Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Gilded Edge of Hell” (1890)


Mr. Editor:–The broad roll of the Delaware flashed back a white water-glisten at the full moon. Fifteen or twenty vessels spread their white wings to the slow breeze, or sent the black vomit from their whistling throats upward to the night sky. Splash, splash! fell the water from the sides of the “John A. Warner” as she cut the flowing current, that ran like long, waving hair, away from the white line in her wake. Upon her decks two thoughtful women gazed at the dark banks, lifted their eyes to the soft sky and occasionally spoke a few words of murmured admiration. Presently, upon the right, broke a long, shining road of electric lights, white, glittering, illuminating the night.

“Gloucester, how bright it is!” remarked the elder woman.

“The gilded edge of hell,” returned the other slowly, “a living hell!”

After the silence that followed she resumed in a low voice: “It is the place where the drift from human wrecks floats and gathers. Now and then the flower from a broken stem swirls in a catches, and smiles there in the light for a little while. But it crushes and drops below very soon. I have been there–you know I have a passion for moving among the sad things, the bitter things of the earth. Somebody told me that since Philadelphia had been cleared of its dives, the corruption had broken out in a fresh place, and Gloucester was the moral ulcer of the City of Brotherly Love.

“There are rows on rows of shambling buildings where all manner of coarse amusements, coarse language, coarse accents, and coarse tastes strike the sensitive being like hard blows upon his body; the atmosphere is saturated with the fumes of nicotine, and beer seems to ooze from the pores of the rotting wood. The chairs are sticky, and beery rivulets run upon all the table where unsteady hands have tilted the tumblers. Here and there the wreck of a woman, gaudy with inharmonic colors, caked with paint to hide the scars of vileness, talks with some leer-eyed wretch whose every lineament betrays the animal rampant, the intellectual atrophied.

“But sometimes you will see, as I saw, a pure beautiful face, with a brow like the Madonna’s, chaste lips, a deep introspective light in a pair of lovely blue eyes, and her whole presence breathing the scorn of tolerance towards her surroundings. What is that face doing in that hideous crowed, which shrinks away from her high look, and, turning, sneers a horrid prophecy? Look, you moralists, you would-be charitables, you expounders of “faith and works,” you guides of “law and order,” whose blue-coated hirelings walk about, leering, as those other wretches, at these shells of women. Look! What do you think of your works?”

“There, I am declaiming,” exclaimed our narrator in a disgusted tone; “I forgot I was talking to you; I was thinking of that beautiful, scornful creature over there in that scum, with one knows not what of daily insult to bear, and there–these canting preachers, on the other side, telling how law and Gospel protect and rescue women. But that wasn’t the worst. Up in one of those summer concert halls a little child, only eleven years old, with the genius of a Modjeska and the voice of an angel, was singing to that reef of wrecks, whose harsh gutterals came to one’s ears like the din and clash of–can you imagine it, I wonder–the clash of the breakers tearing rock-pinioned ships in pieces! Yes, that is it. There is something in all their faces, something in all their tones that is not individual; it is the undertone of the social whirlpool in which they are engulfed, speaking in them, tearing them. Well, this little child; my friend brought her some flowers and asked her to come and talk with me.

“It was awful, the self-composure and indifference of that baby, the ease with which she told me the most transparent lies, and the contempt with which she spoke of that quiet life of home which had no charms for her because it was not exciting.

“Oh! the excitement! The bawdy costumes, the brassy instruments–I am sure their throats must have been green with verdigris–the abominable glare, the vulgar voices, the vulgar faces. Oh, the “excitement!” I couldn’t bear it. I left that room that seemed to me to be full of grinning skulls just as that baby started in again with her divine voice, to sing something about a mother’s love. A mother’s love in such a place as that! but some mother loved and caressed every one of them I suppose. Ugh! that is that horrible brass music again. But the water softens it. I wonder if the harsh, bad notes go down with the current, and only the pure tones go far enough to reach us here? It is a pretty notion, isn’t it, that there is some good even there, and the good reaches farther than the evil, in proportion! There, we are quite past them. Quite past! The bright edge of a black horror! See how white the moon shines.”

* * * * * * *

Reader, why, do you suppose, did I write this young woman’s recitative out for the Investigator? The owner of the Gloucester dives is a Christian man, who “renders unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s,” and to God the things that are God’s, out of the earnings of shame and the corruption of children.

Voltairine de Cleyre

Philadelphia, Pa.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Gilded Edge of Hell,” The Boston Investigator 60 no. 27 (October 8, 1890): 2.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.