The House of Bondage


CLINGING to a gigantic pendulum, Mary was swept through a mighty curve of roaring darkness, up from the black chasm of insensibility, and tossed, swaying over that frightful cliff, to the precipitous crag of consciousness. For what seemed many minutes, she tottered on the verge, dizzy, afraid. Then white knives, swift and sharp, slashed at her eyes and forced up the lids.

Defying closed blinds and drawn chintz curtains, the sunlight of noonday beat upon her face. She pulled something between her cheek and the leaping rays. Her hand trembled.

At first she could neither think nor recollect. The blows of an ax, regular, tremendous, were splitting her head. Her throat was hot and dry and choking. Her stomach crawled and leaped with nausea. From head to foot she was shaking with recurrent nervous chills that wracked a body of which every muscle was strained and sore.

Realization of the present came slowly, but it preceded all memory of the past. She found that the thing with which she had instinctively shaded her eyes was a sheet, and, as she lowered it, she saw, in a glance where the employment of sight was a separate pain, that she was lying among large pillows in a big brass bed, heavily mattressed. Beyond the foot of the bed her survey could not extend, because the foot was high and hung with a pink and green down quilt; but between two windows against the wall to her right, she saw a bureau, bearing a few toilet articles, and opposite, on the left, there was a washstand with a basin on the floor before it and, on its top, a pitcher, a soap-tray, a small brown bottle, and a little blue box bursting with white cotton.

This was not the room in which she had first fallen asleep.

With that isolated fact flashing like a message of diaster through her brain, she sat suddenly upright in the bed; but the room pitched before her like a boat in the trough of a storm on the river at home. A wave of sickness hissed over her, and she sank back among pillows repellantly scented.

Vaguely she realized that she must be in a room somewhere above the ground floor.

Dimly she began to wonder how she had got up the stairs. What would the kindly Mrs. Legere think of her condition? And that which had happened–had it lasted for an hour or a night?

That which had happened–there memory, in a blinding blast, reasserted itself. What had been but half-wittingly accepted was now wholly known. Hot as were branding upon her brain the full history of all that had occurred: the deeds for which she had at last learned the name, and the deeds that, even in her own frightened soul, were nameless. There was nothing–nothing of her, hand and foot, and mouth and eye and soul–that was not defiled.

For herself, for Max, but most of all for the hideous facts of life, she shook in physical disgust. Before the face of such things, what must birth and marriage mean? She opened her eyes, but she could not look at her silent witnesses; she shut her lids, but she saw, behind them, the hairy arms of a gorilla closing on her, to break her and bear her away. For one moment, all that she had loved she hated, and for the next, seizing his smiling reassurance as the one vow that could legalize what nothing could refine, all that she had come to hate she tried to force herself to love.

She understood now so much that she had never understood before: the whispered words of town gossip, the stray glimpses of lovers in the summer lanes, the cautions and the commands that had once so galled her in her home.

At the word, her mind swung back to far-away yesterday. She was sorry that she had been the cause–for she had been the cruise–of the spilling of the stew. She was sorry that she had been so sharp with Sallie. She wished that she had washed the dishes less unwillingly. She still feared–she more than ever feared–the swaying bulk of masculinity that had been her father, but she began to see in him the logical result of forces that were themselves, as yet, beyond her ken; and she looked with a new and pitying vision upon the picture of her little, work-worn and care-marked mother stooping over the polished kitchen-stove.

Her breast tossed and her throat throbbed; but she was beyond tears. Painfully, slowly, yet with resolution, she struggled back to her sitting-posture in the bed.

In this position she found herself facing a long mirror hung against the opposite wall, and in the mirror she saw what was herself. With a low cry, she pulled loose the sheet and covered her nakedness.

That done, she looked again at the strange face that fronted her: a face the more strange because it was the intimate become alien, a ruin, an accusation. Framed in a tangle of dank hair, the cheeks, once pink, were chalky now, and splotched with red, the mouth that she had known only as full and firm, was loose and twisted; the eyes that had been blue, now circled with black, burned in blood-shot fields like coals of angry fire.

One impulse alone directed her: to find her clothes; to put them on; to return, as far as the mask of appearances would take her, to the self that she had been. In spite of aching head and quivering hands, she wrapped the sheet about her and, with infinite care, got from the bed. The floor seemed to sweep up to meet her, but she steadied herself against the wall and, each timid stride a separate agony, began to stumble about the room.

She looked for a clothes-closet or wardrobe, but there was neither. The only door was the door of exit, and the nearest chair was empty. In a corner she saw a pile of linen: laboriously she stooped and picked it up, unrolled a portion, and then, gasping in horror, tossed it away. On the other chair there lay a long kimona of crimson. She lifted it and found, neatly arranged below, a sheer cambric garment edged with coarse lace, two black silk stockings slashed with red, and a pair of slippers, high-heeled, with buckles of brass–for no reason that she could have formulated, the sight sickened her. She went to the bureau and tugged at its drawers, but all that she found was a single brown bottle, like that she had first observed on the washstand, filled with white tablets and labeled " Poison." Obviously, her clothes had been taken from the room.

In a panic of shame, she groped blindly for the door: she must call for Mrs. Legere. She grasped the knob and turned it–the door was locked.

Fear, mad and unreasoning, drove its spurs into her sides. Forgetting her nausea, heedless of her pain, she ran first to one window, and then to the other, but the bowed shutters, though they admitted the light, would open for nothing beside: they were fastened with riveted loops of brass, and, looking through the small space between them, she could catch only a glimpse of the street far below. She tried to argue that the key might have fallen from the lock within the room, but she could not find it, and, the sheet dropping from her shoulders, she began to rattle at the knob, and then to pound upon the panels, her voice rising swiftly from a low call to a high, hysterical, frantic cry for help.

" Mrs. Legere! Mrs. Legere! Mrs. Legere!" she cried, and then as suddenly ceased, tilted against the door, and collapsed into a naked heap upon the floor.

All power of movement seemed to have slipped from her, but when there came a heavy footfall on the stair, a swish of skirts outside and the loud rasping of a key inserted in the lock, Mary leaped galvanically to her feet, gathered the sheet about her body, and flung herself upon the bed.

The door opened and closed behind Rose Legere: who promptly relocked it and slipped the key into the swelling bosom but half concealed by her dragon-spotted, baby-blue neglige.

"What in hell's the matter with you'" she demanded.

A little more rotund of figure, a little looser in the cheeks, and more patently crayoned and powdered about the eyes, a little more obviously painted and a little older, she was still the woman of the brewery's advertisement. But her forehead was knotted in deep, angry wrinkles; her under jaw was thrust so far forward that the roll of fat beneath it was invisible, and her eyes snapped with malice. Mary shrank back among the pillows.

"Weren't you yellin'?" persisted Rose. " Did you lose your voice doin' it? What in the hell's the matter with you, I say? "

With a sweep of her stout arm, she seized the girl's bare shoulder and shook it till Mary's teeth clicked like castanets.

" I'm not goin' to have any such racket in my house! " the woman asseverated, as she plied her punishment. " You've got to learn first-off to keep your mouth to yourself, and be dead sure if you don't I'll give you a real beatin'."

She tossed Mary from her, as if her victim had been a bundle of straw, and stood up again, arms akimbo, breathing scarcely beyond her normal speed.

Mary was half mad and wholly sick with dread. She wanted to cry out for rescue and dared not. She wanted to rise and try to force the door or break open the shutters, but she could not move. She could only lie there panting for breath, with her mouth gasping and her heart hammering at her breast. She had closed her eyes. She opened them just in time to see Rose, whose slippered foot had touched something on the floor, stoop, pick up, and place beside the key in her bosom, a crumpled purple-bordered handkerchief.

"Now then," said the woman in a tone that, if still hard, was at least less intense than its predecessor, "try to tell me what's the trouble, like somebody this side of Matteawan."

With a supreme lunge at courage, Mary got her voice.

"I want my clothes," she said dully. " And where's Max? "

" Your clothes ain't fit to wear," said Rose; " an' I don't know where Max is. What you need is breakfast."

"I want my clothes," monotonously repeated Mary. "I couldn't eat to save my life. Hasn't Max come back? "

But Rose did not seem to hear the question.

"nonsense, honey," she said, her anger seemingly now entirely passed. " Of course you must eat. I got up on purpose for it, and I've set that nigger cooking a perfect peach of a breakfast."

"I want my clothes." Rose leaned over the bed and put a soothing hand upon her questioner's fevered forehead.

" Now don't lose your nerve, dearie," she advised. " I'm your friend–honest, I am. You rest awhile and eat a little, and then maybe we'll talk things over.

"He hasn't come yet? "

"No, he hasn't. But why are you lettin' that jar you? Perhaps he's sick, too. Perhaps he's had some kind of a scrap with his old man. How do I know what's hit him! He'll show up all right in the end and, till he does show up, you just make yourself at home here and don't bother. I'll take care of you."

Something in the woman's solicitude–or it may have been the quick and unexplained change from violence to tenderness–frightened Mary even more than the initial outburst had frightened her.

" I want to go home," she quavered.

"Sure you want to go home," Rose acquiesced, without moving a muscle. " But how can you go? Max told me you'd sent your people a note saying you'd hiked out with him to be married, and how can you go home until he gets back here and you can take him along and show the goods? " Her tone was lightly argumentative, but it was also stolidly merciless, and it hurled true to its mark the shaft of conviction. Out of the yesterday, Mary heard the voice of her father that was the voice of a society rigidly shaped by the conditions of its own fashioning:

" Bay'un thirty year old an' noot another sin ag'in 'un, I would beat 'un within a bare inch o''er deeth, an' turn 'un oot to live the life 'un had picked fur herself!"

She understood that statement now.

" I can go to Max's," she hazarded.


To Max's father's."

" Maybe you can; but it's a long trip to Hungary."

Mary answered nothing. Rose had only confirmed what the girl had for an hour feared.

"You see how it is," pursued Rose, reading Mary's silence with a practiced mind. " Better let me take care of you."

Mary's face was hidden. Again she felt New York as a malevolent consciousness, a living prison implacably raising around her its insurmountable walls. There was, she thought, nothing left her but the diminishing hope of Max's return.

"Now you will eat, won't you? " Rose was continuing.

Mary shook her head.

Rose patted quietly one of the clenched hands that lay close to her.

"Better do it, dearie," she said. "I'm your friend; remember that. You can have whatever you want."

Mary mastered what strength remained to her. She raised herself on her elbow.

" Then let me go! " she pleaded, extending an open palm like a beggar asking for a crust. "I don't care if my clothes is mussed. I don't care what'll happen afterward. Just let me go! "

"You're a fool," Rose made cool rejoinder. " Where'd you go? "

"I don't know? "

" What'd become of you? "

"I don't care."

" Well, you would care, all right, all right. You can't go home, and you've no clothes and no money and no references. You couldn't get work anywhere in New York, and you couldn't get away from New York."

" I–" Mary groped through the darkness of her soul. " I can do housework."

" Not without a reference you can't."

"I could go to some office–"

" If you went to any charity-joint, they'd throw you out because of what's happened to you."

"I could beg on the street if I had to."

"Do you think the men in this town give money for nothing to a good-looking girl? You could go on the street, that's what you could do."

The phrase was new to its hearer, but the tone explained it.

"Then," she stumbled forward, "I could go to the police. They'd help me. I could–"

But at that word Rose flew into a torrent of anger and abuse that dwarfed the former tempest.

"You could, you?" she cried. " That's your game, is it, you sneaking little innocent? I'll bet you're a damn sight wiser than you let on. But you don't know this town: you can take that much from me. Go to the police! Go to'em! The cops on this beat are my friends: if you don't believe it, I'll bring 'em in and introduce you. They're my friends, and so's the whole precinct my friends. Go to 'em! Go to 'em, and I'll have you pinched and locked up for bein' what you are ! "

Mary had drawn away from the blast, but Rose's powerful fist caught her under the chin and sent her crashing down on the bed.

" You don't come that on me! " the jailer continued. " You've got your choice: you can stay here and live easy, or walk out and go to jail, and that's all you can do. Max ain't comin' back, and you always knew he wouldn't come back. You know what this house is as well as I do, and you've got to stay here and earn your keep. If you give one yip I'll have the cops in! You don't want to eat, hey? Well then, you shan't eat ! You can lay there and starve, or you can knock on the door and get the best breakfast you ever had, all ready for you. Do what you please; but if you let out one yip I'll hammer the life out of you ! "

She turned and left the room. She banged the door behind her, and Mary, in a swirling dream, heard herself again locked in her cell.