Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

Chapter XXXIV

The Grind of the Millstones — A Sample of Chaff

Carrie pondered over this situation as consistently as Hurstwood, once she got the facts adjusted in her mind. It took several days for her to fully realise that the approach of the dissolution of her husband’s business meant commonplace struggle and privation. Her mind went back to her early venture in Chicago, the Hansons and their flat, and her heart revolted. That was terrible! Everything about poverty was terrible. She wished she knew a way out. Her recent experiences with the Vances had wholly unfitted her to view her own state with complacence. The glamour of the high life of the city had, in the few experiences afforded her by the former, seized her completely. She had been taught how to dress and where to go without having ample means to do either. Now, these things — ever-present realities as they were — filled her eyes and mind. The more circumscribed became her state, the more entrancing seemed this other. And now poverty threatened to seize her entirely and to remove this other world far upward like a heaven to which any Lazarus might extend, appealingly, his hands.

So, too, the ideal brought into her life by Ames remained. He had gone, but here was his word that riches were not everything; that there was a great deal more in the world than she knew; that the stage was good, and the literature she read poor. He was a strong man and clean — how much stronger and better than Hurstwood and Drouet she only half formulated to herself, but the difference was painful. It was something to which she voluntarily closed her eyes.

During the last three months of the Warren Street connection, Hurstwood took parts of days off and hunted, tracking the business advertisements. It was a more or less depressing business, wholly because of the thought that he must soon get something or he would begin to live on the few hundred dollars he was saving, and then he would have nothing to invest — he would have to hire out as a clerk.

Everything he discovered in his line advertised as an opportunity, was either too expensive or too wretched for him. Besides, winter was coming, the papers were announcing hardships, and there was a general feeling of hard times in the air, or, at least, he thought so. In his worry, other people’s worries became apparent. No item about a firm failing, a family starving, or a man dying upon the streets, supposedly of starvation, but arrested his eye as he scanned the morning papers. Once the “World” came out with a flaring announcement about “80,000 people out of employment in New York this winter,” which struck as a knife at his heart.

“Eighty thousand!” he thought. “What an awful thing that is.”

This was new reasoning for Hurstwood. In the old days the world had seemed to be getting along well enough. He had been wont to see similar things in the “Daily News,” in Chicago, but they did not hold his attention. Now, these things were like grey clouds hovering along the horizon of a clear day. They threatened to cover and obscure his life with chilly greyness. He tried to shake them off, to forget and brace up. Sometimes he said to himself, mentally:

“What’s the use worrying? I’m not out yet. I’ve got six weeks more. Even if worst comes to worst, I’ve got enough to live on for six months.”

Curiously, as he troubled over his future, his thoughts occasionally reverted to his wife and family. He had avoided such thoughts for the first three years as much as possible. He hated her, and he could get along without her. Let her go. He would do well enough. Now, however, when he was not doing well enough, he began to wonder what she was doing, how his children were getting along. He could see them living as nicely as ever, occupying the comfortable house and using his property.

“By George! it’s a shame they should have it all,” he vaguely thought to himself on several occasions. “I didn’t do anything.”

As he looked back now and analysed the situation which led up to his taking the money, he began mildly to justify himself. What had he done — what in the world — that should bar him out this way and heap such difficulties upon him? It seemed only yesterday to him since he was comfortable and well-to-do. But now it was all wrested from him.

“She didn’t deserve what she got out of me, that is sure. I didn’t do so much, if everybody could just know.”

There was no thought that the facts ought to be advertised. It was only a mental justification he was seeking from himself — something that would enable him to bear his state as a righteous man.

One afternoon, five weeks before the Warren Street place closed up, he left the saloon to visit three or four places he saw advertised in the “Herald.” One was down in Gold Street, and he visited that, but did not enter. It was such a cheap looking place he felt that he could not abide it. Another was on the Bowery, which he knew contained many showy resorts. It was near Grand Street, and turned out to be very handsomely fitted up. He talked around about investments for fully three-quarters of an hour with the proprietor, who maintained that his health was poor, and that was the reason he wished a partner.

“Well, now, just how much money would it take to buy a half interest here?” said Hurstwood, who saw seven hundred dollars as his limit.

“Three thousand,” said the man.

Hurstwood’s jaw fell.

“Cash?” he said.

“Cash.”

He tried to put on an air of deliberation, as one who might really buy; but his eyes showed gloom. He wound up by saying he would think it over, and came away. The man he had been talking to sensed his condition in a vague way.

“I don’t think he wants to buy,” he said to himself. “He doesn’t talk right.”

The afternoon was as grey as lead and cold. It was blowing up a disagreeable winter wind. He visited a place far up on the east side, near Sixty-ninth Street, and it was five o’clock, and growing dim, when he reached there. A portly German kept this place.

“How about this ad of yours?” asked Hurstwood, who rather objected to the looks of the place.

“Oh, dat iss all over,” said the German. “I vill not sell now.”

“Oh, is that so?”

“Yes; dere is nothing to dat. It iss all over.”

“Very well,” said Hurstwood, turning around.

The German paid no more attention to him, and it made him angry.

“The crazy ass!” he said to himself. “What does he want to advertise for?”

Wholly depressed, he started for Thirteenth Street. The flat had only a light in the kitchen, where Carrie was working. He struck a match and, lighting the gas, sat down in the dining-room without even greeting her. She came to the door and looked in.

“It’s you, is it?” she said, and went back.

“Yes,” he said, without even looking up from the evening paper he had bought.

Carrie saw things were wrong with him. He was not so handsome when gloomy. The lines at the sides of the eyes were deepened. Naturally dark of skin, gloom made him look slightly sinister. He was quite a disagreeable figure.

Carrie set the table and brought in the meal.

“Dinner’s ready,” she said, passing him for something.

He did not answer, reading on.

She came in and sat down at her place, feeling exceedingly wretched.

“Won’t you eat now?” she asked.

He folded his paper and drew near, silence holding for a time, except for the “Pass me’s.”

“It’s been gloomy today, hasn’t it?” ventured Carrie, after a time.

“Yes,” he said.

He only picked at his food.

“Are you still sure to close up?” said Carrie, venturing to take up the subject which they had discussed often enough.

“Of course we are,” he said, with the slightest modification of sharpness.

This retort angered Carrie. She had had a dreary day of it herself.

“You needn’t talk like that,” she said.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, pushing back from the table, as if to say more, but letting it go at that. Then he picked up his paper. Carrie left her seat, containing herself with difficulty. He saw she was hurt.

“Don’t go ‘way,” he said, as she started back into the kitchen. “Eat your dinner.”

She passed, not answering.

He looked at the paper a few moments, and then rose up and put on his coat.

“I’m going downtown, Carrie,” he said, coming out. “I’m out of sorts to-night.”

She did not answer.

“Don’t be angry,” he said. “It will be all right to morrow.”

He looked at her, but she paid no attention to him, working at her dishes.

“Good-bye!” he said finally, and went out.

This was the first strong result of the situation between them, but with the nearing of the last day of the business the gloom became almost a permanent thing. Hurstwood could not conceal his feelings about the matter. Carrie could not help wondering where she was drifting. It got so that they talked even less than usual, and yet it was not Hurstwood who felt any objection to Carrie. It was Carrie who shied away from him. This he noticed. It aroused an objection to her becoming indifferent to him. He made the possibility of friendly intercourse almost a giant task, and then noticed with discontent that Carrie added to it by her manner and made it more impossible.

At last the final day came. When it actually arrived, Hurstwood, who had got his mind into such a state where a thunderclap and raging storm would have seemed highly appropriate, was rather relieved to find that it was a plain, ordinary day. The sun shone, the temperature was pleasant. He felt, as he came to the breakfast table, that it wasn’t so terrible, after all.

“Well,” he said to Carrie, “today’s my last day on earth.”

Carrie smiled in answer to his humour.

Hurstwood glanced over his paper rather gayly. He seemed to have lost a load.

“I’ll go down for a little while,” he said after breakfast, “and then I’ll look around. To-morrow I’ll spend the whole day looking about. I think I can get something, now this thing’s off my hands.”

He went out smiling and visited the place. Shaughnessy was there. They had made all arrangements to share according to their interests. When, however, he had been there several hours, gone out three more, and returned, his elation had departed. As much as he had objected to the place, now that it was no longer to exist, he felt sorry. He wished that things were different.

Shaughnessy was coolly businesslike.

“Well,” he said at five o’clock, “we might as well count the change and divide.”

They did so. The fixtures had already been sold and the sum divided.

“Good-night,” said Hurstwood at the final moment, in a last effort to be genial.

“So long,” said Shaughnessy, scarcely deigning a notice.

Thus the Warren Street arrangement was permanently concluded.

Carrie had prepared a good dinner at the flat, but after his ride up, Hurstwood was in a solemn and reflective mood.

“Well?” said Carrie, inquisitively.

“I’m out of that,” he answered, taking off his coat.

As she looked at him, she wondered what his financial state was now. They ate and talked a little.

“Will you have enough to buy in anywhere else?” asked Carrie.

“No,” he said. “I’ll have to get something else and save up.”

“It would be nice if you could get some place,” said Carrie, prompted by anxiety and hope.

“I guess I will,” he said reflectively.

For some days thereafter he put on his overcoat regularly in the morning and sallied forth. On these ventures he first consoled himself with the thought that with the seven hundred dollars he had he could still make some advantageous arrangement. He thought about going to some brewery, which, as he knew, frequently controlled saloons which they leased, and get them to help him. Then he remembered that he would have to pay out several hundred any way for fixtures and that he would have nothing left for his monthly expenses. It was costing him nearly eighty dollars a month to live.

“No,” he said, in his sanest moments, “I can’t do it. I’ll get something else and save up.”

This getting-something proposition complicated itself the moment he began to think of what it was he wanted to do. Manage a place? Where should he get such a position? The papers contained no requests for managers. Such positions, he knew well enough, were either secured by long years of service or were bought with a half or third interest. Into a place important enough to need such a manager he had not money enough to buy.

Nevertheless, he started out. His clothes were very good and his appearance still excellent, but it involved the trouble of deluding. People, looking at him, imagined instantly that a man of his age, stout and well dressed, must be well off. He appeared a comfortable owner of something, a man from whom the common run of mortals could well expect gratuities. Being now forty-three years of age, and comfortably built, walking was not easy. He had not been used to exercise for many years. His legs tired, his shoulders ached, and his feet pained him at the close of the day, even when he took street cars in almost every direction. The mere getting up and down, if long continued, produced this result.

The fact that people took him to be better off than he was, he well understood. It was so painfully clear to him that it retarded his search. Not that he wished to be less well-appearing, but that he was ashamed to belie his appearance by incongruous appeals. So he hesitated, wondering what to do.

He thought of the hotels, but instantly he remembered that he had had no experience as a clerk, and, what was more important, no acquaintances or friends in that line to whom he could go. He did know some hotel owners in several cities, including New York, but they knew of his dealings with Fitzgerald and Moy. He could not apply to them. He thought of other lines suggested by large buildings or businesses which he knew of — wholesale groceries, hardware, insurance concerns, and the like — but he had had no experience.

How to go about getting anything was a bitter thought. Would he have to go personally and ask; wait outside an office door, and, then, distinguished and affluent looking, announce that he was looking for something to do? He strained painfully at the thought. No, he could not do that.

He really strolled about, thinking, and then, the weather being cold, stepped into a hotel. He knew hotels well enough to know that any decent individual was welcome to a chair in the lobby. This was in the Broadway Central, which was then one of the most important hotels in the city. Taking a chair here was a painful thing to him. To think he should come to this! He had heard loungers about hotels called chairwarmers. He had called them that himself in his day. But here he was, despite the possibility of meeting some one who knew him, shielding himself from cold and the weariness of the streets in a hotel lobby.

“I can’t do this way,” he said to himself. “There’s no use of my starting out mornings without first thinking up some place to go. I’ll think of some places and then look them up.”

It occurred to him that the positions of bartenders were sometimes open, but he put this out of his mind. Bartender — he, the ex-manager!

It grew awfully dull sitting in the hotel lobby, and so at four he went home. He tried to put on a business air as he went in, but it was a feeble imitation. The rocking chair in the dining-room was comfortable. He sank into it gladly, with several papers he had bought, and began to read.

As she was going through the room to begin preparing dinner, Carrie said:

“The man was here for the rent today.”

“Oh, was he?” said Hurstwood.

The least wrinkle crept into his brow as he remembered that this was February 2d, the time the man always called. He fished down in his pocket for his purse, getting the first taste of paying out when nothing is coming in. He looked at the fat, green roll as a sick man looks at the one possible saving cure. Then he counted off twenty-eight dollars.

“Here you are,” he said to Carrie, when she came through again.

He buried himself in his papers and read. Oh, the rest of it — the relief from walking and thinking! What Lethean waters were these floods of telegraphed intelligence! He forgot his troubles, in part. Here was a young, handsome woman, if you might believe the newspaper drawing, suing a rich, fat, candy-making husband in Brooklyn for divorce. Here was another item detailing the wrecking of a vessel in ice and snow off Prince’s Bay on Staten Island. A long, bright column told of the doings in the theatrical world — the plays produced, the actors appearing, the managers making announcements. Fannie Davenport was just opening at the Fifth Avenue. Daly was producing “King Lear.” He read of the early departure for the season of a party composed of the Vanderbilts and their friends for Florida. An interesting shooting affray was on in the mountains of Kentucky. So he read, read, read, rocking in the warm room near the radiator and waiting for dinner to be served.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37