Jurgis looked twice, bewildered; then he glanced at the house next door and at the one beyond — then at the saloon on the corner. Yes, it was the right place, quite certainly — he had not made any mistake. But the house — the house was a different color!
He came a couple of steps nearer. Yes; it had been gray and now it was yellow! The trimmings around the windows had been red, and now they were green! It was all newly painted! How strange it made it seem!
Jurgis went closer yet, but keeping on the other side of the street. A sudden and horrible spasm of fear had come over him. His knees were shaking beneath him, and his mind was in a whirl. New paint on the house, and new weatherboards, where the old had begun to rot off, and the agent had got after them! New shingles over the hole in the roof, too, the hole that had for six months been the bane of his soul — he having no money to have it fixed and no time to fix it himself, and the rain leaking in, and overflowing the pots and pans he put to catch it, and flooding the attic and loosening the plaster. And now it was fixed! And the broken windowpane replaced! And curtains in the windows! New, white curtains, stiff and shiny!
Then suddenly the front door opened. Jurgis stood, his chest heaving as he struggled to catch his breath. A boy had come out, a stranger to him; a big, fat, rosy-cheeked youngster, such as had never been seen in his home before.
Jurgis stared at the boy, fascinated. He came down the steps whistling, kicking off the snow. He stopped at the foot, and picked up some, and then leaned against the railing, making a snowball. A moment later he looked around and saw Jurgis, and their eyes met; it was a hostile glance, the boy evidently thinking that the other had suspicions of the snowball. When Jurgis started slowly across the street toward him, he gave a quick glance about, meditating retreat, but then he concluded to stand his ground.
Jurgis took hold of the railing of the steps, for he was a little unsteady. "What — what are you doing here?" he managed to gasp.
"Go on!" said the boy.
"You — " Jurgis tried again. "What do you want here?"
"Me?" answered the boy, angrily. "I live here."
"You live here!" Jurgis panted. He turned white and clung more tightly to the railing. "You live here! Then where's my family?"
The boy looked surprised. "Your family!" he echoed.
And Jurgis started toward him. "I — this is my house!" he cried.
"Come off!" said the boy; then suddenly the door upstairs opened, and he called: "Hey, ma! Here's a fellow says he owns this house."
A stout Irishwoman came to the top of the steps. "What's that?" she demanded.
Jurgis turned toward her. "Where is my family?" he cried, wildly. "I left them here! This is my home! What are you doing in my home?"
The woman stared at him in frightened wonder, she must have thought she was dealing with a maniac — Jurgis looked like one. "Your home!" she echoed.
"My home!" he half shrieked. "I lived here, I tell you."
"You must be mistaken," she answered him. "No one ever lived here. This is a new house. They told us so. They — "
"What have they done with my family?" shouted Jurgis, frantically.
A light had begun to break upon the woman; perhaps she had had doubts of what "they" had told her. "I don't know where your family is," she said. "I bought the house only three days ago, and there was nobody here, and they told me it was all new. Do you really mean you had ever rented it?"
"Rented it!" panted Jurgis. "I bought it! I paid for it! I own it! And they — my God, can't you tell me where my people went?"
She made him understand at last that she knew nothing. Jurgis' brain was so confused that he could not grasp the situation. It was as if his family had been wiped out of existence; as if they were proving to be dream people, who never had existed at all. He was quite lost — but then suddenly he thought of Grandmother Majauszkiene, who lived in the next block. She would know! He turned and started at a run.
Grandmother Majauszkiene came to the door herself. She cried out when she saw Jurgis, wild-eyed and shaking. Yes, yes, she could tell him. The family had moved; they had not been able to pay the rent and they had been turned out into the snow, and the house had been repainted and sold again the next week. No, she had not heard how they were, but she could tell him that they had gone back to Aniele Jukniene, with whom they had stayed when they first came to the yards. Wouldn't Jurgis come in and rest? It was certainly too bad — if only he had not got into jail —
And so Jurgis turned and staggered away. He did not go very far round the corner he gave out completely, and sat down on the steps of a saloon, and hid his face in his hands, and shook all over with dry, racking sobs.
Their home! Their home! They had lost it! Grief, despair, rage, overwhelmed him — what was any imagination of the thing to this heartbreaking, crushing reality of it — to the sight of strange people living in his house, hanging their curtains to his windows, staring at him with hostile eyes! It was monstrous, it was unthinkable — they could not do it — it could not be true! Only think what he had suffered for that house — what miseries they had all suffered for it — the price they had paid for it!
The whole long agony came back to him. Their sacrifices in the beginning, their three hundred dollars that they had scraped together, all they owned in the world, all that stood between them and starvation! And then their toil, month by month, to get together the twelve dollars, and the interest as well, and now and then the taxes, and the other charges, and the repairs, and what not! Why, they had put their very souls into their payments on that house, they had paid for it with their sweat and tears — yes, more, with their very lifeblood. Dede Antanas had died of the struggle to earn that money — he would have been alive and strong today if he had not had to work in Durham's dark cellars to earn his share. And Ona, too, had given her health and strength to pay for it — she was wrecked and ruined because of it; and so was he, who had been a big, strong man three years ago, and now sat here shivering, broken, cowed, weeping like a hysterical child. Ah! they had cast their all into the fight; and they had lost, they had lost! All that they had paid was gone — every cent of it. And their house was gone — they were back where they had started from, flung out into the cold to starve and freeze!
Jurgis could see all the truth now — could see himself, through the whole long course of events, the victim of ravenous vultures that had torn into his vitals and devoured him; of fiends that had racked and tortured him, mocking him, meantime, jeering in his face. Ah, God, the horror of it, the monstrous, hideous, demoniacal wickedness of it! He and his family, helpless women and children, struggling to live, ignorant and defenseless and forlorn as they were — and the enemies that had been lurking for them, crouching upon their trail and thirsting for their blood! That first lying circular, that smooth-tongued slippery agent! That trap of the extra payments, the interest, and all the other charges that they had not the means to pay, and would never have attempted to pay! And then all the tricks of the packers, their masters, the tyrants who ruled them — the shutdowns and the scarcity of work, the irregular hours and the cruel speeding-up, the lowering of wages, the raising of prices! The mercilessness of nature about them, of heat and cold, rain and snow; the mercilessness of the city, of the country in which they lived, of its laws and customs that they did not understand! All of these things had worked together for the company that had marked them for its prey and was waiting for its chance. And now, with this last hideous injustice, its time had come, and it had turned them out bag and baggage, and taken their house and sold it again! And they could do nothing, they were tied hand and foot — the law was against them, the whole machinery of society was at their oppressors' command! If Jurgis so much as raised a hand against them, back he would go into that wild-beast pen from which he had just escaped!