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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesVandover And The Brute - Chapter 17
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Vandover And The Brute - Chapter 17 Post by :esoteric Category :Long Stories Author :Frank Norris Date :May 2012 Read :3450

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Vandover And The Brute - Chapter 17

Chapter Seventeen


On A certain Saturday morning two years later Vandover awoke in his room at the Reno House, the room he had now occupied for fifteen months.

One might almost say that he had been expelled from the Lick House. For a time he had tried to retain his room there with the idea of paying his bills by the money he should win at gambling. But his bad luck was now become a settled thing--almost invariably he lost. At last Ellis and the Dummy had refused to play with him, since he was never able to pay them when they won. They had had a great quarrel. Ellis broke with him sullenly, growling wrathfully under his heavy moustache, and the Dummy had written upon his pad--so hastily and angrily that the words could hardly be read--that he would not play with professional gamblers, men who supported themselves by their winnings. Damn it! one had to be a gentleman.

Next, Vandover had tried to borrow some money of Charlie Geary. Geary had told him that he could not afford as much as Vandover needed. Then Vandover became enraged. He had long since seen that Geary had practically swindled him out of his block in the Mission, and at that very moment the huge boot and shoe "concern" was completing the factory built upon the ground that Vandover had once owned. Geary had cleared seven thousand dollars on his "deal." His refusal to loan his old-time friend fifty dollars upon this occasion had exasperated Vandover out of all bounds. There was a scene. Vandover told Geary what he thought of his "deal" in very plain words. They shouted "swindler" and "gambler" into each other's faces; the whole office was aroused; Vandover was ejected by force. On a stair landing half-way to the street he sat down and cried into his arms folded upon his knees. When he returned to his room he had a sudden return of his dreadful nervous malady and barked and whined under the bed.

Then Vandover wrote a fifty-dollar check on the bank--the same bank that had just notified him that he was overdrawn--and passed it upon young Haight. How he came to do the thing he could not tell; it might have been the influence of Geary's successful robbery, or it might have been that he had at last lost all principle, all sense of honour and integrity. At any rate, he could not bring himself to feel very sorry. He knew that young Haight would not prosecute him for the dishonesty; he traded upon Haight's magnanimity; he only felt glad that he had the fifty dollars. But by this time Vandover did not even wonder at his own baseness and degradation. A few years ago this would have been the case; now his character was so changed that the theft seemed somehow consistent. He had destroyed young Haight's friendship for him. He had cast from him his college chum, his best friend, but neither did this affect him. Nothing made much difference to him now.

Nevertheless, Vandover was evicted from the Lick House three days after he had stolen young Haight's money. Instead of paying his bills with the amount, he gambled it away in a back room of a new cafe on Market Street with Toby, the red-eyed waiter from the Imperial, and a certain German "professor," a billiard marker, who wore a waistcoat figured with little designs of the Eiffel Tower, and who was a third owner in a trotting mare named Tomato Ketchup.

Vandover was now left with only his bonds, his U.S. 4 per cents. These brought him in but sixty-nine dollars a quarter, or as he had had it arranged, twenty-three dollars a month. Just at this time, as if by a miracle, a veritable God from the Machine, Vandover's lawyer, Mr. Field, found him an opportunity to earn some money. For the first and only time in his life Vandover knew what it was to work for a living. The work that Field secured for him was the work of painting those little pictures on the lacquered surface of iron safes, those little oval landscapes between the lines of red and gold lettering--landscapes, rugged gorges, ocean steamships under all sail, mountain lakes with sailboats careening upon their surfaces, the boat indicated by two little triangular dabs of Chinese white, one for the sail itself and the other for its reflection in the water. Sometimes even he was called upon to paint other little pictures upon the sides of big express wagons--two horses, one white and the other bay, galloping very free in an open field, their manes and tails flying, or a bulldog, very savage, sitting upon a green and black safe, or the head of a mastiff with a spiked collar about his neck.

What with the pay for this sort of work and the interest of his bonds, Vandover managed to lead a haphazard sort of life, living about in cheap lodging-houses and cheap restaurants. But he was never more than a second-class workman, and he was so irregular that he could never be depended upon.

The moment he began to paint again--even to paint such pitiful little pictures as these--the same familiar experience repeated itself, the unwillingness of his fingers, their failure to rightly interpret his ideas, the resulting crudity of his work, the sudden numbness in his brain, the queer, tense sensation behind his eyes. But Vandover had long since become accustomed to these symptoms and would not have minded them at this time had it not been that they were occasionally followed by a nervous twitching and jerking of his whole arm, so that sometimes he could not hold the brush steady a minute at a time.

For two years he had drifted about the city, living now here and now there, a real hand-to-mouth existence, sinking a little lower each day. Now, no one knew him. He had completely passed out of the lives of Haight, Geary, and Ellis, just as before he had passed out of the life of Turner Ravis. At the end of the first year they had ceased even to think about him. For a long time they thought that he was dead, until one day Ellis declared that he had seen him far down on Kearney Street, near the Barbary Coast, looking at the pictures in the illustrated weeklies that were tacked upon the show-board on the sidewalk in front of a stationer's. Ellis had told the others that on this occasion Vandover seemed to be more sickly than ever; he described his appearance in detail, wagging his head at his own story, pursing his lips, putting his chin in the air. Vandover had worn an old paint-stained pair of blue trousers, fastened with a strap, so that his shirt showed below his vest; he had no collar, and he had allowed his beard to grow, a straggling thin beard, through which one could see the buttons of his shirt, a dirty beard full of the cracker crumbs from the free lunch-counters of cheap saloons; he had on a hat which he had worn when they had known him; but one should see that hat now!

It was all true: little by little Vandover had abandoned all interest in his personal appearance. Of course it was impossible for him to dress well at this time, but he had even lost regard for decency and cleanliness. He washed himself but rarely. He had even acquired the habit of sleeping with all his clothes on during the colder nights of the year.

Nothing made any difference. Gradually his mind grew more and more clouded; he became stupid, sluggish. He went about the city from dawn to dark, his feet dragging, his head hanging low and swinging from side to side with the motion of his gait. He rarely spoke; his eyes took on a dull, glazed appearance, filmy, like the eyes of a dead fish. At certain intervals his mania came upon him, the strange hallucination of something four-footed, the persistent fancy that the brute in him had now grown so large, so insatiable, that it had taken everything, even to his very self, his own identity--that he had literally _become the brute_. The attack passed off and left him wondering, perplexed.

The Reno House, where Vandover had lived for some fifteen months, was a sort of hotel on Sacramento Street below Kearney. The neighbourhood was low--just on the edge of the Barbary Coast, abounding in stores for second-hand clothing, saloons, pawnshops, gun-stores, bird-stores, and the shops of Chinese cobblers. Around the corner on Kearney Street was a concert hall, a dive, to which the admission was free. Near by was the old Plaza.

Underneath the hotel on the ground floor were two saloons, a barber shop, and a broom manufactory. The lodgers themselves were for the most part "transients," sailors lounging about shore between two voyages, Swedes and Danes, farmhands, grape-pickers, and cow-punchers from distant parts of the state, a few lost women, and Japanese cooks and second-boys remaining there while they advertised for positions.

Vandover sank to the grade of these people at once with that fatal adaptability to environment which he had permitted himself to foster throughout his entire life, and which had led him to be contented in almost any circumstances. It was as if the brute in him were forever seeking a lower level, wallowing itself lower and lower into the filth and into the mire, content to be foul, content to be prone, to be inert and supine.

It was Saturday morning about a quarter of nine. The wet season had begun early that year. Though this was but the middle of September, the rain had fallen steadily since the previous Wednesday. Its steady murmur, prolonged and soothing like the purring of a great cat, filled Vandover's room with a pleasant sound. The air of the room was thick and foul, heavy with the odour of cooking, onions, and stale bedding. It was very warm; there was no ventilation. Vandover lay upon the bed half awake, dozing under the thick coarse blankets and soiled counterpane. With the exception of his shoes and coat he wore all his clothes. He was glad to be warm, to be stupefied by the heat of the bedding and the bad air of the room.

In the next room a Portuguese fruit vender, very drunk, was fighting with the tin pitcher and pasteboard bowl on his wash-stand, trying to wet his head, swearing and making a hideous clatter. At length he tipped them over upon the floor and gave the pitcher a great kick. The noise roused Vandover; he sat up in bed, stretching, rubbing his hands over his face. About the same moment the clock in the office downstairs struck nine. Vandover let his feet drop to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, looking vaguely about him. His face, ordinarily very pale, was oily from sleep and red upon one side from long contact with the pillow, the marks of the creases still showing upon his cheek. His long straight hair fell about his eyes and ears like a tangled mane. A thin straggling beard and moustache, of a brown much lighter than his hair, covered the lower part of his face. His nose was long and pinched, while brown and puffed pockets hung beneath his eyes.

He wore a white shirt very crumpled and dirty, a low standing collar and a black four-in-hand necktie, very greasy. His trousers were striped and of a slate blue colour--the "blue pants" of the ready-made clothing stores. Still sitting on the bed, Vandover continued his stupid gaze about the room.

The room was small, and at some long-forgotten, almost prehistoric period had been covered with a yellowish paper, stamped with a huge pattern of flowers that looked like the flora of a carboniferous strata, a pattern repeated to infinity wherever the eye turned. Newspapers were pasted upon the ceiling and a great square of very dirty matting covered the floor. There were a few pieces of furniture, very old-fashioned, made of pine, with a black walnut veneer, two chairs, a washstand and the bed. A great pile of old newspapers tied up with bale rope was kicked into one corner. Two gas brackets without globes stretched forth their long arms over the empty space where the bureau should have been. Under the single window was Vandover's trunk, and upon it his colour box and pots of paint. His hat hung upon a hook screwed to the door. The hat had once been black, but it had long since turned to a greenish hue, and sweat stains were showing about the band.

Vandover dressed slowly. He straightened his hair a bit before the cheap mirror that hung over the washstand, putting on his hat immediately after to keep it in place. He washed his hands in the dirty water that had stood in his pasteboard bowl since the previous afternoon, but left his face as it was. He put on his coat, an old cutaway which had been his best years ago, but which was now absurdly small for him, the breast all spotted and streaked with old stains of soup and gravy. Last of all he drew on his shoes. They were new. Vandover had bought them two days before for a dollar and ninety cents. They were lined so as to make socks superfluous.

It had been a bad week with Vandover. The paint-shop had given him no work to do for ten days, and he had been forced to get along in some way upon the interest of his bonds--that is to say, upon five dollars and seventy-five cents a week. Two dollars and seventy-five cents of this went for his room rent, one dollar and ninety for his shoes, and Tuesday afternoon he had bought a package of cigarettes for ten cents. By Saturday morning he had spent seventy-five cents for food.

When the paint-shop gave him enough work it was Vandover's custom to buy a week's commutation ticket at a certain restaurant. He never ate at the hotel; it was too expensive. By the commutation system he could buy two dollars and twenty-five cents' worth of meals for two dollars, paying in tickets at each meal.

But such a thing had been impossible this week. He had been forced to fall back upon the free-lunch system. In two years Vandover had learned a great deal; even his dulled wits had been sharpened when it had come to a question of food. The brute in him might destroy all his finer qualities, but even the brute had to feed. When work failed him at the beginning of the week Vandover was not unprepared for the contingency; the thing had happened before and he knew how to meet it.

On Monday he beat up and down the Barbary Coast, picking out fifteen or twenty saloons which supported a free-lunch counter in connection with the bar. He took his breakfast Monday morning at the first of these. He paid five cents for a glass of beer and ate his morning's meal at the lunch counter: stew, bread, and cheese. At noon he made his dinner at the second saloon on his route. Here he had another glass of beer, a great plate of soup, potato salad, and pretzels. Thus he managed to feed himself throughout the week.

It was always his great desire to feed well at Sunday's dinner, to spend at least a quarter on that meal. It was something to be looked forward to throughout the entire week. But to get twenty-five cents ahead when he was out of work was bitter hard. That week he had started out with the determination to eat but two meals a day. He would thus save five cents daily and by Sunday morning would be thirty cents to the good. But each day his resolution broke down. At breakfast he would resolve to go without his lunch, at lunch he would make up his mind to go without supper, and at supper he would tell himself that now at least his determination was irrevocable--he would eat no breakfast the next morning. But on each and every occasion his hunger proved too strong, his feet carried him irresistibly to the saloon lunch counters, whether he would or no. At no time in his life had Vandover accustomed himself to self-denial; he could hardly begin now.

At length Saturday morning had come, and while he was dressing he realized that he could not look forward to any unusual dinner the next day at noon. The disappointment had all the force of an unexpected disaster and he began keenly to regret his weakness of the past week. Suddenly Vandover resolved that he would go without food all that day; it would be a saving of fifteen cents, which, added to the five cents that he would spend anyway for his dinner, would almost make a quarter. He knew where he could dine excellently well for twenty cents. However, he could not make up his mind to go without his Sunday morning's breakfast. That, he told himself, he must eat.

Once dressed, Vandover went out. Fortunately, the rain had stopped. He went on down through the reeking, steaming streets to one of the big fruit markets not far from the water front. The Portuguese fruit vender who roomed next to him at the Reno House was employed at a stall here. Vandover knew him a little, and it was not hard for him to get a thin slice of cocoanut out from the inside rind of one of those that were lying cracked open among his other wares.

All the morning Vandover chewed this slice of cocoanut, at the same time drinking a great deal of water; for hours he deadened the pang of hunger by this means. He passed the time for the most part sitting on the benches in the Plaza reading an old newspaper that he had found under a seat. The sun came out a little; Vandover found the warmth very grateful. He told himself that he could easily hold out until the next morning.

He had forgotten about the time and was surprised when the whistles all over the town began to blow for noon. In an instant Vandover was hungry again. It was all one that he chewed the little pulp of cocoanut rind more vigorously than ever, swallowed great draughts of water at the public fountains; the little gnawing just between his chest and his stomach began to persist. He got up and began to walk. He left the Plaza behind him, crossed Kearney Street and went on down Clay Street till he reached the water front. For a time he found a certain diversion among the shipping and especially in watching a gang of caulkers knocking away at the seams of an immense coal steamer. He sat upon a great iron clamped pile, spitting into the yellow water below. The air was full of the smell of bilge and oakum and fish; the thousands of masts made a gray maze against the sky; occasionally an empty truck trundled over the hollow docks with a sound of distant cannon. A weakness, a little trembling that seemed to come from the pit of his stomach, began upon Vandover. He was very hungry. Evidently the slice of cocoanut was no longer effective. He swallowed it and lit a cigarette, one of the half-dozen still left of the pack he had bought the Tuesday before.

He smoked the cigarette slowly, inhaling as much of the smoke as he could. This quieted him for an hour, but he had the folly to smoke again at the end of that time, and at once--as he might have known--was hungry again. Until dark he struggled along, drinking water continually, chewing chips of wood, toothpicks, bits of straw, anything so that the action of his jaws might cheat the demands of his stomach. Toward half-past seven in the evening he returned to his room in the Reno House. If he could get to sleep that would be best of all. On the stairs of the hotel, while going up to his room, the strong smell of cooking onions came suddenly to his nostrils. It was delicious. Vandover breathed in the warm savour with long sighs, closing his eyes; a great feebleness overcame him. He asked himself how he could get through the next twelve hours.

An hour later he went to bed, hiccoughing from the water he had been drinking all day. By this time he had torn the paper from one of his cigarettes and was chewing the tobacco. This was his last resort, an expedient which he fell back upon only in great extremity, as it invariably made him sick to his stomach. He slept a little, but in half an hour was broad awake again, gagging and retching dreadfully. There was nothing on his stomach to throw up, and now at length the hunger in him raged like a wolf. Vandover was in veritable torment.

He could not keep his thoughts away from the money in his pocket, a nickel and two dimes. He could eat if he wanted to, could satisfy this incessant craving. At every moment the temptation grew stronger. Why should he wait until morning? He had the money; it was only a matter of a few minutes' walk to the nearest saloon. But he set his face against this desire; he had held out so long that it would be a pity to give in now; he was not so very hungry after all. No, no; he would not give in, he was strong enough; as long as he used his will he need not succumb. It was just a question of asserting his strength of mind, of calling up the better part of him. Even better than eating would be the satisfaction of knowing that he had shown himself stronger than his lower animal appetite. No; he would not give in.

Hardly a minute after he had arrived at this resolution Vandover found himself drawing on his coat and shoes making ready to go out--to go out and eat.

The gas in the room was lit, his money, the nickel and the two dimes, was shut in one of his fists. He was dressing himself with one hand, dressing with feverish, precipitate haste. What had happened? He marvelled at himself, but did not check his preparations an instant. He could not stop, whether he would or no; there was something in him stronger than himself, something that urged him on his feet, that drove him out into the street, something that clamoured for food and that would not be gainsaid. It was the animal in him, the brute, that would be fed, the evil, hideous brute grown now so strong that Vandover could not longer resist it--the brute that had long since destroyed all his finer qualities but that still demanded to be fed, still demanded to live. All the little money that Vandover had saved during the day he spent that night among the coffee houses, the restaurants, and the saloons of the Barbary Coast, continuing to eat even after his hunger was satisfied. Toward daylight he returned to his room, and all dressed as he was flung himself face downward among the coarse blankets and greasy counterpane. For nearly eight hours he slept profoundly, with long snores, prone, inert, crammed and gorged with food.

It was the middle of Sunday afternoon when he awoke. He roused himself and going over to the Plaza sat for a long while upon one of the benches. It was a very bright afternoon and Vandover sat motionless for a long time in the sun while his heavy meal digested, very happy, content merely to be warm, to be well fed, to be comfortable.

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Chapter Sixteen That particular room in the Lick House was well toward the rear of the building, on one of the upper floors, and from its window, one looked out upon a vast reach of roofs that rose little by little to meet the abrupt rise of Telegraph Hill. It was a sordid and grimy wilderness, topped with a gray maze of wires and pierced with thousands of chimney stacks. Many of the roofs were covered with tin long since blackened by rust and soot. Here and there could be seen clothes hung out to dry. Occasionally upon the flanking walls
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