Read CHAPTER XXXIII of The Harbor , free online book, by Ernest Poole, on

Poor old Sue. What queer friends she had, what a muddled life compared to ours. What a vague confused development, jumping from one idea to another, never seeing any job through, forever starting all over again with the same feverish absorption in the next new radical fad. High-brow dramatics, the settlement movement, the post-impressionists, socialism, votes for women, one thing after the other pell mell. She would work herself all up, live hard, talk, organize, think and feel till her nerves went all to pieces, and then she would come to us for a rest and laugh at us for our restfulness and at herself for the state she was in. That was one thing at least she had learned-to laugh at herself-she could be deliciously humorous. And Eleanore, meeting her on that ground, would quiet her and steady her down.

We had grown very fond of Sue. We knew her life was not easy at home. Alone over there with poor old Dad and feeling herself anchored down, she would still at intervals rebel-against his sticking to his dull job, against her own dependence, against the small monthly allowance which without my father’s knowledge they still had from me.

“Let me earn my own living!” she would exclaim. “Why shouldn’t I? I’m twenty-six-and I’m working hard enough as it is-the Lord knows! I’m organizing every day and making speeches half my nights. Other girls take pay for that. Now Father, please be sensible. I’m going to take a good salaried job.”

But then Dad, whose mind was so old and rigid, so much less tolerant than mine, would grow excited or, still worse, ashamed that he couldn’t make money enough to give her all she wanted. And that desperate hungry love with which he clung to her these latter days would in the end make her give in. For under all her radical talk Sue had the kindest heart in the world.

Eleanore did her best to help. She was always having Dad over to dinner, and we had a room which she called his, where he would come and stay the week-end. At six o’clock each Saturday night he would arrive with his satchel.

“Daughter-in-law,” he would announce, “my other daughter’s agin the law, she’s gone off revolooting. Can you take a decent old gentleman in out of the last century? Don’t change any plans on my account. If you’re going out to dinner just tell the cook to give me a snack and a cup of tea, and then I’ll light a good cigar and read the works of my great son. Go right ahead as if I wasn’t here.”

If we had he would have been furious. Eleanore always made it his night-and no quiet evening, either. When we didn’t take him out to a play she invited people to dinner-young people, for he liked them best. And late on Sunday morning the “Indian” would wake him up, would watch him shave and dress and breakfast, and then they would be off to the Park. We had named our small son after Dad and they were the most splendid chums. They had any number of secrets.

Eleanore too had made Sue use our apartment. Sue called it her Manhattan club and brought her friends here now and then-“to stir you people up,” she said. But this did not disturb me, I felt too secure in life. And with a safe, amused and slightly curious attitude I found Sue quite a tonic. I liked to hear her knock my big men in her cocksure superior way. It was mighty good fun. And every now and then by mistake she would hit on something that was true.

I found something too in her ideas. This suffrage business, for example. She had stuck to this hobby quite a while, and through it she had reached the conviction that women would never get the vote until the great mass of working girls were drawn into the movement. So she had gone in for working girls’ clubs, and from clubs into trade unions and from trade unions into strikes. There had been a strike of laundry girls which for a week was the talk of the town. Sue and some of her suffrage friends had organized meetings every night, and in a borrowed automobile she had rushed from meeting to meeting with two laundry women, meager forlorn-looking creatures who stood up much embarrassed and awkwardly told about their lives. One of them, a young widow, had gone home from work one night at eleven and found that her small baby had died of convulsions during her absence. It was grim, terrible stuff of its kind, and Sue was so intensely wrought up you’d have thought there was nothing else in the world. But the strike stopped as suddenly as it began, and the two women whose names she had brought into headlines were refused jobs wherever they went. Sue tried to help them for a while, until this suffrage parade came along, when she went into this equally hard and quite forgot their existence.

And then Eleanore took them up. Quietly and as a matter of course, she took their troubles on her hands, sent one to a hospital and got the other work, looked into their wretched home affairs and had them come often to see her. And this kind of thing was happening often, Sue taking up and dropping what Eleanore then took up and put through. I compared them with a glow of pride.

Eleanore’s way was so sane and sure. She looked upon society much as she did upon our son, who had frequent little ailments but through them all what a glorious growth, to watch it was a perpetual joy. I remember once, when in his young stomach there were some fearful goings on, Eleanore’s remarking:

“Now if Sue had a child with a stomach in trouble, I suppose her way would be to quickly remove the entire stomach and put some new radical thing in its place.”

And then she went to the medicine chest, and a vastly comforted Indian was soon cheerfully sitting up in bed.

Eleanore could help others, I felt, because she had first helped herself, had tackled the mote in her own eye, from the time when she had gone down to the harbor to get her roots, as she called it. She was a wonderful manager, our budget was carefully worked out. And she had herself so well in hand she could put herself behind herself and smile clearly out on life.

“When Eleanore takes up a charity case,” said her father, “she turns it into a person at once, and later into an intimate friend.”

He himself took a quiet interest in all her charity cases. They would often talk them over at night, and in his easy careless way he would turn over all his spare money to help in the work. Eleanore would protest at times, and tell him how utterly foolish he was in not putting money aside for himself. But soon, deep in another case of poignant human misery, she would throw all caution to the winds and use her father’s money-every dollar he could spare. That was another vice she had.

How she hated all the red tape in that huge network of institutions by which New York City provides “relief.” She never dropped a case of hers into that cumbrous relief machine and then let it slip out of her sight. She did the hard thing, she followed it up. She had learned, as I had in my work, to “get on the inside” of this secretive city, to go to the gods behind it all and so have her cases shoved. One day when one of them, a woman, was in a hospital so desperately ill that her very life depended on being moved to a private room-“It can’t be done,” said the superintendent. Eleanore took the subway downtown to the Wall Street office of the man who was the hospital’s principal backer. She found his outer office crowded with men who were waiting to see him on business. “He can’t see you,” she was told. Then she scribbled this on her card:

“I want none of your money, a little of your influence and one minute of your time on behalf of a woman who is dying.”

About twenty minutes later that woman was in a private room.

It is hard to stop talking about my wife. But to return to my sister:

Into my reverie that night Sue burst with a dozen radical friends. Others kept arriving, and our small rooms were soon a riot of color and chatter. Banners were stacked against the wall, bright yellow ribbons were everywhere, faces were flushed and happily tired. Eleanore sat at her coffee urn, cups and saucers and plates went around, and people still too excited to rest stood about eating hungrily. The talking was fast and furious now. I listened, watched their faces.

These “radicals,” it seemed to me, had talked straight on both day and night ever since the evenings years ago when one of their earliest coteries had gathered in our Brooklyn home. And talking they had multiplied and ramified all over the town. There was nothing under heaven their fingers did not itch to change. Here close by my side were three of them, two would-be Ibsen actresses and one budding playwright who had had two Broadway failures and one Berkeley Lyceum success. But were they talking of plays? Not at all. They talked of the Russian Revolution. It had died down in the last few years, and they wanted to help stir it up again by throwing some more American money into the smoldering embers. To do this they planned to whip into new life “The Friends of Russian Freedom.”

That was it, I told myself, these people were all friends of revolutions. Vaguely as I watched them now I felt I was seeing the parlor side, the light and fluffy outer fringe, of something rather dangerous. I thought again of that parade and my impression of mass force. No danger in that, it was dressy and safe. But some of these youngsters did not stop there, they went in for stirring up people in rags, mass force of a very different kind. Here was a sculptor socialist who openly bragged that he’d had a hand in filling Union Square one day with a seething mass of unemployed, and then when some poor crazed fanatic threw a bomb, our socialist friend, as he himself smilingly put it, never once stopped running until he reached his studio.

It was this kind of thing that got on my nerves. For I pitied the unwieldy poor, the numberless muddle-headed crowds down there in the tenements, and it seemed to me perfectly criminal that a lot of these young high-brows should be allowed to stir them up. Their own thinking was so muddled, their views of life so out of gear.

I a radical? No chance!

While they chattered on excitedly, I thought of my trip uptown on the “El” that afternoon, a trip that I had made hundreds of times. Coming as I usually was from some big man or other, whose busy office and whose mind was a clean, brilliant illustration of what efficiency can be, I would sit in the car and idly watch the upper story windows we passed, with yellow gas jets flaring in the cave-like rooms behind them. There I had glimpses of men and girls at long crowded tables making coats, pants, vests, paper flowers, chewing-gum, five-cent cigars. I saw countless tenement kitchens, dirty cooking, unmade beds. These glimpses followed one on the other in such a dizzying torrent they merged into one moving picture for me. And that picture was of crowds, crowds, crowds-of people living frowzily.

This was poverty. And it was like some prodigious swamp. What could you do about it? You could pull out individuals here and there, as Eleanore did. I considered that a mighty fine job-for a woman or a clergyman. But to go at it and drain the swamp was a very different matter. You couldn’t do it by easy preaching of patent cure-alls, nor by stirring up class hatred through rabid attacks upon big men. No, this was a job for the big men themselves, men who would go at this human swamp as Eleanore’s father had gone at the harbor-quietly and slowly, with an engineer’s precision. He had been at it six solid years, but he still remarked humbly, “We’ve only begun.”

Then from thinking of big men I thought of the one I had seen that day, and of my story about him. It was just in the stage I liked, where I could feel it all coming together. Incidents, bits of character and neat little turns of speech rose temptingly before my mind.

Presently, through the clamor around me, I heard “the Indian” crying. All this chatter had waked him up. I saw Eleanore go in to him and soon I heard the crying stop, and I knew she was telling him a story, a nice sleepy one to quiet him down.

What an infernal racket these people were making about the world. I went on thinking about my work.