Upton Sinclair, ed. (18781968). The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.
The Turn of the Balance
By Brand Whitlock
(American novelist and reformer, 18691934; for many years mayor of Toledo, Ohio, and now Minister to Belgium. The present novel is the life-story of Archie Koerner, a boy of the tenements, who is driven to crime by the evil forces of society)
Jimmy Ball touched him on the shoulder. He glanced toward the open grated door, thence across the flagging to the other door, and tried to take a step. Out there he could see one or two faces thrust forward suddenly; they peered in, then hastily withdrew. He tried again to take a step, but one leg had gone to sleep, it prickled, and as he bore his weight upon it, it seemed to swell suddenly to elephantine proportions. And he seemed to have no knees at all; if he stood up he would collapse. How was he ever to walk that distance?
Good-by, boys, he said. He had a glimpse of their faces; they looked gray and ugly, worse even than they had that eveningor was it that evening when with sudden fear he had seen them crouching there behind him?
Perhaps just at the last minute the governor would change his mind. They were walking the long way to the door, six yards off. The flagging was cold to his bare feet; his slit trouser-legs flapped miserably, revealing his white calves. Walking had suddenly become laborious; he had to lift each leg separately and manage it; he walked much as that man in the rear rank of Company 21 walked. He would have liked to stop and rest an instant, but Ball and the warden walked beside him, urged him resistlessly along, each gripping him at the wrist and upper arm.
In the room outside, Archie recognized the reporters standing in the sawdust. What they were to write that night would be in the newspapers the next morning, but he would not read it. He heard Beck lock the door of the death chamber, locking it hurriedly, so that he could be in time to look on. Archie had no friend in the group of men that waited in silence, glancing curiously at him, their faces white as the whitewashed wall. The doctors held their watches in their hands. And there before him was the chair, its oil-cloth cover now removed, its cane bottom exposed. But he would have to step up on the little platform to get to it.
He was in it, at last. He leaned back; then, as his back touched the back of the chair, he started violently. But there were hands on his shoulders pressing him down, until he could feel his back touch the chair from his shoulders down to the very end of his spine. Some one had seized his legs, turned back the slit trousers from his calves.
There were hands, too, at his head, at his armshands all over him. He took one last look. Had the governor? Then the leather mask was strapped over his eyes and it was dark. He could only feel and hear nowfeel the cold metal on his legs, feel the moist sponge on the top of his head where the barber had shaved him, feel the leather straps binding his legs and arms to the legs and the arms of the chair, binding them tightly, so that they gave him pain, and he could not move. Helpless he lay there, and waited. He heard the loud ticking of a watch; then on the other side of him the loud ticking of another watch; fingers were at his wrists. There was no sound but the mumble of Mr. Hoerrs voice. Then some one said:
He waited a second, or an age, then, suddenly, it seemed as if he must leap from the chair, his body was swelling to some monstrous, impossible, unhuman shape; his muscles were stretched, millions of hot and dreadful needles were piercing and pricking him, a stupendous roaring was in his ears, then a million colors, colors he had never seen or imagined before, colors beyond the range of the spectra, new, undiscovered, summoned by some mysterious agency from distant corners of the universe, played before his eyes. Suddenly they were shattered by a terrific explosion in his brainthen darkness.
But no, there was still sensation; a dull purple color slowly spread before him, gradually grew lighter, expanded, and with a mighty pain he struggled, groping his way in torture and torment over fearful obstacles from some far distance, remote as black stars in the cold abyss of the universe; he struggled back to lifethen an appalling confusion, a grasp at consciousness; he heard the ticking of the two watchesthen, through his brain there slowly trickled a thread of thought that squirmed and glowed like a white-hot wire.
Some one flung up a window, and a draught of cool air sucked through the room. On the draught was borne from the death-chamber the stale odor of Russian cigarettes. And then a demoniacal roar shook the cell-house. The convicts had been awake.