The Besetment Of Kurt Lieders
From: Stories Of A Western Town
A SILVER rime glistened all down the street.
There was a drabble of dead leaves on the sidewalk which was of wood,
and on the roadway which was of macadam and stiff mud. The wind blew
sharply, for it was a December day and only six in the morning. Nor were
the houses high enough to furnish any independent bulwark; they were
low, wooden dwellings, the tallest a bare two stories in height, the
majority only one story. But they were in good painting and repair,
and most of them had a homely gayety of geraniums or bouvardias in
the windows. The house on the corner was the tall house. It occupied a
larger yard than its neighbors; and there were lace curtains tied with
blue ribbons for the windows in the right hand front room. The door of
this house swung back with a crash, and a woman darted out. She ran at
the top of her speed to the little yellow house farther down the street.
Her blue calico gown clung about her stout figure and fluttered behind
her, revealing her blue woollen stockings and felt slippers. Her gray
head was bare. As she ran tears rolled down her cheeks and she wrung her
"Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh, lieber Herr Je!" One near would have heard her sob, in
too distracted agitation to heed the motorneer of the passing street-car
who stared after her at the risk of his car, or the tousled heads behind
a few curtains. She did not stop until she almost fell against the door
of the yellow house. Her frantic knocking was answered by a young woman
in a light and artless costume of a quilted petticoat and a red flannel
"Oh, gracious goodness! Mrs. Lieders!" cried she.
Thekla Lieders rather staggered than walked into the room and fell back
on the black haircloth sofa.
"There, there, there," said the young woman while she patted the broad
shoulders heaving between sobs and short breath, "what is it? The house
"Oh, no, oh, Mrs. Olsen, he has done it again!" She wailed in sobs, like
"Done it? Done what?" exclaimed Mrs. Olsen, then her face paled. "Oh, my
gracious, you DON'T mean he's killed himself------"
"Yes, he's killed himself, again."
"And he's dead?" asked the other in an awed tone.
Mrs. Lieders gulped down her tears. "Oh, not so bad as that, I cut him
down, he was up in the garret and I sus--suspected him and I run up
and--oh, he was there, a choking, and he was so mad! He swore at me
and--he kicked me when I--I says: 'Kurt, what are you doing of? Hold
on till I git a knife,' I says--for his hands was just dangling at his
side; and he says nottings cause he couldn't, he was most gone, and I
knowed I wouldn't have time to git no knife but I saw it was a rope was
pretty bad worn and so--so I just run and jumped and ketched it in my
hands, and being I'm so fleshy it couldn't stand no more and it broke!
And, oh! he--he kicked me when I was try to come near to git the rope
off his neck; and so soon like he could git his breath he swore at
"And you a helping of him! Just listen to that!" cried the hearer
"So I come here for to git you and Mr. Olsen to help me git him down
stairs, 'cause he is too heavy for me to lift, and he is so mad he won't
walk down himself."
"Yes, yes, of course. I'll call Carl. Carl! dost thou hear? come! But
did you dare to leave him Mrs. Lieders?" Part of the time she spoke
in English, part of the time in her own tongue, gliding from one to
another, and neither party observing the transition.
Mrs. Lieders wiped her eyes, saying: "Oh, yes, Danke schon, I aint
afraid 'cause I tied him with the rope, righd good, so he don't got no
chance to move. He was make faces at me all the time I tied him." At the
remembrance, the tears welled anew.
Mrs. Olsen, a little bright tinted woman with a nose too small for her
big blue eyes and chubby cheeks, quivered with indignant sympathy.
"Well, I did nefer hear of sooch a mean acting man!" seemed to her the
most natural expression; but the wife fired, at once.
"No, he is not a mean man," she cried, "no, Freda Olsen, he is not a
mean man at all! There aint nowhere a better man than my man; and Carl
Olsen, he knows that. Kurt, he always buys a whole ham and a whole
barrel of flour, and never less than a dollar of sugar at a time! And he
never gits drunk nor he never gives me any bad talk. It was only he got
this wanting to kill himself on him, sometimes."
"Well, I guess I'll go put on my things," said Mrs. Olsen, wisely
declining to defend her position. "You set right still and warm
yourself, and we'll be back in a minute."
Indeed, it was hardly more than that time before both Carl Olsen, who
worked in the same furniture factory as Kurt Lieders, and was a comely
and after-witted giant, appeared with Mrs. Olsen ready for the street.
He nodded at Mrs. Lieders and made a gurgling noise in his throat,
expected to convey sympathy. Then, he coughed and said that he was
ready, and they started.
Feeling further expression demanded, Mrs. Olsen asked: "How many times
has he done it, Mrs. Lieders?"
Mrs. Lieders was trotting along, her anxious eyes on the house in the
distance, especially on the garret windows. "Three times," she answered,
not removing her eyes; "onct he tooked Rough on Rats and I found it out
and I put some apple butter in the place of it, and he kept wondering
and wondering how he didn't feel notings, and after awhile I got him off
the notion, that time. He wasn't mad at me; he just said: 'Well, I do it
some other time. You see!' but he promised to wait till I got the spring
house cleaning over, so he could shake the carpets for me; and by and
by he got feeling better. He was mad at the boss and that made him
feel bad. The next time it was the same, that time he jumped into the
"Yes, I know," said Olsen, with a half grin, "I pulled him out."
"It was the razor he wanted," the wife continued, "and when he come home
and says he was going to leave the shop and he aint never going back
there, and gets out his razor and sharps it, I knowed what that meant
and I told him I got to have some bluing and wouldn't he go and get it?
and he says, 'You won't git another husband run so free on your errands,
Thekla,' and I says I don't want none; and when he was gone I hid the
razor and he couldn't find it, but that didn't mad him, he didn't say
notings; and when I went to git the supper he walked out in the yard and
jumped into the cistern, and I heard the splash and looked in and there
he was trying to git his head under, and I called, 'For the Lord's sake,
papa! For the Lord's sake!' just like that. And I fished for him with
the pole that stood there and he was sorry and caught hold of it and
give in, and I rested the pole agin the side cause I wasn't strong
enough to h'ist him out; and he held on whilest I run for help----"
"And I got the ladder and he clum out," said the giant with another grin
of recollection, "he was awful wet!"
"That was a month ago," said the wife, solemnly.
"He sharped the razor onct," said Mrs. Lieders, "but he said it was
for to shave him, and I got him to promise to let the barber shave him
sometime, instead. Here, Mrs. Olsen, you go righd in, the door aint
By this time they were at the house door. They passed in and ascended
the stairs to the second story, then climbed a narrow, ladder-like
flight to the garret. Involuntarily they had paused to listen at the
foot of the stairs, but it was very quiet, not a sound of movement, not
so much as the sigh of a man breathing. The wife turned pale and put
both her shaking hands on her heart.
"Guess he's trying to scare us by keeping quiet!" said Olsen,
cheerfully, and he stumbled up the stairs, in advance. "Thunder!" he
exclaimed, on the last stair, "well, we aint any too quick."
In fact Carl had nearly fallen over the master of the house, that
enterprising self-destroyer having contrived, pinioned as he was, to
roll over to the very brink of the stair well, with the plain intent to
break his neck by plunging headlong.
In the dim light all that they could see was a small, old man whose
white hair was strung in wisps over his purple face, whose deep set eyes
glared like the eyes of a rat in a trap, and whose very elbows and knees
expressed in their cramps the fury of an outraged soul. When he saw the
new-comers he shut his eyes and his jaws.
"Well, Mr. Lieders," said Olsen, mildly, "I guess you better git
down-stairs. Kin I help you up?"
"No," said Lieders.
"Will I give you an arm to lean on?"
"Won't you go at all, Mr. Lieders?"
Olsen shook his head. "I hate to trouble you, Mr. Lieders," said he in
his slow, undecided tones, "please excuse me," with which he gathered up
the little man into his strong arms and slung him over his shoulders, as
easily as he would sling a sack of meal. It was a vent for Mrs. Olsen's
bubbling indignation to make a dive for Lieders's heels and hold them,
while Carl backed down-stairs. But Lieders did not make the least
resistance. He allowed them to carry him into the room indicated by
his wife, and to lay him bound on the plump feather bed. It was not his
bedroom but the sacred "spare room," and the bed was part of its luxury.
Thekla ran in, first, to remove the embroidered pillow shams and the
dazzling, silken "crazy quilt" that was her choicest possession.
Safely in the bed, Lieders opened his eyes and looked from one face to
the other, his lip curling. "You can't keep me this way all the time. I
can do it in spite of you," said he.
"Well, I think you had ought to be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Lieders!"
Mrs. Olsen burst out, in a tremble between wrath and exertion, shaking
her little, plump fist at him.
But the placid Carl only nodded, as in sympathy, saying, "Well, I am
sorry you feel so bad, Mr. Lieders. I guess we got to go now."
Mrs. Olsen looked as if she would have liked to exhort Lieders further;
but she shrugged her shoulders and followed her husband in silence.
"I wished you'd stay to breakfast, now you're here," Thekla urged out of
her imperious hospitality; had Kurt been lying there dead, the next meal
must have been offered, just the same. "I know, you aint got time to git
Mr. Olsen his breakfast, Freda, before he has got to go to the shops,
and my tea-kettle is boiling now, and the coffee'll be ready--I GUESS
you had better stay."
But Mrs. Olsen seconded her husband's denial, and there was nothing
left Thekla but to see them to the door. No sooner did she return than
Lieders spoke. "Aint you going to take off them ropes?" said he.
"Not till you promise you won't do it."
Silence. Thekla, brushing a few tears from her eyes, scrutinized the
ropes again, before she walked heavily out of the room. She turned the
key in the door.
Directly a savory steam floated through the hall and pierced the cracks
about the door; then Thekla's footsteps returned; they echoed over the
She had brought his breakfast, cooked with the best of her homely skill.
The pork chops that he liked had been fried, there was a napkin on the
tray, and the coffee was in the best gilt cup and saucer.
"Here's your breakfast, papa," said she, trying to smile.
"I don't want no breakfast," said he.
She waited, holding the tray, and wistfully eying him.
"Take it 'way," said he, "I won't touch it if you stand till doomsday,
lessen you untie me!"
"I'll untie your arm, papa, one arm; you kin eat that way."
"Not lessen you untie all of me, I won't touch a bite."
"You know why I won't untie you, papa."
"Starving will kill as dead as hanging," was Lieders's orphic response
Thekla sighed and went away, leaving the tray on the table. It may be
that she hoped the sight of food might stir his stomach to rebel against
his dogged will; if so she was disappointed; half an hour went by during
which the statue under the bedclothes remained without so much as a
Then the old woman returned. "Aint you awful cramped and stiff, papa?"
"Yes," said the statue.
"Will you promise not to do yourself a mischief, if I untie you?"
Thekla groaned, while the tears started to her red eyelids. "But you'll
git awful tired and it will hurt you if you don't get the ropes off,
"I know that!"
He closed his eyes again, to be the less hindered from dropping back
into his distempered musings. Thekla took a seat by his side and sat
silent as he. Slowly the natural pallor returned to the high forehead
and sharp features. They were delicate features and there was an air of
refinement, of thought, about Lieders's whole person, as different
as possible from the robust comeliness of his wife. With its keen
sensitive-ness and its undefined melancholy it was a dreamer's face. One
meets such faces, sometimes, in incongruous places and wonders what they
mean. In fact, Kurt Lieders, head cabinet maker in the furniture factory
of Lossing & Co., was an artist. He was, also, an incomparable artisan
and the most exacting foreman in the shops. Thirty years ago he had
first taken wages from the senior Lossing. He had watched a modest
industry climb up to a great business, nor was he all at sea in his own
estimate of his share in the firm's success. Lieders's workmanship had
an honesty, an infinite patience of detail, a daring skill of design
that came to be sought and commanded its own price. The Lossing "art
furniture" did not slander the name. No sculptor ever wrought his soul
into marble with a more unflinching conscience or a purer joy in his
work than this wood-carver dreaming over sideboards and bedsteads.
Unluckily, Lieders had the wrong side of the gift as well as the right;
was full of whims and crotchets, and as unpractical as the Christian
martyrs. He openly defied expense, and he would have no trifling with
the laws of art. To make after orders was an insult to Kurt. He made
what was best for the customer; if the latter had not the sense to see
it he was a fool and a pig, and some one else should work for him, not
Kurt Lieders, BEGEHR!
Young Lossing had learned the business practically. He was taught the
details by his father's best workman; and a mighty hard and strict
master the best workman proved! Lossing did not dream that the crabbed
old tyrant who rarely praised him, who made him go over, for the
twentieth time, any imperfect piece of work, who exacted all the artisan
virtues to the last inch, was secretly proud of him. Yet, in fact, the
thread of romance in Lieders's prosaic life was his idolatry of the
Lossing Manufacturing Co. It is hard to tell whether it was the Lossings
or that intangible quantity, the firm, the business, that he worshipped.
Worship he did, however, the one or the other, perhaps the both of them,
though in the peevish and erratic manner of the savage who sometimes
grovels to his idols and sometimes kicks them.
Nobody guessed what a blow it was to Kurt when, a year ago, the elder
Lossing had died. Even his wife did not connect his sullen melancholy
and his gibes at the younger generation, with the crape on Harry
Lossing's hat. He would not go to the funeral, but worked savagely, all
alone by himself, in the shop, the whole afternoon--breaking down at
last at the sight of a carved panel over which Lossing and he had once
disputed. The desolate loneliness of the old came to him when his old
master was gone. He loved the young man, but the old man was of his own
generation; he had "known how things ought to be and he could understand
without talking." Lieders began to be on the lookout for signs of waning
consideration, to watch his own eyes and hands, drearily wondering when
they would begin to play him false; at the same time because he was
unhappy he was ten times as exacting and peremptory and critical with
the younger workmen, and ten times as insolently independent with the
young master. Often enough, Lossing was exasperated to the point of
taking the old man at his word and telling him to go if he would, but
every time the chain of long habit, a real respect for such faithful
service, and a keen admiration for Kurt's matchless skill in his craft,
had held him back. He prided himself on keeping his word; for that
reason he was warier of using it. So he would compromise by giving the
domineering old fellow a "good, stiff rowing." Once, he coupled this
with a threat, if they could not get along decently they would better
part! Lieders had answered not a word; he had given Lossing a queer
glance and turned on his heel. He went home and bought some poison on
the way. "The old man is gone and the young feller don't want the old
crank round, no more," he said to himself. "Thekla, I guess I make her
troubles, too; I'll git out!"
That was the beginning of his tampering with suicide. Thekla, who did
not have the same opinion of the "trouble," had interfered. He had
married Thekla to have someone to keep a warm fireside for him, but she
was an ignorant creature who never could be made to understand about
carving. He felt sorry for her when the baby died, the only child they
ever had; he was sorrier than he expected to be on his own account, too,
for it was an ugly little creature, only four days old, and very red and
wrinkled; but he never thought of confiding his own griefs or trials
to her. Now, it made him angry to have that stupid Thekla keep him in
a world where he did not wish to stay. If the next day Lossing had not
remembered how his father valued Lieders, and made an excuse to half
apologize to him, I fear Thekla's stratagems would have done little
The next experience was cut out of the same piece of cloth. He had
relented, he had allowed his wife to save him; but he was angry in
secret. Then came the day when open disobedience to Lossing's orders had
snapped the last thread of Harry's patience. To Lieders's aggrieved "If
you ain't satisfied with my work, Mr. Lossing, I kin quit," the answer
had come instantly, "Very well, Lieders, I'm sorry to lose you, but we
can't have two bosses here: you can go to the desk." And when Lieders in
a blind stab of temper had growled a prophecy that Lossing would regret
it, Lossing had stabbed in turn: "Maybe, but it will be a cold day when
I ask you to come back." And he had gone off without so much as a word
of regret. The old workman had packed up his tools, the pet tools that
no one was ever permitted to touch, and crammed his arms into his coat
and walked out of the place where he had worked so long, not a man
saying a word. Lieders didn't reflect that they knew nothing of the
quarrel. He glowered at them and went away sore at heart. We make a
great mistake when we suppose that it is only the affectionate
that desire affection; sulky and ill-conditioned souls often have a
passionate longing for the very feelings that they repel. Lieders was a
womanish, sensitive creature under the surly mask, and he was cut to the
quick by his comrades' apathy. "There ain't no place for old men in this
world," he thought, "there's them boys I done my best to make do a good
job, and some of 'em I've worked overtime to help; and not one of 'em
has got as much as a good-by in him for me!"
But he did not think of going to poor Thekla for comfort, he went to
his grim dreams. "I git my property all straight for Thekla, and then
I quit," said he. Perhaps he gave himself a reprieve unconsciously,
thinking that something might happen to save him from himself. Nothing
happened. None of the "boys" came to see him, except Carl Olsen, the
very stupidest man in the shop, who put Lieders beside himself fifty
times a day. The other men were sorry that Lieders had gone, having a
genuine workman's admiration for his skill, and a sort of underground
liking for the unreasonable old man because he was so absolutely honest
and "a fellow could always tell where to find him." But they were shy,
they were afraid he would take their pity in bad part, they "waited a
Carl, honest soul, stood about in Lieders's workshop, kicking the
shavings with his heels for half an hour, and grinned sheepishly,
and was told what a worthless, scamping, bragging lot the "boys" at
Lossing's were, and said he guessed he had got to go home now; and so
departed, unwitting that his presence had been a consolation. Mrs. Olsen
asked Carl what Lieders said; Carl answered simply, "Say, Freda, that
man feels terrible bad."
Meanwhile Thekla seemed easily satisfied. She made no outcry as Lieders
had dreaded, over his leaving the shop.
"Well, then, papa, you don't need git up so early in the morning no
more, if you aint going to the shop," was her only comment; and Lieders
despised the mind of woman more than ever.
But that evening, while Lieders was down town (occupied, had she known
it, with a codicil to his will), she went over to the Olsens and found
out all Carl could tell her about the trouble in the shop. And it was
she that made the excuse of marketing to go out the next day, that
she might see the rich widow on the hill who was talking about a china
closet, and Judge Trevor, who had asked the price of a mantel, and Mr.
Martin, who had looked at sideboards (all this information came from
honest Carl); and who proposed to them that they order such furniture
of the best cabinet-maker in the country, now setting up on his own
account. He, simple as a baby for all his doggedness, thought that
they came because of his fame as a workman, and felt a glow of pride,
particularly as (having been prepared by the wife, who said, "You see it
don't make so much difference with my Kurt 'bout de prize, if so he can
get the furniture like he wants it, and he always know of the best in
the old country") they all were duly humble. He accepted a few orders
and went to work with a will; he would show them what the old man
could do. But it was only a temporary gleam; in a little while he grew
homesick for the shop, for the sawdust floor and the familiar smell
of oil, and the picture of Lossing flitting in and out. He missed the
careless young workmen at whom he had grumbled, he missed the whir of
machinery, and the consciousness of rush and hurry accented by the cars
on the track outside. In short, he missed the feeling of being part of
a great whole. At home, in his cosey little improvised shop, there was
none to dispute him, but there was none to obey him either. He grew
deathly tired of it all. He got into the habit of walking around the
shops at night, prowling about his old haunts like a cat. Once the night
watchman saw him. The next day there was a second watchman engaged.
And Olsen told him very kindly, meaning only to warn him, that he was
suspected to be there for no good purpose. Lieders confirmed a lurking
suspicion of the good Carl's own, by the clouding of his face. Yet he
would have chopped his hand off rather than have lifted it against the
That was Tuesday night, this was Wednesday morning.
The memory of it all, the cruel sense of injustice, returned with such
poignant force that Lieders groaned aloud.
Instantly, Thekla was bending over him. He did not know whether to laugh
at her or to swear, for she began fumbling at the ropes, half sobbing.
"Yes, I knowed they was hurting you, papa; I'm going to loose one arm.
Then I put it back again and loose the other. Please don't be bad!"
He made no resistance and she was as good as her word. She unbound and
bound him in sections, as it were; he watching her with a morose smile.
Then she left the room, but only to return with some hot coffee.
Lieders twisted his head away. "No," said he, "I don't eat none of that
breakfast, not if you make fresh coffee all the morning; I feel like I
don't eat never no more on earth."
Thekla knew that the obstinate nature that she tempted was proof against
temptation; if Kurt chose to starve, starve he would with food at his
"Oh, papa," she cried, helplessly, "what IS the matter with you?"
"Just dying is the matter with me, Thekla. If I can't die one way I kin
another. Now Thekla, I want you to quit crying and listen. After I'm
gone you go to the boss, young Mr. Lossing--but I always called him
Harry because he learned his trade of me, Thekla, but he don't think of
that now--and you tell him old Lieders that worked for him thirty years
is dead, but he didn't hold no hard feelings, he knowed he done wrong
'bout that mantel. Mind you tell him."
"Yes, papa," said Thekla, which was a surprise to Kurt; he had dreaded
a weak flood of tears and protestations. But there were no tears, no
protestations, only a long look at him and a contraction of the eyebrows
as if Thekla were trying to think of something that eluded her. She
placed the coffee on the tray beside the other breakfast. For a while
the room was very still. Lieders could not see the look of resolve that
finally smoothed the perplexed lines out of his wife's kind, simple old
face. She rose. "Kurt," she said, "I don't guess you remember this is
our wedding-day; it was this day, eighteen year we was married."
"So!" said Lieders, "well, I was a bad bargain to you, Thekla; after
you nursed your father that was a cripple for twenty years, I thought it
would be easy with me; but I was a bad bargain."
"The Lord knows best about that," said Thekla, simply, "be it how it
be, you are the only man I ever had or will have, and I don't like you
starve yourself. Papa, say you don't kill yourself, to-day, and dat you
will eat your breakfast!"
"Yes," Lieders repeated in German, "a bad bargain for thee, that is
sure. But thou hast been a good bargain for me. Here! I promise. Not
this day. Give me the coffee."
He had seasons, all the morning, of wondering over his meekness, and
his agreement to be tied up again, at night. But still, what did a
day matter? a man humors women's notions; and starving was so tedious.
Between whiles he elaborated a scheme to attain his end. How easy to
outwit the silly Thekla! His eyes shone, as he hid the little, sharp
knife up his cuff. "Let her tie me!" says Lieders, "I keep my word.
To-morrow I be out of this. He won't git a man like me, pretty soon!"
Thekla went about her daily tasks, with her every-day air; but, now and
again, that same pucker of thought returned to her forehead; and, more
than once, Lieders saw her stand over some dish, poising her spoon in
air, too abstracted to notice his cynical observation.
The dinner was more elaborate than common, and Thekla had broached a
bottle of her currant wine. She gravely drank Lieders's health. "And
many good days, papa," she said.
Lieders felt a queer movement of pity. After the table was cleared,
he helped his wife to wash and wipe the dishes as his custom was of a
Sunday or holiday. He wiped dishes as he did everything, neatly, slowly,
with a careful deliberation. Not until the dishes were put away and the
couple were seated, did Thekla speak.
"Kurt," she said, "I got to talk to you."
An inarticulate groan and a glance at the door from Lieders. "I just got
to, papa. It aint righd for you to do the way you been doing for so long
time; efery little whiles you try to kill yourself; no, papa, that aint
Kurt, who had gotten out his pencils and compasses and other drawing
tools, grunted: "I got to look at my work, Thekla, now; I am too busy to
"No, Kurt, no, papa"--the hands holding the blue apron that she was
embroidering with white linen began to tremble; Lieders had not the
least idea what a strain it was on this reticent, slow of speech woman
who had stood in awe of him for eighteen years, to discuss the horror
of her life; but he could not help marking her agitation. She went on,
desperately: "Yes, papa, I got to talk it oud with you. You had ought
to listen, 'cause I always been a good wife to you and nefer refused you
"Well, I aint saying I done it 'cause you been bad to me; everybody
knows we aint had no trouble."
"But everybody what don't know us, when they read how you tried to kill
yourself in the papers, they think it was me. That always is so. And now
I never can any more sleep nights, for you is always maybe git up and
do something to yourself. So now, I got to talk to you, papa. Papa, how
could you done so?"
Lieders twisted his feet under the rungs of his chair; he opened his
mouth, but only to shut it again with a click of his teeth.
"I got my mind made up, papa. I tought and I tought. I know WHY you done
it; you done it 'cause you and the boss was mad at each other. The boss
hadn't no righd to let you go------"
"Yes, he had, I madded him first; I was a fool. Of course I knowed more
than him 'bout the work, but I hadn't no right to go against him. The
boss is all right."
"Yes, papa, I got my mind made up"--like most sluggish spirits there was
an immense momentum about Thekla's mind, once get it fairly started it
was not to be diverted--"you never killed yourself before you used to
git mad at the boss. You was afraid he would send you away; and now you
have sent yourself away you don't want to live, 'cause you do not know
how you can git along without the shop. But you want to get back, you
want to get back more as you want to kill yourself. Yes, papa, I know,
I know where you did used to go, nights. Now"--she changed her speech
unconsciously to the tongue of her youth--"it is not fair, it is not
fair to me that thou shouldst treat me like that, thou dost belong to
me, also; so I say, my Kurt, wilt thou make a bargain with me? If I
shall get thee back thy place wilt thou promise me never to kill thyself
Lieders had not once looked up at her during the slow, difficult
sentences with their half choked articulation; but he was experiencing
some strange emotions, and one of them was a novel respect for his wife.
All he said was: "'Taint no use talking. I won't never ask him to take
me back, once."
"Well, you aint asking of him. I ask him. I try to git you back,
"I tell you, it aint no use; I know the boss, he aint going to be
letting womans talk him over; no, he's a good man, he knows how to work
his business himself!"
"But would you promise me, Kurt?"
Lieders's eyes blurred with a mild and dreamy mist; he sighed softly.
"Thekla, you can't see how it is. It is like you are tied up, if I don't
can do that; if I can then it is always that I am free, free to go, free
to stay. And for you, Thekla, it is the same."
Thekla's mild eyes flashed. "I don't believe you would like it so you
wake up in the morning and find ME hanging up in the kitchen by the
Lieders had the air of one considering deeply. Then he gave Thekla one
of the surprises of her life; he rose from his chair, he walked in his
shuffling, unheeled slippers across the room to where the old woman sat;
he put one arm on the back of the chair and stiffly bent over her and
"Lieber Herr Je!" gasped Thekla.
"Then I shall go, too, pretty quick, that is all, mamma," said he.
Thekla wiped her eyes. A little pause fell between them, and in it they
may have both remembered vanished, half-forgotten days when life had
looked differently to them, when they had never thought to sit by
their own fireside and discuss suicide. The husband spoke first; with
a reluctant, half-shamed smile, "Thekla, I tell you what, I make the
bargain with you; you git me back that place, I don't do it again, 'less
you let me; you don't git me back that place, you don't say notings to
The apron dropped from the withered, brown hands to the floor. Again
there was silence; but not for long; ghastly as was the alternative, the
proposal offered a chance to escape from the terror that was sapping her
"How long will you give me, papa?" said she.
"I give you a week," said he.
Thekla rose and went to the door; as she opened it a fierce gust of wind
slashed her like a knife, and Lieders exclaimed, fretfully, "what you
opening that door for, Thekla, letting in the wind? I'm so cold, now,
right by the fire, I most can't draw. We got to keep a fire in the
base-burner good, all night, or the plants will freeze."
Thekla said confusedly that something sounded like a cat crying. "And
you talking like that it frightened me; maybe I was wrong to make such
"Then don't make it," said Lieders, curtly, "I aint asking you."
But Thekla drew a long breath and straightened herself, saying, "Yes, I
make it, papa, I make it."
"Well, put another stick of wood in the stove, will you, now you are
up?" said Lieders, shrugging his shoulders, "or I'll freeze in spite of
you! It seems to me it grows colder every minute."
But all that day he was unusually gentle with Thekla. He talked of his
youth and the struggles of the early days of the firm; he related a
dozen tales of young Lossing, all illustrating some admirable trait that
he certainly had not praised at the time. Never had he so opened his
heart in regard to his own ideals of art, his own ambitions. And Thekla
listened, not always comprehending but always sympathizing; she was
almost like a comrade, Kurt thought afterward.
The next morning, he was surprised to have her appear equipped for the
street, although it was bitterly cold. She wore her garb of ceremony, a
black alpaca gown, with a white crocheted collar neatly turned over the
long black, broadcloth cloak in which she had taken pride for the last
five years; and her quilted black silk bonnet was on her gray head. When
she put up her foot to don her warm overshoes Kurt saw that the stout
ankles were encased in white stockings. This was the last touch.
"Gracious, Thekla," cried Kurt, "are you going to market this day? It is
the coldest day this winter!"
"Oh, I don't mind," replied Thekla, nervously. Then she had wrapped a
scarf about her and gone out while he was getting into his own coat, and
conning a proffer to go in her stead.
"Oh, well, Thekla she aint such a fool like she looks!" he observed to
the cat, "say, pussy, WAS it you out yestiddy?"
The cat only blinked her yellow eyes and purred. She knew that she had
not been out, last night. Not any better than her mistress, however, who
at this moment was hailing a street-car.
The street-car did not land her anywhere near a market; it whirled her
past the lines of low wooden houses into the big brick shops with their
arched windows and terra-cotta ornaments that showed the ambitious
architecture of a growing Western town, past these into mills and
factories and smoke-stained chimneys. Here, she stopped. An acquaintance
would hardly have recognized her, her ruddy cheeks had grown so pale.
But she trotted on to the great building on the corner from whence came
a low, incessant buzz. She went into the first door and ran against Carl
Olsen. "Carl, I got to see Mr. Lossing," said she breathlessly.
"There ain't noding----"
"No, Gott sei dank', but I got to see him."
It was not Carl's way to ask questions; he promptly showed her the
office and she entered. She had not seen young Harry Lossing half a
dozen times; and, now, her anxious eyes wandered from one dapper figure
at the high desks, to another, until Lossing advanced to her.
He was a handsome young man, she thought, and he had kind eyes, but they
hardened at her first timid sentence: "I am Mrs. Lieders, I come about
"Will you walk in here, Mrs. Lieders?" said Lossing. His voice was like
the ice on the window-panes.
She followed him into a little room. He shut the door.
Declining the chair that he pushed toward her she stood in the centre of
the room, looking at him with the pleading eyes of a child.
"Mr. Lossing, will you please save my Kurt from killing himself?"
"What do you mean?" Lossing's voice had not thawed.
"It is for you that he will kill himself, Mr. Lossing. This is the dird
time he has done it. It is because he is so lonesome now, your father is
died and he thinks that you forget, and he has worked so hard for you,
but he thinks that you forget. He was never tell me till yesterday; and
then--it was--it was because I would not let him hang himself----"
"Hang himself?" stammered Lossing, "you don't mean----"
"Yes, he was hang himself, but I cut him, no I broke him down," said
Thekla, accurate in all the disorder of her spirits; and forthwith, with
many tremors, but clearly, she told the story of Kurt's despair. She
told, as Lieders never would have known how to tell, even had his pride
let him, all the man's devotion for the business, all his personal
attachment to the firm; she told of his gloom after the elder Lossing
died, "for he was think there was no one in this town such good man
and so smart like your fader, Mr. Lossing, no, and he would set all
the evening and try to draw and make the lines all wrong, and, then, he
would drow the papers in the fire and go and walk outside and he say, 'I
can't do nothing righd no more now the old man's died; they don't have
no use for me at the shop, pretty quick!' and that make him feel awful
bad!" She told of his homesick wanderings about the shops by night;
"but he was better as a watchman, he wouldn't hurt it for the world! He
telled me how you was hide his dinner-pail onct for a joke, and put in a
piece of your pie, and how you climbed on the roof with the hose when
it was afire. And he telled me if he shall die I shall tell you that
he ain't got no hard feelings, but you didn't know how that mantel had
ought to be, so he done it right the other way, but he hadn't no righd
to talk to you like he done, nohow, and you was all righd to send him
away, but you might a shaked hands, and none of the boys never said
nothing nor none of them never come to see him, 'cept Carl Olsen, and
that make him feel awful bad, too! And when he feels so bad he don't no
more want to live, so I make him promise if I git him back he never try
to kill himself again. Oh, Mr. Lossing, please don't let my man die!"
Bewildered and more touched than he cared to feel, himself, Lossing
still made a feeble stand for discipline. "I don't see how Lieders can
expect me to take him back again," he began.
"He aint expecting you, Mr. Lossing, it's ME!"
"But didn't Lieders tell you I told him I would never take him back?"
"No, sir, no, Mr. Lossing, it was not that, it was you said it would
be a cold day that you would take him back; and it was git so cold
yesterday, so I think, 'Now it would be a cold day to-morrow and Mr.
Lossing he can take Kurt back.' And it IS the most coldest day this
Lossing burst into a laugh, perhaps he was glad to have the Western
sense of humor come to the rescue of his compassion. "Well, it was a
cold day for you to come all this way for nothing," said he. "You go
home and tell Lieders to report to-morrow."
Kurt's manner of receiving the news was characteristic. He snorted
in disgust: "Well, I did think he had more sand than to give in to a
woman!" But after he heard the whole story he chuckled: "Yes, it was
that way he said, and he must do like he said; but that was a funny way
you done, Thekla. Say, mamma, yesterday, was you look out for the cat or
to find how cold it been?"
"Never you mind, papa," said Thekla, "you remember what you promised if
I git you back?"
Lieders's eyes grew dull; he flung his arms out, with a long sigh. "No,
I don't forget, I will keep my promise, but--it is like the handcuffs,
Thekla, it is like the handcuffs!" In a second, however, he added, in a
changed tone, "But thou art a kind jailer, mamma, more like a comrade.
And no, it was not fair to thee--I know that now, Thekla."
Next: The Face Of Failure
Previous: Another Landslide