The beginning of these perplexing things was in the summer; and each time Ona would promise him with terror in her voice that it would not happen again — but in vain. Each crisis would leave Jurgis more and more frightened, more disposed to distrust Elzbieta's consolations, and to believe that there was some terrible thing about all this that he was not allowed to know. Once or twice in these outbreaks he caught Ona's eye, and it seemed to him like the eye of a hunted animal; there were broken phrases of anguish and despair now and then, amid her frantic weeping. It was only because he was so numb and beaten himself that Jurgis did not worry more about this. But he never thought of it, except when he was dragged to it — he lived like a dumb beast of burden, knowing only the moment in which he was.
The winter was coming on again, more menacing and cruel than ever. It was October, and the holiday rush had begun. It was necessary for the packing machines to grind till late at night to provide food that would be eaten at Christmas breakfasts; and Marija and Elzbieta and Ona, as part of the machine, began working fifteen or sixteen hours a day. There was no choice about this — whatever work there was to be done they had to do, if they wished to keep their places; besides that, it added another pittance to their incomes. So they staggered on with the awful load. They would start work every morning at seven, and eat their dinners at noon, and then work until ten or eleven at night without another mouthful of food. Jurgis wanted to wait for them, to help them home at night, but they would not think of this; the fertilizer mill was not running overtime, and there was no place for him to wait save in a saloon. Each would stagger out into the darkness, and make her way to the corner, where they met; or if the others had already gone, would get into a car, and begin a painful struggle to keep awake. When they got home they were always too tired either to eat or to undress; they would crawl into bed with their shoes on, and lie like logs. If they should fail, they would certainly be lost; if they held out, they might have enough coal for the winter.
A day or two before Thanksgiving Day there came a snowstorm. It began in the afternoon, and by evening two inches had fallen. Jurgis tried to wait for the women, but went into a saloon to get warm, and took two drinks, and came out and ran home to escape from the demon; there he lay down to wait for them, and instantly fell asleep. When he opened his eyes again he was in the midst of a nightmare, and found Elzbieta shaking him and crying out. At first he could not realize what she was saying — Ona had not come home. What time was it, he asked. It was morning — time to be up. Ona had not been home that night! And it was bitter cold, and a foot of snow on the ground.
Jurgis sat up with a start. Marija was crying with fright and the children were wailing in sympathy — little Stanislovas in addition, because the terror of the snow was upon him. Jurgis had nothing to put on but his shoes and his coat, and in half a minute he was out of the door. Then, however, he realized that there was no need of haste, that he had no idea where to go. It was still dark as midnight, and the thick snowflakes were sifting down — everything was so silent that he could hear the rustle of them as they fell. In the few seconds that he stood there hesitating he was covered white.
He set off at a run for the yards, stopping by the way to inquire in the saloons that were open. Ona might have been overcome on the way; or else she might have met with an accident in the machines. When he got to the place where she worked he inquired of one of the watchmen — there had not been any accident, so far as the man had heard. At the time office, which he found already open, the clerk told him that Ona's check had been turned in the night before, showing that she had left her work.
After that there was nothing for him to do but wait, pacing back and forth in the snow, meantime, to keep from freezing. Already the yards were full of activity; cattle were being unloaded from the cars in the distance, and across the way the "beef-luggers" were toiling in the darkness, carrying two-hundred-pound quarters of bullocks into the refrigerator cars. Before the first streaks of daylight there came the crowding throngs of workingmen, shivering, and swinging their dinner pails as they hurried by. Jurgis took up his stand by the time-office window, where alone there was light enough for him to see; the snow fell so quick that it was only by peering closely that he could make sure that Ona did not pass him.
Seven o'clock came, the hour when the great packing machine began to move. Jurgis ought to have been at his place in the fertilizer mill; but instead he was waiting, in an agony of fear, for Ona. It was fifteen minutes after the hour when he saw a form emerge from the snow mist, and sprang toward it with a cry. It was she, running swiftly; as she saw him, she staggered forward, and half fell into his outstretched arms.
"What has been the matter?" he cried, anxiously. "Where have you been?"
It was several seconds before she could get breath to answer him. "I couldn't get home," she exclaimed. "The snow — the cars had stopped."
"But where were you then?" he demanded.
"I had to go home with a friend," she panted — "with Jadvyga."
Jurgis drew a deep breath; but then he noticed that she was sobbing and trembling — as if in one of those nervous crises that he dreaded so. "But what's the matter?" he cried. "What has happened?"
"Oh, Jurgis, I was so frightened!" she said, clinging to him wildly. "I have been so worried!"
They were near the time station window, and people were staring at them. Jurgis led her away. "How do you mean?" he asked, in perplexity.
"I was afraid — I was just afraid!" sobbed Ona. "I knew you wouldn't know where I was, and I didn't know what you might do. I tried to get home, but I was so tired. Oh, Jurgis, Jurgis!"
He was so glad to get her back that he could not think clearly about anything else. It did not seem strange to him that she should be so very much upset; all her fright and incoherent protestations did not matter since he had her back. He let her cry away her tears; and then, because it was nearly eight o'clock, and they would lose another hour if they delayed, he left her at the packing house door, with her ghastly white face and her haunted eyes of terror.
There was another brief interval. Christmas was almost come; and because the snow still held, and the searching cold, morning after morning Jurgis hall carried his wife to her post, staggering with her through the darkness; until at last, one night, came the end.
It lacked but three days of the holidays. About midnight Marija and Elzbieta came home, exclaiming in alarm when they found that Ona had not come. The two had agreed to meet her; and, after waiting, had gone to the room where she worked; only to find that the ham-wrapping girls had quit work an hour before, and left. There was no snow that night, nor was it especially cold; and still Ona had not come! Something more serious must be wrong this time.
They aroused Jurgis, and he sat up and listened crossly to the story. She must have gone home again with Jadvyga, he said; Jadvyga lived only two blocks from the yards, and perhaps she had been tired. Nothing could have happened to her — and even if there had, there was nothing could be done about it until morning. Jurgis turned over in his bed, and was snoring again before the two had closed the door.