He was, in a manner of speaking, useless. He could tend the furnace and help around the house-scour the bath-tub and clean windows-but for a powerful man these were trivial chores. The trouble with him, as I soon discovered, was complete and simple. He was blind.
I was sorry for him. It was bad enough to be blind, but it was terrible to be blind and at the mercy of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Angier. Mrs. Angier ran the rooming-house. She was a grenadier of a woman, very tall and very bony, with a virile voice and no touch of femininity except false curls. She wore rusty black, with long skirts, and a tasseled shawl. Her smile was as forced as her curls. She hated her rooming-house and every one in it. Her one desire, insane but relentless, was to save enough money out of her establishment to escape from it. To that end she plugged the gaps in the bathroom, doled out the towels, scrimped on the furnace, scrooged on the attendance. And her chief sacrifice on the altar of her economy was Samuel Earp, her brother-in-law. Since he was blind and useless, he was dependent on her. When she called, he literally ran to her, crying, "Coming, coming!" He might be out on the window-sill, risking his poor neck to polish the windows that he would never see, but, "Do I hear my sister calling me? Might I-would you be so good-ah, you are very kind. Coming, Adelaide, just one moment...." and he would paddle down stairs. She treated him like dirt. Sometimes one would arrive during an interview between them. The spare, gimlet-eyed Mrs. Angier would somehow manage to compel Samuel to cringe in every limb. He was a burly man with a thick beard, iron-gray, and his sightless eyes were hidden behind solemn and imposing steel-rimmed spectacles. Usually, with head lifted and with his voice booming heartily, he was a cheerful, honest figure. I liked Samuel Earp, though he was a most platitudinous Englishman. But when Mrs. Angier tongue-lashed him, for some stupidity like spilling a water-bucket or leaving a duster on the stairs or forgetting to empty a waste-basket, he became infantile, tearful, and limp. Her lecturing always changed to a sugared greeting as one was recognized. "Good e-e-evening, isn't it a pleasant e-e-evening?" But the only value in speaking to Mrs. Angier was that it permitted Samuel somehow to shamble away to the limbo of the basement.
Of course I wanted to know how, he became blind. Luckily, as Mrs. Angier had prosperous relatives in another part of Chicago, she sometimes could be counted on to be absent, and on those occasions or when she went to church, Samuel haunted my room. He was unhappy unless he was at work, and he managed to keep tinkering at something, but I really believe he liked to chatter to me: and he was more than anxious to tell me how his tragedy had befallen him.
"Oh, dear, yes," he said to me, "it happened during the strike. They hit me on the head, and left me unconscious. And I have never seen since, not one thing."
"Who hit you, Samuel?"
"Who hit me? The blackguards who were out on strike, sir. They nearly killed me with a piece of lead pipe. Oh, dear, yes."
It seemed an unspeakable outrage to me, but in Samuel there was nothing but a kind of healthy indignation. He was not bitter. He never raised his voice above its easy reminiscent pitch.
"But what did you do to them? Why did the strikers attack you? What strike was it?"
"I did nothing at all to them. But, you see, my horse slipped and when I was helpless on the ground with my hip smashed, one of them knocked me out. It was right up on the sidewalk. I had gone after them up on the sidewalk, and I suppose the flags were so slippery that the horse came down."
"But what were you doing on a horse?" I asked in despair.
"I was a volunteer policeman. These scoundrels were led by Debs, and we were out to see that there was law and order in Chicago."
"Oh, the Pullman strike. Were you railroading then?"
"Railroading? No, sir, I was in the wholesale dry-goods business. We had just started in in a small way. I was married only two years, to Adelaide's younger sister. Ah, my accident brought on more trouble than she could stand. She was very different from Adelaide, quite dainty and lively, if you follow me. We were living at that time on Cottage Grove Avenue, on the south side. I was building up the importing end of the business, and then this thing came, and everything went to smash. They gave me no compensation whatsoever, to make the thing worse."
"But, Samuel, how did you come to be out against the strikers?"
"And why shouldn't I be out, I'd like to know!" Samuel straightened up from rubbing a chair, and pointed his rag at my voice. "These scoundrels had nothing against Mr. Pullman. He treated them like a prince. But they took the bit in their teeth, and once they break loose where are we? The President didn't get shut of them till he sent in the troops. But I've always contended that if we business men had taken the matter in hand ourselves and nipped the trouble in the bud, we'd have had no such lawlessness to deal with in the end. It is always the same. The business men are the backbone of the community, but they don't recognize their responsibility! Take the sword to those bullies and blackguards; that's what I say!"
The old man lifted both fists like a dauntless Samson, and fixed me with his sightless eyes. He had paid hellishly for living up to his convictions, and here they seemed absolutely unshaken.
"That's all right, too, Samuel," I said, feebly enough, "but how do you feel now? Nobody compensated you for being laid out in that big strike, and your business was ruined, and here you are emptying the waste-basket. How about that? I think it's fierce that you got injured, but those men in the Pullman strike weren't out to break up society. They were fighting for their rights, that's all. Don't you think so now?"
"No, sir. The solid class of the community must be depended upon to preserve law and order. I think that it was the duty of the business men of Chicago to put down ruffianism in that strike and to smite whenever it raised its head. Smite it hip and thigh, as the saying is. Oh, no. Young men have fine notions about these things, ha, ha! You'll excuse me, won't you, but you can't allow violence and disorder to run riot and then talk of men's 'rights' as an excuse. Ah, but it was a great misfortune for me, I confess. It was the end of all my hopes. The doctors thought at first that the sight might be restored, but I have never seen a glimmer of light since. But we mustn't repine, must we? That'd never do."
"Samuel!" Mrs. Angier's sharp voice pierced the room.
"Good gracious, back so soon. You'll excuse me, I'm sure.... Coming, Adelaide, coming!"
He groped for his bucket, with its seedy sponge all but submerged in the dirty water. The water splashed a little as he hurriedly made for the door.
"Oh, dear," he muttered, "Adelaide won't like that!"