Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DOMESDAY BOOK: WIDOW FORTELKA, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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DOMESDAY BOOK: WIDOW FORTELKA, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Marie fortelka, widow, mother of josef
Last Line: To swim to shore! He couldn't walk the waves!
Subject(s): Death; Life; News; Soul; Widows & Widowers; Dead, The


Marie Fortelka, widow, mother of Josef,
Now seventeen, an invalid at home
In a house, in Halstead Street, his running side
Aching with broken ribs, read in the Times
Of Lowell's death the editor, dressed herself
To call on William Rummler, legal mind
For Lowell and the Times.

It was a day
When fog hung over the city, and she thought
Of fogs in Germany whence she came, and thought
Of hard conditions there when she was young.
Then as her boy, this Josef, coughed, she looked
And felt a pang at heart, a rise of wrath,
And heard him moan for broken ribs and lungs
That had been bruised or mashed. America,
Oh yes, America, she said to self,
How is it different from the land I left?
And then her husband's memory came to mind:
How he had fled his country to be free,
And come to Philadelphia, with the thrill
Of new life found, looked at the famous Hall
Which gave the Declaration, cried and laughed
And said: "The country's free, and I am here,
I am free now, a man, no more a slave."
What did he find? A job, but prices high.
Wages decreased in winter, then a strike.
He joined the union, found himself in jail
For passing hand-bills which announced the strike,
And asked the public to take note, and punish
The corporation, not to trade with it,
For its injustice toward the laborers.
And in the court he heard the judge decide:
"Free speech cannot be used to gain the ends
Of ruin by conspiracy like this
Against a business. Men from foreign lands,
Of despot rule and poverty, who come
For liberty and means of life among us
Must learn that liberty is ordered liberty,
And is not license, freedom to commit
Injury to another."

So in jail
He lay his thirty days out, went to work
Where he could find it, found the union smashed,
Himself compelled to take what job he could,
What wages he was offered. And his children
Kept coming year by year till there were eight,
And Josef was but ten. And then he died
And left this helpless family, and the boy
Sold papers on the street, ten years of age,
The widow washed.

And first he sold the Times
And helped to spread the doctrines of the Times
Of ordered liberty and epicene
Reforms of this or that. But when the Star
With millions back of it broke in the field
He changed and sold the Star, too bad for him --
Discovered something:

Josef did not know
The corners of the street are free to all,
Or free to none, where newsboys stood and sold,
And kept their stands, or rather where the powers
That kept the great conspiracy of the press
Controlled the stands, and to prevent the Star
From gaining foot-hold. Not upon this corner
Nor on that corner, any corner in short
Shall newsboys sell the Star. But Josef felt,
Being a boy, indifferent to the rules,
Well founded, true or false, that all the corners
Were free to all, and for his daring, strength
Had been selected, picked to sell the Star,
And break the ground, gain place upon the stands.
He had been warned from corners, chased and boxed
By heavy fists from corners more than once
Before the day they felled him. On that day
A monster bully, once a pugilist,
Came on him selling the Star and knocked him down,
Kicked in his ribs and broke a leg and cracked
His little skull.

And so they took him home
To Widow Fortelka and the sisters, brothers,
Whose bread he earned. And there he lay and moaned,
And when he sat up had a little cough,
Was short of breath.

And on this foggy day
When Widow Fortelka reads in the Times
That Lowell, the editor, is dead, he sits
With feet wrapped in a quilt and gets his breath
With open mouth, his face is brightly flushed;
A fetid sweetness fills the air of the room
That from his open mouth comes. Josef lingers
A few weeks yet -- he has tuberculosis.
And so his mother looks at him, resolves
To call this day on William Rummler, see
If Lowell's death has changed the state of things;
And if the legal mind will not relent
Now that the mind that fed it lies in death.
It's true enough, she thinks, I was dismissed,
And sent away for good, but never mind.
It can't be true this pugilist went farther
Than the authority of his hiring, that's
The talk this lawyer gave her, used a word
She could not keep in mind -- the lawyer said
Respondeat superior in this case
Was not in point -- and if it could be proved
This pugilist was hired by the Times,
No one could prove the Times had hired him
To beat a boy, commit a crime. Well, then
"What was he hired for?" the widow asked.
And then she talked with newsboys, and they said
The papers had their sluggers, all of them,
Even the Star, and that was just a move
In getting circulation, keeping it.
And all these sluggers watched the stands and drove
The newsboys selling Stars away.

No matter,
She could not argue with this lawyer Rummler,
Who said: "You must excuse me, go away,
I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do."

Now Widow Fortelka had never heard
Of Elenor Murray, had not read a line
Of Elenor Murray's death beside the river.
She was as ignorant of the interview
Between the coroner and this editor
Who died next morning fearing Merival
Would dig up Mrs. Lowell and expose
Her suicide, as conferences of spirits
Directing matters in another world.
Her thought was moulded no less by the riffles
That spread from Elenor Murray and her death.
And she resolved to see this lawyer Rummler,
And try again to get a settlement
To help her dying boy. And so she went.

That morning Rummler coming into town
Had met a cynic friend upon the train
Who used his tongue as freely as his mood
Moved him to use it. So he said to Rummler:
"I see your client died -- a hell of a life
That fellow lived, a critic in our midst
Both hated and caressed. And I suppose
You drew his will and know it, I will bet,
If he left anything to charity,
Or to the city, it is some narcotic
To keep things as they are, the ailing body
To dull and bring forgetfulness of pain.
He was a fine albino of the soul,
No pigment in his genesis to give
Color to hair or eyes, he had no gonads."
And William Rummler laughed and said, "You'll see
What Lowell did when I probate the will."
Then William Rummler thought that very moment
Of plans whereby his legal mind could thrive
Upon the building of the big hotel
To Lowell's memory, for perpetual use
Of the Y. M. C. A., the seminary, too,
In Moody's memory for an orthodox
Instruction in the bible.

With such things
In mind, this William Rummler opened the door,
And stepped into his office, got a shock
From seeing Widow Fortelka on the bench,
Where clients waited, waiting there for him.
She rose and greeted him, and William Rummler
Who in a stronger moment might have said:
"You must excuse me, I have told you, madam,
I can do nothing for you," let her follow
Into his private office and sit down
And there renew her suit.

She said to him:
"My boy is dying now, I think his ribs
Were driven in his lungs and punctured them.
He coughs the worst stuff up you ever saw.
And has an awful fever, sweats his clothes
Right through, is breathless, cannot live a month.
And I know you can help me. Mr. Lowell,
So you told me, refused a settlement,
Because this pugilist was never hired
To beat my boy, or any boy; for fear
It would be an admission, and be talked of,
And lead another to demand some money.
But now he's dead, and surely you are free
To help me some, so that this month or two,
While my boy Joe is dying he can have
What milk he wants and food, and when he dies,
A decent coffin, burial. Then perhaps
There will be something left to help me with --
I wash to feed the children, as you know."

And William Rummler looked at her and thought
For one brief moment with his lawyer mind
About this horror, while the widow wept,
And as she wept a culprit mood was his
For thinking of the truth, for well he knew
This slugger had been hired for such deeds,
And here was one result. And in his pain
The cynic words his friend had said to him
Upon the train began to stir, and then
He felt a rush of feeling, blood, and thought
Of clause thirteen in Lowell's will, which gave
The trustees power, and he was chief trustee,
To give some worthy charity once a year,
Not to exceed a thousand dollars. So
He thought to self, "This is a charity.
I will advance the money, get it back
As soon as I probate the will."

At last
He broke this moment's musing and spoke up:
"Your case appeals to me. You may step out,
And wait till I prepare the papers, then
I'll have a check made for a thousand dollars."

Widow Fortelka rose up and took
The crucifix she wore and kissed it, wept
And left the room.

Now here's the case of Percy Ferguson
You'd think his life was safe from Elenor Murray.
No preacher ever ran a prettier boat
Than Percy Ferguson, all painted white
With polished railings, flying at the fore
The red and white and blue. Such little waves
Set dancing by the death of Elenor Murray
To sink so fine a boat, and leave the Reverend
To swim to shore! he couldn't walk the waves!





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