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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarriers Burned Away - Chapter 6. "Starve Then!"
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Barriers Burned Away - Chapter 6. 'Starve Then!' Post by :steve66 Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Payson Roe Date :May 2012 Read :769

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Barriers Burned Away - Chapter 6. "Starve Then!"

CHAPTER VI. "STARVE THEN!"

Dennis now followed the natural impulse to go to some distant part of the city, entirely away from the region that had become so hateful to him.

Putting the trunk on the front of a street-car, he rode on till he was in the heart of the south-side district, the great business centre. He took his trunk into a roomy hardware store, and asked if he might leave it there a while. Receiving a good-natured permission, he next started off in search of a quiet, cheap boarding-place. His heart was heavy, and yet he felt thankful to have escaped as he had, for the thought of what might have been his experience if Barney had tried to fulfil his threat sickened him. The rough was as strong as he, and scenes of violence were his delight and daily experience. He rather gloried in a black eye, for he always gave two in exchange, and his own bruised, swollen member paved the way gracefully for the telling of his exploits, as it awakened inquiry from the lesser lights among whom he shone. But what would Dennis have done among the merchants with "a head on him," as the barkeeper understood the phrase? He would have had to return home, and that he felt would be worse than death. In fact, he had come nearer to a desperate struggle than he knew, for Barney rarely resisted so inviting an opportunity to indulge his pugilistic turn, and had he not seen the policeman going by just at that time, there would have been no idle threats in the case.

Dennis set his teeth with dogged resolution, determined if necessary, to persevere in his search till he dropped in the street. But as he remembered that he had less than five dollars left, and no prospect of earning another, his heart grew like lead.

He spent several weary hours in the vain search for a boarding-house. He had little to guide him save short answers from policemen. The places were either too expensive, or so coarse and low that he could not bring himself to endure them. In some cases he detected that they were accompanied by worse evils than gambling. Almost in despair, tired, and very hungry (for severe indeed must be the troubles that will affect the appetite of healthful youth on a cold winter day), he stopped at a small German restaurant and hotel. A round-faced, jolly Teuton served him with a large plate of cheap viands, which he devoured so quickly that the man, when asked for more, stared at him for a moment, and then stolidly obeyed.

"What do you ask for a small room and bed for a night?" said Dennis.

"Zwei shillen," said the waiter, with a grin; "dot ish, if you don't vant as pig ped as dinner. Ve haf zwei shillen for bed, and zwei shillen for efery meal--von dollar a day--sheap!"

The place was comparatively clean. A geranium or two bloomed in the window, and lager instead of fiery whiskey seemed the principal beverage vended. Dennis went out and made inquiries, and every one in the neighborhood spoke of it as a quiet, respectable place, though frequented only by laboring people. "That is nothing against it," thought Dennis. "I will venture to stay there for a night or two, for I must lose no more time in looking for a situation."

He took his trunk there, and then spent the rest of the day in unavailing search. He found nothing that gave any promise at all. In the evening he went to a large hotel and looked over the files of papers. He found a few advertisements for clerks and experts of various kinds, but more from those seeking places. But he noted down everything hopeful, and resolved that he would examine the morning papers by daylight for anything new in that line, and be the first on hand. His new quarters, though plain and meagre, were at least clean. Too weary to think or even to feel more than a dull ache in his heart, he slept heavily till the dawn of the following day. Poor fellow! it seemed to him that he had lived years in those two days.

He was up by daylight, and found a few more advertisements that looked as if they might lead to something. As early as it was possible to see the parties, he was on the ground, but others were there as soon as himself. They had the advantage of some knowledge and experience in the duties required, and this decided the question. Some spoke kindly, and suggested that he was better fitted for teaching than for business.

"But where am I to find a position at this season of the year, when every place is filled?" asked Dennis. "It might be weeks before I could get anything to do, and I must have employment at once."

They were sorry, hoped he would do well, turned away, and went on doing well for themselves; but the majority merely satisfied themselves that he would not answer their purpose, and bade him a brief, business-like good-morning. And yet the fine young face, so troubled and anxious, haunted a good many of those who summarily dismissed him. But "business is business."

The day passed in fruitless inquiry. Now and then he seemed on the point of succeeding, but only disappointment resulted. There were at that season of the year few situations offering where a salary sufficient for maintenance was paid, and for these skilled laborers were required. Dennis possessed no training for any one calling save perhaps that of teacher. He had merely the fragment of a good general education, tending toward one of the learned professions. He had fine abilities, and undoubtedly would in time have stood high as a lawyer. But now that he was suddenly called upon to provide bread for himself and those he loved, there was not a single thing of which he could say, "I understand this, sir, and can give you satisfaction."

He knew that if he could get a chance at almost anything, he could soon learn enough to make himself more useful than the majority employed, for few had his will and motive to work. But the point was to find some one who would pay sufficient for his own and his mother's support while he learned.

It is under just such circumstances that so many men, and especially women, make shipwreck. Thrown suddenly upon their own resources, they bring to the great labor-market of the world general intelligence, and also general ignorance. With a smattering of almost everything, they do not know practically how to do _one thing well_. Skilled hands, though backed by neither heart nor brains, push them aside. Take the young men or the young women of any well-to-do town or village, and make them suddenly dependent upon their own efforts, and how many could compete in any one thing with those already engaged in supplying the market? And yet just such helpless young creatures are every day compelled to shift for themselves. If to these unfortunates the paths of honest industry seem hedged and thorny, not so those of sin. They are easy enough at first, if any little difficulty with conscience can be overcome; and the devil, and fallen humanity doing his work, stand ready to push the wavering into them.

At the close of the next day, spent in weary search, Dennis met a temptation to which many would have yielded. As a last resort he had been going around among the hotels, willing to take even the situation of porter, if nothing better offered. The day was fast closing, when, worn out and dejected, he entered a first-class house, and made his usual inquiry. The proprietor looked at him for a moment, slapped him on the back, and said: "Yes, you are the man I want, I reckon. Do you drink? No! might have known that from your face. Don't want a man that drinks for this place. Come along with me, then. Will give you two and a half a day if you suit, and pay you every night. I pay my help promptly; they ain't near so apt to steal from you then."

And the man hurried away, followed by Dennis with beating heart and flushed, wondering face. Descending a flight of stairs, they entered a brilliantly lighted basement, which was nothing less than a large, elegantly arranged bar-*room, with card and lunch-tables, and easy-chairs for the guests to smoke and tipple in at their leisure. All along one side of this room, resplendent with cut glass and polished silver, ran the bar. The light fell warm and mellow on the various kinds of liquor, that were so arranged as to be most tempting to the thirsty souls frequenting the place.

Stepping up to the bulky man behind the bar the landlord said: "There, Mr. Swig, is a young man who will fill capitally the place of the chap we dismissed to-day for getting tight. You may bet your life from his face that he don't drink. You can break him in in a few days, and you won't want a better assistant."

For a moment a desperate wish passed through Dennis's mind, "Oh, that wrong were right!" Then, indignant with himself, he spoke up, firmly--"I think I have a word to say in this matter."

"Well, say on, then; what's the trouble?"

"I cannot do this kind of work."

"You will find plenty harder."

"None harder for one believing as I do. I will starve before I will do this work."

The man stared at him for a moment, and then coolly replied, "Starve then!" and turned on his heel and walked away.

Dennis also rushed from the place, followed by the coarse, jeering laugh of those who witnessed the scene. In his morbid, suffering state their voices seemed those of mocking demons.

The night had now fallen. He was too tired and discouraged to look any further. Wearily he plodded up the street, facing the bitter blast filled with snow that had begun to fall.

This then was the verdict of the world--"Starve!" This was the only prospect it offered--that same brave world which had so smilingly beckoned him on to great achievements and unbounded success but a few days since--"Starve!" Every blast that swept around the corners howled in his ears, "Starve!" Every warmly clad person hurrying unheedingly by seemed to say by his indifference, "Starve! who cares? there is no place for you, nothing for you to do."

The hard, stern resolution of the past few days, not to yield an inch, to persist in hewing his way through every difficulty, began to flag. His very soul seemed crushed within him. Even upon the threshold of his life, in his strong, joyous youth, the world had become to him what it literally was that night, a cold, wintry, stormy place, with a black, lowering sky and hard, frozen earth.

His father's old temptation recurred to him with sudden and great power. "Perhaps father was right," he mused. "God was against him, and is also against me, his son. Does He not visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation? Not but that He will save us at last, if we ask Him, but there seems some great wrong that must be severely punished here. Or else if God does not care much about our present life, thinking only of the hereafter, there must be some blind fate or luck that crushes some and lifts up others."

Thus Dennis, too sad and morbid to take a just view of anything, plodded on till he reached his boarding-place, and stealing in as if he had no business to be there, or anywhere else, sat down in a dusky corner behind the stove, and was soon lost to surrounding life in his own miserable thoughts.

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