Restless, shifting, fugacious as time itself is a certain vast bulk
of the population of the red brick district of the lower West Side.
Homeless, they have a hundred homes. They flit from furnished room
to furnished room, transients forever--transients in abode,
transients in heart and mind. They sing "Home, Sweet Home" in
ragtime; they carry their ~lares et penates~ in a bandbox; their vine
is entwined about a picture hat; a rubber plant is their fig tree.
Hence the houses of this district, having had a thousand dwellers,
should have a thousand tales to tell, mostly dull ones, no doubt; but
it would be strange if there could not be found a ghost or two in the
wake of all these vagrant guests.
One evening after dark a young man prowled among these crumbling red
mansions, ringing their bells. At the twelfth he rested his lean
hand-baggage upon the step and wiped the dust from his hatband and
forehead. The bell sounded faint and far away in some remote, hollow
To the door of this, the twelfth house whose bell he had rung, came
a housekeeper who made him think of an unwholesome, surfeited worm
that had eaten its nut to a hollow shell and now sought to fill the
vacancy with edible lodgers.
He asked if there was a room to let.
"Come in," said the housekeeper. Her voice came from her throat; her
throat seemed lined with fur. "I have the third floor back, vacant
since a week back. Should you wish to look at it?"
The young man followed her up the stairs. A faint light from no
particular source mitigated the shadows of the halls. They trod
noiselessly upon a stair carpet that its own loom would have
forsworn. It seemed to have become vegetable; to have degenerated in
that rank, sunless air to lush lichen or spreading moss that grew in
patches to the staircase and was viscid under the foot like organic
matter. At each turn of the stairs were vacant niches in the wall.
Perhaps plants had once been set within them. If so they had died in
that foul and tainted air. It may be that statues of the saints had
stood there, but it was not difficult to conceive that imps and
devils had dragged them forth in the darkness and down to the unholy
depths of some furnished pit below.
"This is the room," said the housekeeper, from her furry throat.
"It's a nice room. It ain't often vacant. I had some most elegant
people in it last summer--no trouble at all, and paid in advance to
the minute. The water's at the end of the hall. Sprowls and Mooney
kept it three months. They done a vaudeville sketch. Miss B'retta
Sprowls--you may have heard of her--Oh, that was just the stage names
--right there over the dresser is where the marriage certificate
hung, framed. The gas is here, and you see there is plenty of closet
room. It's a room everybody likes. It never stays idle long."
"Do you have many theatrical people rooming here?" asked the young
"They comes and goes. A good proportion of my lodgers is connected
with the theatres. Yes, sir, this is the theatrical district. Actor
people never stays long anywhere. I get my share. Yes, they comes
and they goes."
He engaged the room, paying for a week in advance. He was tired, he
said, and would take possession at once. He counted out the money.
The room had been made ready, she said, even to towels and water. As
the housekeeper moved away he put, for the thousandth time, the
question that he carried at the end of his tongue.
"A young girl--Miss Vashner--Miss Eloise Vashner--do you remember
such a one among your lodgers? She would be singing on the stage,
most likely. A fair girl, of medium height and slender, with
reddish, gold hair and a dark mole near her left eyebrow."
"No, I don't remember the name. Them stage people has names they
change as often as their rooms. They comes and they goes. No, I
don't call that one to mind."
No. Always no. Five months of ceaseless interrogation and the
inevitable negative. So much time spent by day in questioning
managers, agents, schools and choruses; by night among the audiences
of theatres from all-star casts down to music halls so low that he
dreaded to find what he most hoped for. He who had loved her best
had tried to find her. He was sure that since her disappearance from
home this great, water-girt city held her somewhere, but it was like
a monstrous quicksand, shifting its particles constantly, with no
foundation, its upper granules of to-day buried to-morrow in ooze and
The furnished room received its latest guest with a first glow of
pseudo-hospitality, a hectic, haggard, perfunctory welcome like the
specious smile of a demirep. The sophistical comfort came in
reflected gleams from the decayed furniture, the raggcd brocade
upholstery of a couch and two chairs, a footwide cheap pier glass
between the two windows, from one or two gilt picture frames and a
brass bedstead in a corner.
The guest reclined, inert, upon a chair, while the room, confused in
speech as though it were an apartment in Babel, tried to discourse to
him of its divers tenantry.
A polychromatic rug like some brilliant-flowered rectangular,
tropical islet lay surrounded by a billowy sea of soiled matting.
Upon the gay-papered wall were those pictures that pursue the
homeless one from house to house--The Huguenot Lovers, The First
Quarrel, The Wedding Breakfast, Psyche at the Fountain. The mantel's
chastely severe outline was ingloriously veiled behind some pert
drapery drawn rakishly askew like the sashes of the Amazonian ballet.
Upon it was some desolate flotsam cast aside by the room's marooned
when a lucky sail had borne them to a fresh port--a trifling vase or
two, pictures of actresses, a medicine bottle, some stray cards out
of a deck.
One by one, as the characters of a cryptograph become explicit, the
little signs left by the furnished room's procession of guests
developed a significance. The threadbare space in the rug in front
of the dresser told that lovely woman had marched in the throng.
Tiny finger prints on the wall spoke of little prisoners trying to
feel their way to sun and air. A splattered stain, raying like the
shadow of a bursting bomb, witnessed where a hurled glass or bottle
had splintered with its contents against the wall. Across the pier
glass had been scrawled with a diamond in staggering letters the name
"Marie." It seemed that the succession of dwellers in the furnished
room had turned in fury--perhaps tempted beyond forbearance by its
garish coldness--and wreaked upon it their passions. The furniture
was chipped and bruised; the couch, distorted by bursting springs,
seemed a horrible monster that had been slain during the stress of
some grotesque convulsion. Some more potent upheaval had cloven a
great slice from the marble mantel. Each plank in the floor owned
its particular cant and shriek as from a separate and individual
agony. It seemed incredible that all this malice and injury had been
wrought upon the room by those who had called it for a time their
home; and yet it may have been the cheated home instinct surviving
blindly, the resentful rage at false household gods that had kindled
their wrath. A hut that is our own we can sweep and adorn and
The young tenant in the chair allowed these thoughts to file, soft-
shod, through his mind, while there drifted into the room furnished
sounds and furnished scents. He heard in one room a tittering and
incontinent, slack laughter; in others the monologue of a scold, the
rattling of dice, a lullaby, and one crying dully; above him a banjo
tinkled with spirit. Doors banged somewhere; the elevated trains
roared intermittently; a cat yowled miserably upon a back fence. And
he breathed the breath of the house--a dank savour rather than a smell
--a cold, musty effluvium as from underground vaults mingled with the
reeking exhalations of linoleum and mildewed and rotten woodwork.
Then, suddenly, as he rested there, the room was filled with the
strong, sweet odour of mignonette. It came as upon a single buffet
of wind with such sureness and fragrance and emphasis that it almost
seemed a living visitant. And the man cried aloud: "What, dear?" as
if he had been called, and sprang up and faced about. The rich odour
clung to him and wrapped him around. He reached out his arms for it,
all his senses for the time confused and commingled. How could one
be peremptorily called by an odour? Surely it must have been a
sound. But, was it not the sound that had touched, that had caressed
"She has been in this room," he cried, and he sprang to wrest from it
a token, for he knew he would recognize the smallest thing that had
belonged to her or that she had touched. This enveloping scent of
mignonette, the odour that she had loved and made her own--whence
The room had been but carelessly set in order. Scattered upon the
flimsy dresser scarf were half a dozen hairpins--those discreet,
indistinguishable friends of womankind, feminine of gender, infinite
of mood and uncommunicative of tense. These he ignored, conscious of
their triumphant lack of identity. Ransacking the drawers of the
dresser he came upon a discarded, tiny, ragged handkerchief. He
pressed it to his face. It was racy and insolent with heliotrope; he
hurled it to the floor. In another drawer he found odd buttons, a
theatre programme, a pawnbroker's card, two lost marshmallows, a book
on the divination of dreams. In the last was a woman's black satin
hair bow, which halted him, poised between ice and fire. But the
black satin hairbow also is femininity's demure, impersonal, common
ornament, and tells no tales.
And then he traversed the room like a hound on the scent, skimming
the walls, considering the corners of the bulging matting on his
hands and knees, rummaging mantel and tables, the curtains and
hangngs, the drunken cabinet in the corner, for a visible sign,
unable to perceive that she was there beside, around, against,
within, above him, clinging to him, wooing him, calling him so
poignantly through the finer senses that even his grosser ones became
cognisant of the call. Once again he answered loudly: "Yes, dear!"
and turned, wild-eyed, to gaze on vacancy, for he could not yet
discern form and colour and love and outstretched arms in the odour
of mnignonette. Oh, God! whence that odour, and since when have
odours had a voice to call? Thus he groped.
He burrowed in crevices and corners, and found corks and cigarettes.
These he passed in passive contempt. But once he found in a fold of
the matting a half-smoked cigar, and this he ground beneath his heel
with a green and trenchant oath. He sifted the room from end to end.
He found dreary and ignoble small records of many a peripatetic
tenant; but of her whom he sought, and who may have lodged there, and
whose spirit seemed to hover there, he found no trace.
And then he thought of the housekeeper.
He ran from the haunted room downstairs and to a door that showed a
crack of light. She came out to his knock. He smothered his
excitement as best he could.
"Will you tell me, madam," he besought her, "who occupied the room I
have before I came?"
"Yes, sir. I can tell you again. 'Twas Sprowls and Mooney, as I
said. Miss B'retta Sprowls it was in the theatres, but Missis Mooney
she was. My house is well known for respectability. The marriage
certificate hung, framed, on a nail over--"
"What kind of a lady was Miss Sprowls--in looks, I mean?"
Why, black-haired, sir, short, and stout, with a comical face. They
left a week ago Tuesday."
"And before they occupied it?"
"Why, there was a single gentleman connected with the draying
business. He left owing me a week. Before him was Missis Crowder
and her two children, that stayed four months; and back of them was
old Mr. Doyle, whose sons paid for him. He kept the room six months.
That goes back a year, sir, and further I do not remember."
He thanked her and crept back to his room. The room was dead. The
essence that had vivified it was gone. The perfume of mignonette had
departed. In its place was the old, stale odour of mouldy house
furniture, of atmosphere in storage.
The ebbing of his hope drained his faith. He sat staring at the
yellow, singing gaslight. Soon he walked to the bed and began to
tear the sheets into strips. With the blade of his knife he drove
them tightly into every crevice around windows and door. When all
was snug and taut he turned out the light, turned the gas full on
again and laid himself gratefully upon the bed.
* * * * * * *
It was Mrs. McCool's night to go with the can for beer. So she
fetched it and sat with Mrs. Purdy in one of those subterranean
retreats where house-keepers foregather and the worm dieth seldom.
"I rented out my third floor, back, this evening," said Mrs. Purdy,
across a fine circle of foam. "A young man took it. He went up to
bed two hours ago."
"Now, did ye, Mrs. Purdy, ma'am?" said Mrs. McCool, with intense
admiration. "You do be a wonder for rentin' rooms of that kind. And
did ye tell him, then?" she concluded in a husky whisper, laden with
"Rooms," said Mrs. Purdy, in her furriest tones, "are furnished for
to rent. I did not tell him, Mrs. McCool."
"'Tis right ye are, ma'am; 'tis by renting rooms we kape alive. Ye
have the rale sense for business, ma'am. There be many people will
rayjict the rentin' of a room if they be tould a suicide has been
after dyin' in the bed of it."
"As you say, we has our living to be making," remarked Mrs. Purdy.
"Yis, ma'am; 'tis true. 'Tis just one wake ago this day I helped ye
lay out the third floor, back. A pretty slip of a colleen she was to
be killin' herself wid the gas--a swate little face she had, Mrs.
"She'd a-been called handsome, as you say," said Mrs. Purdy,
assenting but critical, "but for that mole she had a-growin' by her
left eyebrow. Do fill up your glass again, Mrs. McCool."