up at such a rate?” exclaimed Owen’s wife reproachfully, as he came into the room exhausted from the climb upstairs and sank panting into the nearest chair.  4
  “I al—ways—for—get,” he replied, when he had in some degree recovered.  5
  As he lay back in the chair, his face haggard and of a ghastly whiteness, and with the water dripping from his saturated clothing, Owen presented a terrible appearance.  6
  Frankie noticed with childish terror the extreme alarm with which his mother looked at his father.  7
  “You’re always doing it,” he said with a whimper. “How many more times will mother have to tell you about it before you take any notice?”  8
  “It’s all right, old chap,” said Owen, drawing the child nearer to him and kissing the curly head. “Listen, and see if you can guess what I’ve got for you under my coat.”  9
  “A kitten!” cried the boy, taking it out of its hiding place. “All black, and I believe it’s half a Persian. Just the very thing I wanted.”  10
  While Frankie amused himself playing with the kitten, which had been provided with another saucer of bread and milk, Owen went into the bedroom to put on the dry clothes.…  11
  After the child was in bed, Owen sat alone by the table in the draughty sitting-room, thinking.  12
  Although there was a bright fire, the room was very cold, being so close to the roof. The wind roared loudly round the gables, shaking the house in a way that threatened every moment to hurl it to the ground.  13
  Staring abstractedly at the lamp, he thought of the future.  14
  A few years ago the future had seemed a region of wonderful and mysterious possibilities of good, but to-night the thought brought no such illusions, for he knew that the story of the future was to be much the same as the story of the past. He would continue to work, and they would all three have to go without most of the necessaries of life. When there was no work they would starve.  15
  For himself he did not care much, because he knew that, at the best—or worst—it would be only a very few years. Even if he were able to have proper food and clothing, and take reasonable care of himself, he could not live much longer; but, when that time came, what was to become of them?  16
  There would be some hope for the boy if he were more robust and if his character were less gentle and more selfish. In order to succeed in the world it was necessary to be brutal, selfish, and unfeeling; to push others aside and to take advantage of their misfortunes.  17
  Owen stood up and began walking about the room, oppressed with a kind of terror. Presently he returned to the fire and began rearranging his clothes that were drying. He found that the boots, having been placed too near the fire, had dried too quickly, and, consequently the sole of one of them had begun to split away from the upper. He remedied this as well as he was able, and, while turning the wetter parts of the clothing to the fire, he noticed the newspaper in the coat pocket. He drew it out with an exclamation of pleasure. Here was something to distract his thoughts. But, as soon as he opened the paper, his attention was riveted by the staring headlines of one of the principal columns: TERRIBLE DOMESTIC TRAGEDY. Wife and Two Children Killed. Suicide of the Murderer.  18
  It was one of the ordinary crimes of poverty. The man had been without employment for many weeks and they had pawned or sold their furniture and other possessions. But even this resource must have failed at last, and one day the neighbors noticed that the blinds remained down and that there was a strange silence about the house. When the police entered they found, in one of the upper rooms, the dead bodies of the woman and the two children, with their throats cut, laid out side by side upon the bed, which was saturated with their blood.  19
  There was no bedstead, and no furniture in the room except the straw mattress and the ragged clothes and blankets upon the floor.  20
  The man’s body was found in the kitchen, lying with outstretched arms face downward on the floor, surrounded by the blood from the terrible wound in his throat, which had evidently been inflicted by the razor that was grasped in his right hand.  21
  No particle of food was found, but, attached to a nail in the kitchen wall, was a piece of blood-smeared paper, on which was written in pencil:  22
  “This is not my crime, but Society’s.”  23
  The report went on to explain that the deed must have been perpetrated during a fit of temporary insanity brought on by the sufferings the man had endured.  24
  “Insanity!” muttered Owen, as he read this glib theory. “Insanity! It seems to me that he would have been insane if he had not killed them.”  25
  Surely it was wiser and better and kinder to send them all to sleep than to let them continue to suffer.  26
  At the same time it seemed strange that the man should have chosen to do it in that way, when there were so many other cleaner, easier, and less painful ways of accomplishing his object.  27
  One could take poison. Of course, there was a certain amount of difficulty in procuring it, and one would have to be very careful not to select a poison that would cause a lot of pain.  28
  Owen went over to his bookshelf, and took down “The Cyclopedia of Practical Medicine,” an old, rather out-of-date book, which he thought might contain the required information. He was astonished to find what a number of poisons there were within easy reach of whoever wished to make use of them: poisons which could be relied upon to do their work certainly, quickly, and without pain. Why, it was not even necessary to buy them; one could gather them from the hedges by the roadside and in the fields.  29
  The more he thought of it the stranger it seemed that such a clumsy method as a razor should be so popular. Strangulation, or even hanging would be better than that, though the latter method could scarcely be adopted in their flat, because there were no beams or rafters or anything from which it would be possible to suspend a cord. Still, he could drive some large nails or hooks into one of the walls. For that matter, there were already some clothes hooks on some of the doors. He began to think that this would be a more excellent way than poison: he could pretend to Frankie that he was going to show him some new kind of play. The boy would offer no resistance, and in a few minutes it would all be over.  30
  He threw down the book and pressed his hands over his ears. He fancied he could hear the boy’s hands and feet beating against the panels of the door as he struggled in his death agony.  31
  Then, as his arms fell nervelessly by his side again, he thought he heard Frankie’s voice calling:  32
  “Dad! Dad!”  33
  Owen hastily opened the door.  34
  “Are you calling, Frankie?”  35
  “Yes. I’ve been calling you quite a long time.”  36
  “What do you want?”  37
  “I want you to come here. I want to tell you something.”  38
  “Well, what is it, dear? I thought you were asleep a long time ago,” said Owen, as he came into the room.  39
  “That’s just what I want to speak to you about. The kitten’s gone to sleep all right, but I can’t go. I’ve tried all different ways, counting and all, but it’s no use, so I thought I’d ask you if you’d mind coming and staying with me, and letting me hold your hand for a little while, and then p’raps I could go.”  40
  The boy twined his arms round Owen’s neck and hugged him very tightly.  41
  “Oh, dad, I love you so much!” he said. “I love you so much I could squeeze you to death.”  42
  “I’m afraid you will, if you squeeze me so tightly as that.”  43
  The boy laughed softly as he relaxed his hold.  44
  “That would be a funny way of showing you how much I loved you, wouldn’t it, dad? Squeezing you to death!”  45
  “Yes, I suppose it would,” replied Owen, huskily, as he tucked the bedclothes round the child’s shoulders. “But don’t talk any more, dear, just hold my hand and try to sleep.”  46
  Lying there very quietly, holding his father’s hand and occasionally kissing it, the child presently fell asleep.…  47
  Owen lay listening to the howling of the wind and the noise of the rain as it poured heavily on the roof. But it was not the storm only that kept him awake. Through the dark hours of the night his thoughts were still haunted by the words on that piece of blood-stained paper on a kitchen wall: “This is not my crime, but Society’s.”  48

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