An Outcast/Chapter XXVII
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|Chapter XXVII. THE HOUSE OF THE NINE NATIONS, AND WHAT MAY BE SEEN IN IT.|
On the corner of Anthony street and the Points, in New-York, there stands, like a grim savage, the house of the Nine Nations, a dingy wooden tenement, that for twenty years has threatened to tumble away from its more upright neighbor, and before which the stranger wayfarer is seen to stop and contemplate. In a neighborhood redolent of crime, there it stands, its vices thick upon its head, exciting in the mind of the observer its association with some dark and terrible deed. On the one side, opens that area of misery, mud and sombre walls, called "Cow Bay;" on the other a triangular plot, reeking with the garbage of the miserable cellars that flank it, and in which swarms of wasting beings seek a hiding-place, inhale pestilential air, and die. Gutters running with seething matter; homeless outcasts sitting, besotted, on crazy doorsteps; the vicious, with savage visage, and keen, watchful eye, loitering at the doors of filthy "groceries;" the sickly and neglected child crawling upon the side-pave, or seeking a crust to appease its hunger—all are found here, gasping, in rags, a breath of air by day, or seeking a shelter, at night, in dens so abject that the world can furnish no counterpart. And this forlorn picture of dilapidated houses, half-clad, squabbish women, blistered-faced men, and sickly children, the house of the Nine Nations overlooks. And yet this house, to the disgrace of an opulent people be it said, is but the sample of an hundred others standing in the same neighborhood.
With its basement-doors opening into its bottomless pit; with its continual outgoing and ingoing of sooty and cruel-visaged denizens; with its rickety old steps leading to the second story; with its battered windows, begrimed walls, demolished shutters, clapboards hanging at sixes and sevens—with its suspicious aspect;—there it stands, with its distained sign over the doors of its bottomless pit. You may read on this sign, that a gentleman from Ireland, who for convenience' sake we will call Mr. Krone, is licensed to sell imported and other liquors.
Indeed the house of the Nine Nations would seem to say within itself: "I am mother of this banquet of death you behold with your eyes." There it stands, its stream of poison hurrying its victims to the grave; its little dark passages leading to curious hiding-places; its caving roof, and its ominous-looking back platform, overlooking the dead walls of Murderers' Yard. How it mocks your philanthropy, your regal edifices, your boasted charities—your gorgeous churches! Everybody but the corporation knows the house of the Nine Nations, a haunt for wasted prostitutes, assassins, burglars, thieves—every grade of criminals known to depraved nature. The corporation would seem either to have a charming sympathy for it, or to look upon it with that good-natured indifference so happily illustrated while eating its oysters and drinking its whiskey. An empty-headed corporation is sure always to have its hands very full, which is the case with yours at this moment. Having the people's money to waste, its own ambition to serve, and its hat to fill with political waste paper—what more would you ask of it?
The man of the house of the Nine Nations, you ought to know, makes criminals by the hundred, deluges your alms houses with paupers, and makes your Potters' field reek with his victims: for this he is become rich. Mr. Krone is an intimate friend of more than one Councilman, and a man of much measure in the political world—that is, Mr. Krone is a politician-maker. When you say there exists too close an intimacy between the pugilist and the politician, Mr. Krone will bet twenty drinks with any one of his customers that he can prove such doctrines at fault. He can secure the election of his favorite candidate with the same facility that he can make an hundred paupers per week. You may well believe him a choice flower in the bouquet of the corporation; we mean the corporation that banquets and becomes jubilant while assassins stab their victims in the broad street—that becomes befogged while bands of ruffians disgrace the city with their fiendish outrages—that makes presidents and drinks whiskey when the city would seem given over to the swell-mobsman—when no security is offered to life, and wholesale harlotry, flaunting with naked arms and bared bosoms, passes along in possession of Broadway by night.
It is the night succeeding the day Lady Swiggs discovered, at the house of the Foreign Missions, the loss of her cherished donations. As this is a world of disappointments, Lady Swiggs resigns herself to this most galling of all, and with her Milton firmly grasped in her hand, may be seen in a little room at Sister Scudder's, rocking herself in the arm-chair, and wondering if Brother Spyke has captured the robber-wretch. A chilly wind howls, and a drizzling rain falls thick over the dingy dwellings of the Points, which, sullen and dark, seem in a dripping mood. A glimmering light, here and there, throws curious shadows over the liquid streets. Now the drenched form of some half-naked and homeless being is reflected, standing shivering in the entrance to some dark and narrow alley; then the half-crazed inebriate hurries into the open door of a dismal cellar, or seeks eagerly a shelter for his bewildered head, in some suspicious den. Flashing through the shadow of the police lamp, in "Cow Bay," a forlorn female is seen, a bottle held tightly under her shawl. Sailing as it were into the bottomless pit of the house of the Nine Nations, then suddenly returning with the drug, seeking the cheerless garret of her dissolute partner, and there striving to blunt her feelings against the horrors of starvation.
Two men stand, an umbrella over their heads, at the corner, in the glare of the bottomless pit, which is in a blaze of light, and crowded with savage-faced figures, of various ages and colors,—all habited in the poison-seller's uniform of rags. "I don't think you'll find him here, sir," says one, addressing the other, who is tall and slender of person, and singularly timid. "God knows I am a stranger here. To-morrow I leave for Antioch," is the reply, delivered in nervous accents. The one is Brother Syngleton Spyke, the other Mr. Detective Fitzgerald, a man of more than middle stature, with compact figure, firmly-knit limbs, and an expression of countenance rather pleasant.
"You see, sir, this Toddleworth is a harmless creature, always aims to be obliging and civil. I don't, sir—I really don't think he'll steal. But one can't tell what a man will do who is driven to such straits as the poor devils here are. We rather like Toddleworth at the station, look upon him as rather wanting in the head, and for that reason rather incline to favor him. I may say we now and then let him 'tie up' all night in the station. And for this he seems very thankful. I may say," continues Mr. Fitzgerald, touching the visor of his cap, "that he always repays with kindness any little attention we may extend to him at the station, and at times seems too anxious to make it his home. We give him a shirt and a few shillings now and then; and when we want to be rid of him we begin to talk about fashionable wives. He is sure to go then. Can't stand such a topic, I assure you, sir, and is sure to go off in a huff when Sergeant Pottle starts it."
They enter the great door of the bottomless pit; the young missionary hesitates. His countenance changes, his eyes scan steadily over the scene. A room some sixty feet by twenty opens to his astonished eyes. Its black, boarded walls, and bare beams, are enlivened here and there with extravagant pictures of notorious pugilists, show-bills, and illustrated advertisements of lascivious books, in which the murder of an unfortunate woman is the principal feature. Slippery mud covers the floor. Mr. Krone sits on an empty whiskey-barrel, his stunted features betraying the hardened avarice of his character. He smokes his black pipe, folds his arms deliberately, discoursing of the affairs of the nation to two stupefied negroes and one blear-eyed son of the Emerald Isle. Three uncouth females, with hair hanging matted over their faces, and their features hidden in distortion, stand cooling their bared limbs at a running faucet just inside the door, to the left. A group of half-naked negroes lie insensible on the floor, to the right. A little further on two prostrate females, shivering, and reeking of gin, sleep undisturbed by the profanity that is making the very air resound. "The gin gets a-many of us," is the mournful cry of many a wasting inebriate. Mr. Krone, however, will tell you he has no sympathy with such cries. You arraign, and perhaps punish, the apothecary who sells by mistake his deadly drug. With a philosophical air, Mr. Krone will tell you he deals out his poison without scruple, fills alms-houses without a pang of remorse, and proves that a politician-maker may do much to degrade society and remain in high favor with his friends of the bench of justice. On one side of the dungeon-like place stands a rickety old counter, behind which three savage-faced men stand, filling and serving incessant potions of deleterious liquor to the miserable beings, haggard and ragged, crowding to be first served. Behind the bar, or counter, rises a pyramid of dingy shelves, on which are arranged little painted kegs, labelled, and made bright by the glaring gas-light reflected upon them. On the opposite side, on rows of slab benches, sit a group of motley beings,—the young girl and the old man, the negro and the frail white,—half sleeping, half conscious; all imbibing the stifling draught.
Like revelling witches in rags, and seen through the bedimmed atmosphere at the further end of the den, are half-frantic men, women, and girls, now sitting at deal tables, playing for drinks, now jostling, jeering, and profaning in wild disorder. A girl of sixteen, wasted and deformed with dissipation, approaches Brother Spyke, extends her blanched hand, and importunes him for gin. He shudders, and shrinks from her touch, as from a reptile. A look of scorn, and she turns from him, and is lost among the grotesque crowd in the distance.
"This gin," says Mr. Fitzgerald, turning methodically to Brother Spyke, "they make do for food and clothing. We used to call this the devil's paradise. As to Krone, we used to call him the devil's bar-tender. These ragged revellers, you see, beg and steal during the day, and get gin with it at night. Krone thinks nothing of it! Lord bless your soul, sir! why, this man is reckoned a tip-top politician; on an emergency he can turn up such a lot of votes!" Mr. Fitzgerald, approaching Mr. Krone, says "you're a pretty fellow. Keeping such a place as this!" The detective playfully strikes the hat of the other, crowding it over his eyes, and inquiring if he has seen Tom Toddleworth during the day. Mr. Toddleworth was not seen during the day. No one in the bottomless pit knows where he may be found. A dozen husky voices are heard to say, he has no home—stores himself away anywhere, and may be found everywhere.
Brother Spyke bows, and sighs. Mr. Fitzgerald says: "he is always harmless—this Toddleworth." As the two searchers are about to withdraw, the shrunken figure of a woman rushes wildly into the pit. "Devils! devils!—hideous devils of darkness! here you are—still hover—hover—hovering; turning midnight into revelling, day into horrid dreaming!" she shrieks at the top of her voice. Now she pauses suddenly, and with a demoniacal laugh sets her dull, glassy eyes on Mr. Krone, then walks round him with clenched fists and threatening gestures. The politician-maker sits unmoved. Now she throws her hair about her bare breasts, turns her eyes upward, imploringly, and approaches Brother Spyke, with hand extended. Her tale of sorrow and suffering is written in her very look. "She won't hurt you—never harms anybody;" says Mr. Fitzgerald, methodically, observing Brother Spyke's timidity.
"No, no, no," she mutters incoherently, "you are not of this place—you know, like the rich world up-town, little of these revelling devils. Cling! yes, cling to the wise one—tell him to keep you from this, and forever be your teacher. Tell him! tell him! oh! tell him!" She wrings her hands, and having sailed as it were into the further end of the pit, vaults back, and commences a series of wild gyrations round Mr. Krone.
"Poor wretch!" says Brother Spyke, complacently, "the gin has dried up her senses—made her what she is."
"Maniac Munday! Maniac Munday!" suddenly echoes and re-echoes through the pit. She turns her ear, and with a listless countenance listens attentively, then breaks out into an hysterical laugh. "Yes! ye loathsome denizens. Like me, no one seeks you, no one cares for you. I am poor, poor maniac Munday. The maniac that one fell error brought to this awful end." Again she lowers her voice, flings her hair back over her shoulders, and gives vent to her tears. Like one burdened with sorrow she commences humming an air, that even in this dark den floats sweetly through the polluted atmosphere. "Well, I am what I am," she sighs, having paused in her tune. "That one fatal step—that plighted faith! How bitter to look back." Her bony fingers wander to her lips, which she commences biting and fretting, as her countenance becomes pale and corpse-like. Again her reason takes its flight. She staggers to the drenched counter, holds forth her bottle, lays her last sixpence tauntingly upon the board, and watches with glassy eyes the drawing of the poisonous drug. Meanwhile Mr. Krone, with an imprecation, declares he has power to elect his candidate to the Senate. The man behind the counter—the man of savage face, has filled the maniac's bottle, which he pushes toward her with one hand, as with the other he sweeps her coin into a drawer. "Oh! save poor maniac Munday—save poor maniac Munday!" the woman cries, like one in despair, clutching the bottle, and reels out of the pit.
- Now Worth street and Mission Place.