For instance, there was a night during this cold spell. He had begged all day, for his very life, and found not a soul to heed him, until toward evening he saw an old lady getting off a streetcar and helped her down with her umbrellas and bundles and then told her his "hard-luck story," and after answering all her suspicious questions satisfactorily, was taken to a restaurant and saw a quarter paid down for a meal. And so he had soup and bread, and boiled beef and potatoes and beans, and pie and coffee, and came out with his skin stuffed tight as a football. And then, through the rain and the darkness, far down the street he saw red lights flaring and heard the thumping of a bass drum; and his heart gave a leap, and he made for the place on the run — knowing without the asking that it meant a political meeting.
The campaign had so far been characterized by what the newspapers termed "apathy." For some reason the people refused to get excited over the struggle, and it was almost impossible to get them to come to meetings, or to make any noise when they did come. Those which had been held in Chicago so far had proven most dismal failures, and tonight, the speaker being no less a personage than a candidate for the vice-presidency of the nation, the political managers had been trembling with anxiety. But a merciful providence had sent this storm of cold rain — and now all it was necessary to do was to set off a few fireworks, and thump awhile on a drum, and all the homeless wretches from a mile around would pour in and fill the hall! And then on the morrow the newspapers would have a chance to report the tremendous ovation, and to add that it had been no "silk-stocking" audience, either, proving clearly that the high tariff sentiments of the distinguished candidate were pleasing to the wage-earners of the nation.
So Jurgis found himself in a large hall, elaborately decorated with flags and bunting; and after the chairman had made his little speech, and the orator of the evening rose up, amid an uproar from the band — only fancy the emotions of Jurgis upon making the discovery that the personage was none other than the famous and eloquent Senator Spareshanks, who had addressed the "Doyle Republican Association" at the stockyards, and helped to elect Mike Scully's tenpin setter to the Chicago Board of Aldermen!
In truth, the sight of the senator almost brought the tears into Jurgis's eyes. What agony it was to him to look back upon those golden hours, when he, too, had a place beneath the shadow of the plum tree! When he, too, had been of the elect, through whom the country is governed — when he had had a bung in the campaign barrel for his own! And this was another election in which the Republicans had all the money; and but for that one hideous accident he might have had a share of it, instead of being where he was!
The eloquent senator was explaining the system of protection; an ingenious device whereby the workingman permitted the manufacturer to charge him higher prices, in order that he might receive higher wages; thus taking his money out of his pocket with one hand, and putting a part of it back with the other. To the senator this unique arrangement had somehow become identified with the higher verities of the universe. It was because of it that Columbia was the gem of the ocean; and all her future triumphs, her power and good repute among the nations, depended upon the zeal and fidelity with which each citizen held up the hands of those who were toiling to maintain it. The name of this heroic company was "the Grand Old Party" —
And here the band began to play, and Jurgis sat up with a violent start. Singular as it may seem, Jurgis was making a desperate effort to understand what the senator was saying — to comprehend the extent of American prosperity, the enormous expansion of American commerce, and the Republic's future in the Pacific and in South America, and wherever else the oppressed were groaning. The reason for it was that he wanted to keep awake. He knew that if he allowed himself to fall asleep he would begin to snore loudly; and so he must listen — he must be interested! But he had eaten such a big dinner, and he was so exhausted, and the hall was so warm, and his seat was so comfortable! The senator's gaunt form began to grow dim and hazy, to tower before him and dance about, with figures of exports and imports. Once his neighbor gave him a savage poke in the ribs, and he sat up with a start and tried to look innocent; but then he was at it again, and men began to stare at him with annoyance, and to call out in vexation. Finally one of them called a policeman, who came and grabbed Jurgis by the collar, and jerked him to his feet, bewildered and terrified. Some of the audience turned to see the commotion, and Senator Spareshanks faltered in his speech; but a voice shouted cheerily: "We're just firing a bum! Go ahead, old sport!" And so the crowd roared, and the senator smiled genially, and went on; and in a few seconds poor Jurgis found himself landed out in the rain, with a kick and a string of curses.
He got into the shelter of a doorway and took stock of himself. He was not hurt, and he was not arrested — more than he had any right to expect. He swore at himself and his luck for a while, and then turned his thoughts to practical matters. He had no money, and no place to sleep; he must begin begging again.
He went out, hunching his shoulders together and shivering at the touch of the icy rain. Coming down the street toward him was a lady, well dressed, and protected by an umbrella; and he turned and walked beside her. "Please, ma'am," he began, "could you lend me the price of a night's lodging? I'm a poor working-man — "
Then, suddenly, he stopped short. By the light of a street lamp he had caught sight of the lady's face. He knew her.
It was Alena Jasaityte, who had been the belle of his wedding feast! Alena Jasaityte, who had looked so beautiful, and danced with such a queenly air, with Juozas Raczius, the teamster! Jurgis had only seen her once or twice afterward, for Juozas had thrown her over for another girl, and Alena had gone away from Packingtown, no one knew where. And now he met her here!
She was as much surprised as he was. "Jurgis Rudkus!" she gasped. "And what in the world is the matter with you?"
"I — I've had hard luck," he stammered. "I'm out of work, and I've no home and no money. And you, Alena — are you married?"
"No," she answered, "I'm not married, but I've got a good place."
They stood staring at each other for a few moments longer. Finally Alena spoke again. "Jurgis," she said, "I'd help you if I could, upon my word I would, but it happens that I've come out without my purse, and I honestly haven't a penny with me: I can do something better for you, though — I can tell you how to get help. I can tell you where Marija is."
Jurgis gave a start. "Marija!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," said Alena; "and she'll help you. She's got a place, and she's doing well; she'll be glad to see you."
It was not much more than a year since Jurgis had left Packingtown, feeling like one escaped from jail; and it had been from Marija and Elzbieta that he was escaping. But now, at the mere mention of them, his whole being cried out with joy. He wanted to see them; he wanted to go home! They would help him — they would be kind to him. In a flash he had thought over the situation. He had a good excuse for running away — his grief at the death of his son; and also he had a good excuse for not returning — the fact that they had left Packingtown. "All right," he said, "I'll go."