To get up and go away was to give up, to acknowledge defeat, to leave the strange family in possession; and Jurgis might have sat shivering in the rain for hours before he could do that, had it not been for the thought of his family. It might be that he had worse things yet to learn — and so he got to his feet and started away, walking on, wearily, half-dazed.
To Aniele's house, in back of the yards, was a good two miles; the distance had never seemed longer to Jurgis, and when he saw the familiar dingy-gray shanty his heart was beating fast. He ran up the steps and began to hammer upon the door.
The old woman herself came to open it. She had shrunk all up with her rheumatism since Jurgis had seen her last, and her yellow parchment face stared up at him from a little above the level of the doorknob. She gave a start when she saw him. "Is Ona here?" he cried, breathlessly.
"Yes," was the answer, "she's here."
"How — " Jurgis began, and then stopped short, clutching convulsively at the side of the door. From somewhere within the house had come a sudden cry, a wild, horrible scream of anguish. And the voice was Ona's. For a moment Jurgis stood half-paralyzed with fright; then he bounded past the old woman and into the room.
It was Aniele's kitchen, and huddled round the stove were half a dozen women, pale and frightened. One of them started to her feet as Jurgis entered; she was haggard and frightfully thin, with one arm tied up in bandages — he hardly realized that it was Marija. He looked first for Ona; then, not seeing her, he stared at the women, expecting them to speak. But they sat dumb, gazing back at him, panic-stricken; and a second later came another piercing scream.
It was from the rear of the house, and upstairs. Jurgis bounded to a door of the room and flung it open; there was a ladder leading through a trap door to the garret, and he was at the foot of it when suddenly he heard a voice behind him, and saw Marija at his heels. She seized him by the sleeve with her good hand, panting wildly, "No, no, Jurgis! Stop!"
"What do you mean?" he gasped.
"You mustn't go up," she cried.
Jurgis was half-crazed with bewilderment and fright. "What's the matter?" he shouted. "What is it?"
Marija clung to him tightly; he could hear Ona sobbing and moaning above, and he fought to get away and climb up, without waiting for her reply. "No, no," she rushed on. "Jurgis! You mustn't go up! It's — it's the child!"
"The child?" he echoed in perplexity. "Antanas?"
Marija answered him, in a whisper: "The new one!"
And then Jurgis went limp, and caught himself on the ladder. He stared at her as if she were a ghost. "The new one!" he gasped. "But it isn't time," he added, wildly.
Marija nodded. "I know," she said; "but it's come."
And then again came Ona's scream, smiting him like a blow in the face, making him wince and turn white. Her voice died away into a wail — then he heard her sobbing again, "My God — let me die, let me die!" And Marija hung her arms about him, crying: "Come out! Come away!"
She dragged him back into the kitchen, half carrying him, for he had gone all to pieces. It was as if the pillars of his soul had fallen in — he was blasted with horror. In the room he sank into a chair, trembling like a leaf, Marija still holding him, and the women staring at him in dumb, helpless fright.
And then again Ona cried out; he could hear it nearly as plainly here, and he staggered to his feet. "How long has this been going on?" he panted.
"Not very long," Marija answered, and then, at a signal from Aniele, she rushed on: "You go away, Jurgis you can't help — go away and come back later. It's all right — it's — "
"Who's with her?" Jurgis demanded; and then, seeing Marija hesitating, he cried again, "Who's with her?"
"She's — she's all right," she answered. "Elzbieta's with her."
"But the doctor!" he panted. "Some one who knows!"
He seized Marija by the arm; she trembled, and her voice sank beneath a whisper as she replied, "We — we have no money." Then, frightened at the look on his face, she exclaimed: "It's all right, Jurgis! You don't understand — go away — go away! Ah, if you only had waited!"
Above her protests Jurgis heard Ona again; he was almost out of his mind. It was all new to him, raw and horrible — it had fallen upon him like a lightning stroke. When little Antanas was born he had been at work, and had known nothing about it until it was over; and now he was not to be controlled. The frightened women were at their wits' end; one after another they tried to reason with him, to make him understand that this was the lot of woman. In the end they half drove him out into the rain, where he began to pace up and down, bareheaded and frantic. Because he could hear Ona from the street, he would first go away to escape the sounds, and then come back because he could not help it. At the end of a quarter of an hour he rushed up the steps again, and for fear that he would break in the door they had to open it and let him in.
There was no arguing with him. They could not tell him that all was going well — how could they know, he cried — why, she was dying, she was being torn to pieces! Listen to her — listen! Why, it was monstrous — it could not be allowed — there must be some help for it! Had they tried to get a doctor? They might pay him afterward — they could promise —
"We couldn't promise, Jurgis," protested Marija. "We had no money — we have scarcely been able to keep alive."
"But I can work," Jurgis exclaimed. "I can earn money!"
"Yes," she answered — "but we thought you were in jail. How could we know when you would return? They will not work for nothing."
Marija went on to tell how she had tried to find a midwife, and how they had demanded ten, fifteen, even twenty-five dollars, and that in cash. "And I had only a quarter," she said. "I have spent every cent of my money — all that I had in the bank; and I owe the doctor who has been coming to see me, and he has stopped because he thinks I don't mean to pay him. And we owe Aniele for two weeks' rent, and she is nearly starving, and is afraid of being turned out. We have been borrowing and begging to keep alive, and there is nothing more we can do — "
"And the children?" cried Jurgis.
"The children have not been home for three days, the weather has been so bad. They could not know what is happening — it came suddenly, two months before we expected it."
Jurgis was standing by the table, and he caught himself with his hand; his head sank and his arms shook — it looked as if he were going to collapse. Then suddenly Aniele got up and came hobbling toward him, fumbling in her skirt pocket. She drew out a dirty rag, in one corner of which she had something tied.
"Here, Jurgis!" she said, "I have some money. Palauk! See!"
She unwrapped it and counted it out — thirty-four cents. "You go, now," she said, "and try and get somebody yourself. And maybe the rest can help — give him some money, you; he will pay you back some day, and it will do him good to have something to think about, even if he doesn't succeed. When he comes back, maybe it will be over."
And so the other women turned out the contents of their pocketbooks; most of them had only pennies and nickels, but they gave him all. Mrs. Olszewski, who lived next door, and had a husband who was a skilled cattle butcher, but a drinking man, gave nearly half a dollar, enough to raise the whole sum to a dollar and a quarter. Then Jurgis thrust it into his pocket, still holding it tightly in his fist, and started away at a run.