An Experiment in Misery
by Stephen Crane
It was late at night, and a fine rain
was swirling softly down, causing the pavements to glisten with hue of
steel and blue and yellow in the rays of the innumerable lights. A youth
was trudging slowly, without enthusiasm, with his hands buried deep in
his trousers pockets, toward the downtown places where beds can be hired
for coppers. He was clothed in an aged and tattered suit, and his derby
was a marvel of dust-covered crown and torn rim. He was going forth to
eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep. By the
time he had reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with
yells of "bum" and "hobo," and with various unholy
epithets that small boys had applied to him at intervals, that he was in
a state of the most profound dejection. The sifting rain saturated the
old velvet collar of his overcoat, and as the wet cloth pressed against
his neck, he felt that there no longer could be pleasure in life. He
looked about him searching for an outcast of highest degree that they
two might share miseries, but the lights threw a quivering glare over
rows and circles of deserted benches that glistened damply, showing
patches of wet sod behind them. It seemed that their usual freights had
fled on this night to better things. There were only squads of
well-dressed Brooklyn people who swarmed toward the bridge.
The young man loitered about for a time
and then went shuffling off down Park Row. In the sudden descent in
style of the dress of the crowd he felt relief, and as if he were at
last in his own country. He began to see tatters that matched his
tatters. In Chatham Square there were aimless men strewn in front of
saloons and lodging-houses, standing sadly, patiently, reminding one
vaguely of the attitudes of chickens in a storm. He aligned himself with
these men, and turned slowly to occupy himself with the flowing life of
the great street.
Through the mists of the cold and
storming night, the cable cars went in silent procession, great affairs
shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power, calm and
irresistible, dangerful and gloomy, breaking silence only by the loud
fierce cry of the gong. Two rivers of people swarmed along the
sidewalks, spattered with black mud which made each shoe leave a
scar-like impression. Overhead, elevated trains with a shrill grinding
of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon its leg-like pillars
seemed to resemble some monstrous kind of crab squatting over the
street. The quick fat puffings of the engines could be heard. Down an
alley there were somber curtains of purple and black, on which street
lamps dully glittered like embroidered flowers.
A saloon stood with a voracious air on
a corner. A sign leaning against the front of the doorpost announced
"Free hot soup tonight!" The swing doors, snapping to and fro
like ravenous lips, made gratified smacks as the saloon gorged itself
with plump men, eating with astounding and endless appetite, smiling in
some indescribable manner as the men came from all directions like
sacrifices to a heathenish superstition.
Caught by the delectable sign, the
young man allowed himself to be swallowed. A bartender placed a
schooner of dark and portentous beer on the bar. Its monumental form
upreared until the froth atop was above the crown of the young man's
"Soup over there, gents,"
said the bartender affably. A little yellow man in rags and the youth
grasped their schooners and went with speed toward a lunch-counter,
where a man with oily but imposing whiskers ladled genially from a
kettle until he had furnished his two mendicants with a soup that was
steaming hot, and in which there were little floating suggestions of
chicken. The young man, sipping his broth, felt the cordiality expressed
by the warmth of the mixture, and he beamed at the man with oily but
imposing whiskers, who was presiding like a priest behind an altar.
"Have some more, gents?" he inquired of the two sorry figures
before him. The little yellow man accepted with a swift gesture, but the
youth shook his head and went out, following a man whose wondrous
seediness promised that he would have a knowledge of cheap lodging
On the sidewalk he accosted the seedy
man. "Say, do you know a cheap place to sleep?"
The other hesitated for a time, gazing
sideways. Finally he nodded in the direction of the street. "I
sleep up there," he said, "when I've got the price."
The young man shook his head dolefully.
"That's too rich for me."
At that moment there approached the two
a reeling man in strange garments. His head was a fuddle of bushy hair
and whiskers, from which his eyes peered with a guilty slant. In a close
scrutiny it was possible to distinguish the cruel lines of a mouth which
looked as if its lips had just closed with satisfaction over some tender
and piteous morsel. He appeared like an assassin steeped in crimes
But at this time his voice was tuned to
the coaxing key of an affectionate puppy. He looked at the men with
wheedling eyes, and began to sing a little melody for charity.
"Say, gents, can't yeh give a poor feller a couple of cents t' git
a bed? I got five, an' I gits anudder two I gits me a bed. Now, on th'
square, gents, can't yeh jest gimme two cents t' git a bed? Now, yeh
know how a respecterble gentlem'n feels when he's down on his luck, an'
The seedy man, staring with
imperturbable countenance at a train which clattered overhead,
interrupted in an expressionless voice: "Ah, go t' hell!"
But the youth spoke to the prayerful
assassin in tones of astonishment and inquiry. "Say, you must be
crazy! Why don't yeh strike somebody that looks as if they had
The assassin, tottering about on his
uncertain legs, and at intervals brushing imaginary obstacles from
before his nose, entered into a long explanation of the psychology of
the situation. It was so profound that it was unintelligible.
When he had exhausted the subject, the
young man said to him: "Let's see th' five cents."
The assassin wore an expression of
drunken woe at this sentence, filled with suspicion of him. With a
deeply pained air he began to fumble in his clothing, his red hands
trembling. Presently he announced in a voice of bitter grief, as if he
had been betrayed: "There's on'y four."
"Four," said the young man
thoughtfully. "Well, look-a-here, I'm a stranger here, an' if ye'll
steer me to your cheap joint I'll find the other three."
The assassin's countenance became
instantly radiant with joy. His whiskers quivered with the wealth of his
alleged emotions. He seized the young man's hand in a transport of
delight and friendliness.
"B' Gawd," he cried, "if
ye'll do that, b' Gawd, I'd say yeh was a damned good fellow, I would,
an' I'd remember yeh all m' life, I would, b' Gawd, an' if I ever got a
chance I'd return the compliment,"--he spoke with drunken
dignity--"b'Gawd, I'd treat yeh white, I would, an' I'd allus
The young man drew back, looking at the
assassin coldly. "Oh, that's all right," he said. "You
show me th' joint--that's all you've got t' do."
The assassin, gesticulating gratitude,
led the young man along a dark street. Finally he stopped before a
little dusty door. He raised his hand impressively.
"Look-a-here," he said, and there was a thrill of deep and
ancient wisdom upon his face, "I've brought yeh here, an' that's my
part, ain't it? If th' place don't suit yeh, yeh needn't git mad at me,
need yeh? There won't be no bad feelin', will there?"
"No," said the young man.
The assassin waved his arm tragically,
and led the march up the steep stairway. On the way the young man
furnished the assassin with three pennies. At the top a man with
benevolent spectacles looked at them through a hole in a board. He
collected their money, wrote some names on a register, and speedily was
leading the two men along a gloom-shrouded corridor.
Shortly after the beginning of this
journey the young man felt his liver turn white, for from the dark and
secret places of the building there suddenly came to his nostrils
strange and unspeakable odors, that assailed him like malignant diseases
with wings. They seemed to be from human bodies closely packed in dens;
the exhalations from a hundred pairs of reeking lips; the fumes from a
thousand bygone debauches; the expression of a thousand present
A man, naked save for a little
snuff-colored undershirt, was parading sleepily along the corridor. He
rubbed his eyes and, giving vent to a prodigious yawn, demanded to be
told the time.
The man yawned again. He opened a door,
and for a moment his form was outlined against a black, opaque interior.
To this door came the three men, and as it was again opened the unholy
odors rushed out like fiends, so that the young man was obliged to
struggle as against an overpowering wind.
It was some time before the youth's
eyes were good in the intense gloom within, but the man with benevolent
spectacles led him skilfully, pausing but a moment to deposit the limp
assassin upon a cot. He took the youth to a cot that lay tranquilly by
the window, and showing him a tall locker for clothes that stood near
the head with the ominous air of a tombstone, left him.
The youth sat on his cot and peered
about him. There was a gas-jet in a distant part of the room, that
burned a small flickering orange-hued flame. It caused vast masses of
tumbled shadows in all parts of the place, save where, immediately about
it, there was a little gray haze. As the young man's eyes became used to
the darkness, he could see upon the cots that thickly littered the floor
the forms of men sprawled out, lying in death-like silence, or heaving
and snoring with tremendous effort, like stabbed fish.
The youth locked his derby and his
shoes in the mummy-case near him, and then lay down with an old and
familiar coat around his shoulders. A blanket he handled gingerly,
drawing it over part of the coat. The cot was covered with leather, and
as cold as melting snow. The youth was obliged to shiver for some time
on this affair, which was like a slab. Presently, however, his chill
gave him peace, and during this period of leisure from it he turned his
head to stare at his friend the assassin, whom he could dimly discern
where he lay sprawled on a cot in the abandon of a man filled with
drink. He was snoring with incredible vigour. His wet hair and beard
dimly glistened, and his inflamed nose shone with subdued luster like a
red light in a fog.
Within reach of the youth's hand was
one who lay with yellow breast and shoulders bare to the cold draughts.
One arm hung over the side of the cot, and the fingers lay full length
upon the wet cement floor of the room. Beneath the inky brows could be
seen the eyes of the man, exposed by the partly opened lids. To the
youth it seemed that he and this corpse-like being were exchanging a
prolonged stare, and that the other threatened with his eyes. He drew
back, watching his neighbour from the shadows of his blanket edge. The
man did not move once through the night, but lay in this stillness as of
death like a body stretched out expectant of the surgeon's knife.
And all through the room could be seen
the tawny hues of naked flesh, limbs thrust into the darkness,
projecting beyond the cots; upreared knees, arms hanging long and thin
over the cot edges. For the most part they were statuesque, carven,
dead. With the curious lockers standing all about like tombstones, there
was a strange effect of a graveyard where bodies were merely flung.
Yet occasionally could be seen limbs
wildly tossing in fantastic nightmare gestures, accompanied by guttural
cries, grunts, oaths. And there was one fellow off in a gloomy corner,
who in his dreams was oppressed by some frightful calamity, for of a
sudden he began to utter long wails that went almost like yells from a
hound, echoing wailfully and weird through this chill place of
tombstones where men lay like the dead.
The sound, in its high piercing
beginnings that dwindled to final melancholy moans, expressed a red and
grim tragedy of the unfathomable possibilities of the man's dreams. But
to the youth these were not merely the shrieks of a vision-pierced man:
they were an utterance of the meaning of the room and its occupants. It
was to him the protest of the wretch who feels the touch of the
imperturbable granite wheels, and who then cries with an impersonal
eloquence, with a strength not from him, giving voice to the wail of a
whole section, a class, a people. This, weaving into the young man's
brain, and mingling with his views of the vast and sombre shadows
that,like mighty black fingers, curled around the naked bodies, made the
young man so that he did not sleep, but lay carving the biographies for
these men from his meagre experience. At times the fellow in the corner
howled in a writhing agony of his imaginations.
Finally a long lance-point of gray
light shot through the dusty panes of the window. Without, the young man
could see roofs drearily white in the dawning. The point of light
yellowed and grew brighter, until the golden rays of the morning sun
came in bravely and strong. They touched with radiant color the form of
a small fat man who snored in stuttering fashion. His round and shiny
bald head glowed suddenly with the valour of a decoration. He sat up,
blinked at the sun, swore fretfully, and pulled his blanket over the
ornamental splendours of his head.
The youth contentedly watched this rout
of the shadows before the bright spears of the sun, and presently he
slumbered. When he awoke he heard the voice of the assassin raised in
valiant curses. Putting up his head, he perceived his comrade seated on
the side of the cot engaged in scratching his neck with long fingernails
that rasped like files.
"Hully Jee, dis is a new breed.
They've got can-openers on their feet." He continued in a violent
The young man hastily unlocked his
closet and took out his shoes and hat. As he sat on the side of the cot
lacing his shoes, he glanced about and saw that daylight had made the
room comparatively commonplace and uninteresting. The men, whose faces
seemed stolid, serene, or absent, were engaged in dressing, while a
great crackle of bantering conversation arose.
A few were parading in unconcerned
nakedness. Here and there were men of brawn, whose skins shone clear and
ruddy. They took splendid poses, standing massively like chiefs. When
they had dressed in their ungainly garments there was an extraordinary
change. They then showed bumps and deficiencies of all kinds.
There were others who exhibited many
deformities. Shoulders were slanting, humped, pulled this way and pulled
that way. And notable among these latter men was the little fat man who
had refused to allow his head to be glorified. His pudgy form, built
like a pear, bustled to and fro, while he swore in fishwife fashion. It
appeared that some article of his apparel had vanished.
The young man attired himself speedily,
and went to his friend the assassin. At first the latter looked dazed at
the sight of the youth. This face seemed to be appealing to him through
the cloud-wastes of his memory. He scratched his neck and reflected. At
last he grinned, a broad smile gradually spreading until his countenance
was a round illumination. "Hello, Willie," he cried cheerily.
"Hello," said the young man
"Are yeh ready t' fly?"
"Sure." The assassin tied his
shoe carefully with some twine and came ambling.
When he reached the street the young
man experienced no sudden relief from unholy atmospheres. He had
forgotten all about them, and had been breathing naturally, and with no
sensation of discomfort or distress.
He was thinking of these things as he
walked along the street, when he was suddenly startled by feeling the
assassin's hand, trembling with excitement, clutching his arm, and when
the assassin spoke, his voice went into quavers from a supreme
"I'll be hully, bloomin' blowed if
there wasn't a feller with a nightshirt on up there in that joint."
The youth was bewildered for a moment,
but presently he turned to smile indulgently at the assassin's humour.
"Oh, you're a damned liar," he merely said.
Whereupon the assassin began to gesture
extravagantly and take oath by strange gods. He frantically placed
himself at the mercy of remarkable fates if his tale were not true.
"Yes, he did! I cross m' heart thousan' times!" he protested,
and at the moment his eyes were large with amazement, his mouth wrinkled
in unnatural glee. "Yessir! A nightshirt! A hully white
"No, sir! I hope ter die b'fore I
kin git anudder ball if there wasn't a jay wid a hully, bloomin' white
His face was filled with the infinite
wonder of it. "A hully white nightshirt," he continually
The young man saw the dark entrance to
a basement restaurant. There was a sign which read "No mystery
about our hash !" and there were other age-stained and
world-battered legends which told him that the place was within his
means. He stopped before it and spoke to the assassin. "I guess
I'll git somethin' t' eat."
At this the assassin, for some reason,
appeared to be quite embarrassed. He gazed at the seductive front of the
eating place for a moment. Then he started slowly up the street.
"Well, good-bye, Willie," he said bravely.
For an instant the youth studied the
departing figure. Then he called out, "Hol' on a minnet." As
they came together he spoke in a certain fierce way, as if he feared
that the other would think him to be charitable. "Look-a-here, if
yeh wan ta git some breakfas' I'll lend yeh three cents t' do it with.
But say, look-a-here, you've gotta git out an' hustle. I ain't goin' t'
support yeh, or I'll go broke b'fore night. I ain't no
"I take me oath, Willie,"
said the assassin earnestly, "th' on'y thing I really needs is a
ball. Me t'roat feels like a fryin' pan. But as I can't get a ball, why,
th' next bes' thing is breakfast, an' if yeh do that for me, b' Gawd, I
say yeh was th' whitest lad I ever see."
They spent a few moments in dexterous
exchanges of phrases, in which they each protested that the other was,
as the assassin had originally said, "a respecterble gentlem'n."
And they concluded with mutual assurances that they were the souls of
intelligence and virtue. Then they went into the restaurant.
There was a long counter, dimly lighted
from hidden sources. Two or three men in soiled white aprons rushed here
The youth bought a bowl of coffee for
two cents and a roll for one cent. The assassin purchased the same. The
bowls were webbed with brown seams, and the tin spoons wore an air of
having emerged from the first pyramid. Upon them were black moss-like
encrustations of age, and they were bent and scarred from the attacks of
long-forgotten teeth. But over their repast the wanderers waxed warm and
mellow. The assassin grew affable as the hot mixture went soothingly
down his parched throat, and the young man felt courage flow in his
Memories began to throng in on the
assassin, and he brought forth long tales, intricate, incoherent,
delivered with a chattering swiftness as from an old woman.
"--great job out 'n Orange. Boss keep yeh hustlin', though, all
time. I was there three days, and then I went an' ask 'im t' lend me a
dollar. 'G-g-go ter the devil,' he says, an' I lose me job.
"South no good. Damn niggers work
for twenty-five an' thirty cents a day. Run white man out. Good grub,
though. Easy livin'.
"Yas; useter work little in
Toledo, raftin' logs. Make two or three dollars er day in the spring.
Lived high. Cold as ice, though, in the winter.
"I was raised in northern N'York.
O-o-oh, yeh jest oughto live there. No beer ner whisky, though, 'way off
in the woods. But all th' good hot grub yeh can eat. B' Gawd, I hung
around there long as I could till th' ol' man fired me. 'Git t' hell
outa here, yeh wuthless skunk, git t' hell outa here, an' go die,' he
ses. 'You're a hell of a father,' I ses, 'you are,' an' I quit 'im."
As they were passing from the dim
eating-place, they encountered an old man who was trying to steal forth
with a tiny package of food, but a tall man with an indomitable
moustache stood dragon-fashion, barring the way of escape. They heard
the old man raise a plaintive protest. "Ah, you always want to know
what I take out, and you never see that I usually bring a package in
here from my place of business."
As the wanderers trudged slowly along
Park Row, the assassin began to expand and grow blithe. "B' Gawd,
we've been livin' like kings," he said, smacking appreciative lips.
"Look out, or we'll have t' pay
fer it t'-night," said the youth with gloomy warning.
But the assassin refused to turn his
gaze toward the future. He went with a limping step, into which he
injected a suggestion of lamb-like gambols. His mouth was wreathed in a
In City Hall Park the two wanderers sat
down in the little circle of benches sanctified by traditions of their
class. They huddled in their old garments, slumbrously conscious of the
march of the hours which for them had no meaning.
The people of the street hurrying
hither and thither made a blend of black figures, changing, yet
frieze-like. They walked in their good clothes as upon important
missions, giving no gaze to the two wanderers seated upon the benches.
They expressed to the young man his infinite distance from all he
valued. Social position, comfort, the pleasures of living were
unconquerable kingdoms. He felt a sudden awe.
And in the background a mulititude of
buildings, of pitiless hues and sternly high, were to him emblematic of
a nation forcing its regal head into the coulds, throwing no downward
glances; in the sublimity of its aspirations ignoring the wretches who
may flounder at its feet. The roar of the city in his ear was to him the
confusion of strange tongues, babbling heedlessly; it was the clink of
coin, the voice of the city's hopes, which were to him no hopes.
He confessed himself an outcast, and
his eyes from under the lowered rim of his hat began to glance guiltily,
wearing the criminal expression that comes with certain convictions.