Dispossessed

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DISPOSSESSED

By Sadakichi Hartmann.

THE weather was such as would even discomfort a stoic philosopher. It was raw and chilly, and a fine drizzling rain descended persistently, covering everything—houses and pavement—with a film of moisture. One involuntarily buttoned up one's overcoat, thrust one's hands deeper into the pockets, and hustled on, scarcely noticing the miserable little heap of furniture —if it deserved that name—which the sheriff without much ceremony had dumped upon the sidewalk. It had not even excited the curiosity of the neighbors. It looked too dismal and forlorn.

The background was formed by a dirty ramshackle house with dangling shutters and paint peeling off its walls. The black fire escapes looked ghastly in their emptiness, as in this part of the city people had not even the necessary amount of truck and rags to ornament them, as in more prosperous districts. At the entrance— oh, irony of fate—hung a sign, "Cozy three-room flats to let." It would have taken a peculiar genius to paint an interesting picture of this hopeless scene. It would have demanded that love of detail, so rare in art, which can invest the most insignificant object with some delicate pictorial charm, and under an old battered door, a dust covered window, or a broken staircase in such a way as to express a sentiment.

The most conspicuous object among this pile of rubbish was an old black horsehair sofa, full of rents and gashes showing the rusty springs. A kitchen table that could hardly support itself on the three legs that were left of its former splendor, leaned wearily against it . On the back of the sofa hung a mattress in such a way that it was sure to fall into the gutter. What luxury to have still a mattress, surely a great cause to be grateful, for it is said that there are people who do not even enjoy this privilege. And then there was a stove, rusty and discolored, as if it had never warmed a room nor served to cook a meal. Most likely it had been regarded by its owner merely as an ornament, in whose solemn presence human lives were slowly starving and freezing to death. A few broken dishes, a box, a tea kettle without lid and spout and a pail battered out of all resemblance of form finished this dreary ensemble. And in the midst of all these treasures, on a chair without back, sat an old woman, all doubled up, her arms hanging down limp, with a grey shawl over her disheveled hair that brushed her knees, and jabbered to herself.

Alas, there was no member of the pictorial brotherhood on hand to immortalize this scene (it probably strikes too near home, they prefer to paint fluffy females wrapped up in cheesecloth and to forget all about evictions). Only a few little brats were about, and they with malicious instincts truly human, pelted the furniture with mud, but some, as the old woman took no heed of them, got more interested in tying a tin can to the tail of a half starved cat, and in chasing the frightened animal down the street.

On the lap of the old woman lay a big book, greesy and dilapitated, a few faded leaves out of which had fallen to the ground. Had she perhaps been once in the country, in the open fields, under a blue sky, where flowers grew and birds sang! That must have been long ago.

Here everything was low-toned, dull and drab. The slippery pavement showed vague blotchy reflections, and the rain drops glistened weirdly in the strands of her grey hair. Her shawl had absorbed so much moisture that it could be wrung out, she was soaked to the skin, but she was unmindful of her surroundings. The present had become a blank to her, her mind had begun to wander and lost itself in some recesses of her early youth, and she hummed, hardly audible, a quaint melody: Time'i tum ta, tum time'i pa ta.

Now and then a pedestrian passed by. They threw a furtive glance of pity at her, but did not stop. The weather was really too disagreeable. At last some kind person placed the pail upside down near her chair, and contributed a few pennies in a saucer to start a collection. The rain beat a tattoo on dish and pail, and mingled with the low hum of the old woman. At long intervals a coin slipped down like a mighty crescendo in this endless, monotonous melody of misery. What a panegyric to civilization, what a song of praise to society and its charity organizations. Everywhere, in the fashionable thoroughfares, mansions hardly occupied for more than two months a year, and here, an old wench, cowering in an armless chair, shelterless in the rain on the sidewalk. Where are the historians that take notice of these daily occurrences?

There is much talk about the reform of land tenure. One learned authority favors communal ownership of land. The land should be apportioned to the producers. Another bearded writer on social economics believes in free trade in land, in a system that doles out land among the many that use it well, and a kind, benevolent reverend considers the land question a question of applied ethics. And they write sagaciously and talk enthusiastically, and in the meanwhile they all recognize the imperious law: Render to the landlord, what is the landlord's, time'i tum ta, tum time'i pa ta.

It grew darker, and with the twilight came a rainstorm, one of those generous gifts of circumstance, and the cold rain came down in torrents, swept away the faded leaves, pattered in wild discords on the pavement and gurgled in muddy streams down the gutters. With a strange twist the mattress slipped from the back of the sofa and spread itself on the ground to get the full benefit of the downpour. The table reeled from side to side, and finally tired of existence, collapsed upon the sofa. Only the little grey heap of humanity, which was once a woman, still remained in the same position and hummed the melody—which she will hum as long as she graces the earth with her futile presence: Time'i tum ta, tum time'i pa ta.

To-morrow, at dawn, the bureau of encumbrances will come and cart these gruesome things away. And their former owner will be escorted by uniformed men to some home or asylum with a beautiful vista on a pauper's grave on some windswept little island far out in the sound. Who cares!


  • Sadakichi Hartmann, “Dispossessed,” Mother Earth 2, no. 1 (March 1907): 56-58.