Adriana Spadoni 1915

Real Work

First Published: The Masses, July 1915.
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan for in 2001.
Proofed: and corrected by Dawn Gaitis, 2006.

He lived across the lightwell from me, in three small rooms, smaller and darker even than mine. On the days when I was quite convinced that all the stories in the world had already been written in every possible way and that I was the only fool left alive in the world, I used to rest and draw peace just sitting behind my curtain at the window and watching.

I believe he was the cleanest old man I have ever seen. He was very tall and straight, with a face of chiseled beauty under his thin white hair. His hands were long and slim and cool looking as if he always washed them in very cold water with some hygienic soap and rubbed them on a crash towel.

From a little after eight till four in the afternoon he sat at a small desk by the window. He never once glanced out into the lightwell or paid any attention to any noise that might rise from the kingdom of the janitress below. The rest of us were always hanging out the window watching one or the other of the janitress’s children fall down the area steps. But nothing disturbed him. All day he sat there and wrote, or cut clippings from mountains of newspapers, or read. Sometimes he would stop reading and look up, beckoning with his long thin forefinger, and a little, thin, bowed old woman would come trotting to the desk. In all the months that I watched, before I came to know them, never once did I see him call her in any way but this, so that I pictured her always sitting there, beyond the light from the window, watching and waiting for her summons.

Then he would flick the mass of paper from his desk with one of the fine motions of his long hands, and spreading some particular sheet upon the desk, he would read to her, pointing here and there in emphasis or explanation. She listened attentively, nodding her head and glancing at him from time to time. When he laughed she laughed also, always a little behind, like an echo that never catches up.

At four o’clock he left the window. At five the blinds in the second window came down, the window was opened a little from the top. A few moments later the little old woman came and sat down at the desk. She always sat for a little while doing nothing at all. Never have I seen anyone who could sit so restfully, so utterly at peace. Then after an interval she would fold back the curtain and quietly open the window.

It always seemed to me that she did this cautiously, listening with her little gray head rocked like a frightened bird’s. And once it was noiselessly opened she leaned upon the sill in perfect contentment, looking up and down the brick walls. She never spoke. After a while she came to smile and nod to me, but once when I called to her, she drew in hastily, her finger on her lips.

Yet there was not the smallest change at any of the windows that she did not note. In her short half hour there she was like a spectator at a play.

When the light faded in the well she closed the window. Then for perhaps an hour she would sit and read, but never at the desk. A little before eight she began picking up the papers and magazines the old man had left scattered about, piled them in neat piles upon the bench beside the desk – the desk itself she never touched – turned out the light and went to bed. Very early in the morning I would hear her sweeping and putting the “library” to rights.

Twice I met her on the stairs bringing home her marketing in a little basket. She smiled and nodded but fluttered away before I could hold her in talk. It was late in the winter, however, before I came to know her.

It was a stormy night and all the happing shutters of the rickety old house were possessed of haunting devils. They creaked and cried and begged to be set free, and the wind whistled through the window cracks, and I was very, very sure that all the ideas in the world had been used up ages before, when I became conscious that a light tapping sound had been going on for some time. I hurried to the window and there was my neighbor, leaning from hers and tapping with a feather duster fastened to the broom.

“Have you a bit of mustard?” she called softly. “He’s quite bad.”

But before I could reassure her, she drew in and closed the window, making the motion for silence, her finger on her lip.

In a few moments she let me quietly in, took the mustard, and drew my head down to hers.

“Thank you, dearie. I don’t know how I came to let the mustard all run out. I ALWAYS keep a bit on hand.” “Shussh,” she added, “I wouldn’t want him to hear, my dear. He would never forgive it letting anyone know. Mr. B--- is terrible proud.” With that she pushed me gently into a chair and vanished. In a moment I heard her in the room beyond, crooning over the old man. His panting breaths grew easier. In a little while she came out, drawing the door partly to behind her.

“I don’t know what I should have done without you. Fancy my letting the mustard run out like that. But it’s a long time since he had a spell.” And then, just as if I had known her always, she began to talk, in a kind of soft, gentle flow, like the motion of a shallow river through a flat meadow.

“He’s so proud. It would kill him if anybody knew about his spells. Now if it was me, my dear, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the courage to keep it all to myself like that. I would want a bit of sympathy. I always was a powerful one for sympathy. Mr. B-- says it’s weakness to need other people, but I always did like ‘people.’ I guess it’s because he’s so educated he don’t need them. He’s very finely educated, my dear. He was ready for the bar, they’ve all been barristers in his family, when, when – He’s had a lot of trouble, indeed he has. If it weren’t for his WORK I don’t know what he would have done. It has been a wonderful thing. Without it he would have been very lonely, I’m afraid.”

I took one of the worn hands in mine. “He has you. He doesn’t need anybody else.”

“No, dearie, it isn’t that.” She blushed faintly under her withered skin. “I’m really not a worthy companion for Mr. B---. He should have married an educated woman like himself. She could have helped him in his work.”

“Is – is he writing a book?” I ventured.

“Oh, no, dear,” she whispered back. “With his clippings, I mean. He has been clipping for ten years now. See.” She trotted to a curtained corner and drew aside the curtain. Almost to the ceiling they reached, bundles and bundles of paper clippings. Each was carefully tied with string and a card hung loosely. She dropped the curtain and came back. “He has millions,” she whispered, “millions, all tied and labeled. He can put his hand on any subject in a moment. That,” she pointed to an old chest of drawers behind the desk, “is full of pictures. He can get a picture to illustrate any article in a twinkling.”

“Does he expect – is he going – to USE them in any way?” I gasped, weak with the thought of all those millions of words that had not been allowed to die.

“Oh, no, dearie; it’s his WORK. He’s been doing it now for ten years. It’s quite wonderful, only I can’t explain very well, but if he will consent to see you, I’m sure you would be interested. But we see so few people, my dear, practically none at all. Mr. B-- says so few people have a ‘sense of values these days.’ It’s just ‘hurry and babble.’ That’s the reason we don’t live in a front apartment. He says all the bustle and silly hurry about nothing distracts him from his work. I did miss the cars back here terrible at first, but then I have no WORK. If I had Mr. B--’s education perhaps I’d feel the same. Would you like to come over sometime and talk to Mr. B--?” 

“I don’t know,” I answered helplessly while Mr. B--’s “education” loomed fearfully before me. “Do – you think – he -”

There was a sound from the next room. She rose quickly. “I think I can manage it. You just keep a lookout, dearie, and I’ll beckon you some day. About three. He grows a little weary then and really needs some relaxation.” Then she trotted softly into the next room and I let myself out quietly.

It was four days before I saw her smiling and beckoning from the bedroom window and I went over. The old man at the window turned his swivel chair and his clear, gray eyes smiled a welcome.

“I would rise,” he said courteously, “but my limb incapacitates me,” and I saw that his foot was sadly twisted and that he walked with a cane. “I must thank you,” he continued. “Mrs. B-- has told of your great kindness the other night.” His long, slim hand disclaimed my protest that it was nothing. “You are mistaken. Real kindness is very rare in these days of ‘babble and hurry.’ ”

“But among fellow workers, Mr. B--...”

“Ah,” he said softly, “that is rarer still. There are few real workers. It’s all bustle and hurry. There’s no method, no routine.” He rolled the words like tidbits between his clean, chiseled lips. “And there’s nothing possible without routine. Routine and method.” The little old woman nodded and crossed her hands in her lap as one settling to hear and enjoy. “Where would my work be if I had no system? I can’t imagine any work that would so soon become confused without routine as clippings. Each subject has its allotted moments just as the finished bundle has its allotted place. In the morning I read science and travel and art and politics and mark the passages worthy of saving. Then in the afternoon from one till three I clip. From three to four I devote myself to illustrative pictures. By that time I am a little tired and the mental strain is not so great. Then each day I practise calligraphy, quite a lost art now, and attend to my mail. ...”

When I went away, an hour later, just outside the door the little old woman took both my hands in hers.

“You’ve done him lots of good, dear. And you will come again, won’t you? You see,” she added wistfully, “I’m not brilliant like you and Mr. B-- and I can’t talk to him the way you do, but I’ll enjoy listening. It’ll be quite a treat.”