After Youth

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
After Youth  (1918) 
by Achmed Abdullah

Extracted from The Forum, March 1918, pp. 334-347.


AFTER YOUTH

By ACHMED ABDULLAH

SHE was an Irishwoman. She was sentimental and emotional. But seldom had she given way to hysteria.

But today her nerves were a quivering tangle of thin, tortured wires. Her heavy, loose-lipped mouth dropped and sagged in a pitiful downward curve. There were hectic spots on her thin, high cheek-bones, and her blue eyes were red-rimmed, smarting. The Adam's-apple in her scrawny throat moved up and down convulsively, as a ball of glass plays in a fountain. She was choking with dry sobs.

She stood in the kitchen, looking out of the window from which the torn, black mosquito-veiling was hanging in a sodden, hopeless mass. For it had rained the night before, and heavy drops had beaten in through the window. The garbage pail was a stinking abomination, overflowing with refuse, egg-shells and coffee-grounds and rancid bacon-drippings and here and there stumps of Virginia cigarettes. The shelves showed a motley collection of cheap chinaware, some blue, some white, with a gold rim, some imitation Delft, but all cracked, chipped, stained, dirty. The sour smell from the biscuit-tin which did duty as bread-box was overpowering. In the corner there was a roller-towel, black and limp and disgusting. There was a huge spot near its top which looked like a grinning, obscene black maw.

The other houses in the pretty little suburb were surrounded with the glory of green lawn and smiling, odorous spring flowers. Her yard was rank with sun-yellowed, dusty weeds, foul, useless things, without beauty or meaning. There were the Brugschers next door, nice, kindly, simple German folk. Every evening Jimmy Brugscher worked in the garden when he came home from work. His fat, yellow-haired wife kissed him and laughed noisily, delightedly, when he brought in an extra plate of lima beans, an extra handful of flowers, a specially crisp head of lettuce.

The woman compared the two gardens, and then she nearly cried. She loved green things and flowers. She remembered the red-blooming window boxes of her mother's house in Dublin.

She shivered—and it was a warm August morning, with a brazen sky, cloudless, and red-hot sun rays shooting down.

A pitiful little cry came from the next room. Her small daughter was clamoring for food. She was a pretty wee thing, though thin and pale and emaciated so that her eyes looked like big, black splotches. The woman thought that there was an accusing look in those innocent, childish eyes.

"Food," she murmured, and nearly laughed. "Food; oh, yes."

She went to the ice-chest, which had not seen ice for a week, and took out a remnant of sour milk which she had begged from the Borden man three days ago. There were some cold, boiled potatoes in the ice-chest. She hesitated, then pushed the plate back again.

She fed the little girl, holding her close. There was a certain happiness in that warm, near body after all. Tenderness came over her like a hot wave, and she kissed her child—once, twice, a dozen times.

Then she straightened up with a hopeless gesture. A thin querulous voice came from upstairs.

"Jane, Jane—where's my tea. I've been waiting for that confounded tea for ever so long."

The voice died in a wavering, whining treble.

The woman put the child down and rose. She went to the foot of the stairs and spoke in a loud voice.

"Yes, Patrick, dear; just a minute. The water is nearly boiling. I've been feeding baby."

There was a muttering of words drifting down the stairs.

"The little brat—the damned little beast."

She went to the cupboard and took a pinch of cheap Japanese tea from a little red box. Then she filled the teapot and took a cup and saucer and a spoonful of granulated sugar. She was half-way up the stairs when the man spoke again.

"I say, Jane; are there any more cigarettes?"

"You know you smoked the last one yesterday after dinner."

"Well, see then if there aren't a few stumps on the ash tray. I am going to think about the plot of my new story. I simply must have a smoke."

"All right, Boy."

She found a few discouraged-looking cigarette stumps and took them up, together with the tea. A minute later she was back in her kitchen. A gust of wind came through the window and stirred the unsavory odors from the garbage-pail. She shivered with nausea and disgust. Suddenly she snatched up the little girl and stepped out on the front porch, where the air was at least pure and sweet.

She sat down, hand on chin, bent over in a dejected curve so that the bones of her ill-fitting corsets showed through her dingy gingham dress. She stared at the pine trees across the road with dull, hopeless eyes.

She looked at the golden sun-shadows dancing in and out among the leaves. They were like thin, quivering tongues of flame, emerald and purple and orange, and it seemed to her that she was seeing pictures in them. But they were not pleasant pictures—not like the soft evening dreams she used to see in the ruby-red coals of the hearth at home, in Dublin, when she was a wondering, expectant child. Then she saw pictures of the future. Now she saw pictures of her past life.

"Past life?"

She shuddered at the thought. Dear Mary, Mother of God—her past life—and she was only twenty-seven years of age, twenty-seven; and she counted the gliding, swinging years as past, spoilt, bitter with harsh meaning.

How happy she had been on that day when young Patrick O'Neill came out of the County Armagh! How she had smiled and blushed when her mother had shown him the little room upstairs, and he had said it was fine. "A guinea a week, including board, Mrs. Townsend? Why, ripping!" He'd move in that very night.

Of course, he went to Trinity University. And so did she. For her mother, middle-class, and shabbily middle-class to the eyes of the snobbish, unobserving shop-people, had still some remnants of brave, decrepit gentility tucked about her thin, pale, old flesh. Jane must go to Trinity. Her father had been a gentleman, a Latin scholar who knew his Virgil and Sallust, a maker of splendid verse.

Jane was glad of the learning she acquired, but most glad was she at the bond of intimacy which the University forged between her and the new boarder. They read and studied together. And when he bowled for the 'Varsity team she was there to cheer him. She remembered the long winter evenings, with the soft snow tapping gently at the windows, her mother asleep in the comfy old Windsor, the tabby on the rug manicuring her nails, and she and young Patrick talking of Ireland, of the new spirit, the future. Why, Ireland's future meant themselves. They were of the new generation'. The future was theirs, a golden gift to conquer and fashion and hold. There was Yeats, Hyde, George Moore—yes—they had broken the path, they had shown the way, they had planted the seed. Now for them to follow and build and garner, for them to do likewise—or better.

Often he read her snatches of poetry—-fine, golden, lisping harmonies he had written. Also bits from the great, clanking epic at which he was working. It was good, thoroughly good. There was no doubt of that. Patrick had the little divine spark which God gives to artists, and there was fire in his word-rolling rhapsodies—fire and the swing of pathos, the flavor of feeling, the fine, blue-black veil of Celtic twilight.

He would make a name for himself, even bigger than the others who had gone before. A new Prophet had arisen in Israel! And (for by this time they had whispered of love) she would stand by his side, criticising, helping, encouraging, and then, soon, soon, sharing in the white glory of his achievement, the golden-green crown which Ireland and Britain would wind around his head; and not only the home isles, also America, the new, great republic where so many of his countrymen had gone. Surely, they would give him welcome—an Irish welcome, with tears beneath the riot of exploding joy.

So the brave, laughing years of youth had rolled on, holding forth glad promises. He was a brilliant scholar. His teachers were proud of him. One or two of his poems had appeared in good reviews and papers. And if once in a while he exaggerated a little—why, you couldn't call it lying. He was a poet. Imagination was part of his stock in trade. And if once in a while she detected a little soft spot of weakness in his character she loved him the more for it, because she was glad that her young demi-god had at least one human frailty.

She remembered the day of his graduation. The crowd, the laughter, the sweet, mad joy of it all. How the others had cheered him! How big, red-headed Jerry McMahon had slapped him on the back, had hailed him the future bard of young Ireland. No! He would be more than a mere verse-making bard; he would be the interpreter of the conquering Celtic spirit—he would be that golden spirit itself.

And that night, hand in hand, they had again sat near the glowing coals in the hearth. Her mother was sleeping the light, gentle sleep of age, a soft smile playing about the corners of her thin, drawn lips. And she and her beloved Patrick had mapped out their future. Marriage? Why, of course; at once. Why wait? Why waste the sweet desires of youth, since fortune and fame and future was sitting at his door, a willing slave? They would go to America. He had been promised letters of introduction to prominent Irish politicians, to Irish bankers, to an Irish Bishop or two. These letters would make everything easy. They knew exactly, those two lovers, how everything would shape itself.

Why, they knew other brilliant youngsters who had graduated from Trinity with honors and who had gone to England, armed with introductions to men who sat in Parliament or who were powers in the narrow confines of Lombard and Bishopsgate Streets. They had done splendidly. And so she and Patrick would do even more splendidly, in America, which was so much bigger than tight little England. He would be a modern Swift, making the houses of the wealthy and cultured his home by right of genius. He would be acclaimed. His poems, and later on his novels (for, of course, he was going to write big, powerful novels) would startle the new continent from shore to shore.

So they had married and had packed themselves and their wedding presents off to America. At the pier they had held a reception. Everybody had come to see them off—her mother, big Jerry McMahon, John O'Connell, Danny Keowne and many others. There had been laughter and tears and wishes.

They had gone second class. But what did that matter? Were they not going to the land of democracy, the New Utopia, the big, square home of unlimited possibilities? In a few years they would drive their own coach-and-four.

Those first few weeks in New York had been a little disillusioning. The food at the boarding-house was strange, not very appetizing. The men to whom he had letters of introduction were busy, very hurried. Oh, yes; of course; letter from their old chum back in Dublin. All right; come back in the morning; they'd try and give him a chance. And when he returned in the morning they offered him jobs—damn their impudence—jobs at $iO per week and told him he should be glad of the chance. They did not care a tinker's curse about his honor degree; Latinity had no charms for them, and the little jingles in the funny column of the evening paper were as much poetry as they could stand.

Finally he had to bury his pride and had taken a job with a firm of publishers who were compiling a Catholic cyclopædia. He laughed light-heartedly. He knew it was only temporary. They would soon acknowledge his genius, and then fame and money would come rolling in barrels.

His work kept him busy at the office from early in the morning until a fairly late hour in the evening. It was quite an effort to make him get up in the morning. But the novelty of the thing amused them both.

"Never mind, sweetheart," he used to say. "It's no end of a chance to study new characters, new conditions, a new milieu for my novels, my short stories."

Oh, yes; his novels, his short stories!

He wrote a good many of the latter in the evenings, on Sundays. But the editors always and promptly returned them with a polite printed slip:

"We thank you for your courtesy in offering us the accompanying manuscript and regret that we cannot use it for our magazine."

At first they laughed light-heartedly at the cool, impersonal tone of the little slips. But after a while they dreaded to find one of those long, heavy, portentous envelopes in their morning mail.

About this time Patrick lost his position for vague reasons which she never quite understood. He hunted for another one and finally he found a small berth with a daily paper. It was dry, nasty, prosaic work—reporting the police courts and the drab, crass happenings of the streets and gutters.

He switched from one paper to another, and they switched from one two-room flat to another. There was many a stormy interview with irate landlord and janitor, many a poor little piece of furniture which had to remain behind, and once (how she had cried) a trunk which contained her two good dresses and his evening suit.

Their old, joyous intimacy seemed to be scotched at times. There was something intangible in the air, very intangible and not at all nice. She could not make it out. But then she was about to become a mother, and, with feminine instinct, she decided it must be her physical condition which made things, including her beloved Patrick, seem so gray and hopeless at times. So she was silent about it and welcomed him home at night with the same old fresh, red-lipped smile, the strong cup of Ceylon tea which was more than food to him.

Once in a while he sold a short poem for a few dollars, and then the old dreams would swing back again into the circle of their hopes and visions. They would rush out to a little irresponsible impromptu spree, and for the span of a festive evening they would return to their old youthful gaiety.

They met a few people, some Irish, some Americans. But their social relations puzzled her. At first they were fascinated with him. He was such good company, brilliant, clever, soft-spoken. Then there would always be a sudden estrangement. She could not understand it. Also at times she felt humiliated. For she would have to listen to the tales he told about himself and his people at home—how he was the descendant of innumerable belted earls, how he was the O'Neill, the last of the Ulster O'Neills. Then he would launch into magnificent and poetic descriptions of the ruined seat of his race, including the family ghost, the family banshee, and the old war yell of his clan. She knew his family. She knew the little crazy, rickety house of his widowed mother in County Armagh. She knew the country doctors and solicitors and excise men, who were his real kith and kin. But, loyal wife, she could not contradict him in public. So she had to uphold his lies, indirectly, silently. But every once in a while, when he told a specially ornate and embroidered tale, she would detect a little laugh, an amused sneer on the faces of the listeners. And it hurt her to the quick. Why—these shop-keeping Philistines did not understand her beloved Boy; they did not understand that he was a poet, with a golden, winged imagination, an artistic temperament.

Then her child was born, and a month or two later he had the first taste of the fruit of success. How well she remembered the morning. There was a little gray envelope with the name and address of a prominent magazine, and then the letter, the beautiful, splendid, darling letter:

"We have accepted your story, The Silent Watches of the Night, for our publication, and beg to enclose check for $250. We hope that you will let us see more of your work."

How they had kissed each other, how they had laughed and cried with the great, deep joy of it! At last he was being recognized. At last he had drawn the good sword of success. At last the dear dreams had come true. It was a spring day, blue and golden and smiling. The sun was calling them out. So they had rushed downstairs, had cashed their check, had bought a few necessaries, hats and boots and ties and the darlingest little lacy French blouse in all the world, and that night they had a celebration—dinner at the Claridge, then the Follies, then a cabaret, and a fitting wind-up at Jack's.

Of course, Patrick had given up his position immediately. Henceforth he must burn incense to the one and only Muse. No more drab, demeaning, soul-killing newspaper work for him. It was the writing of big things he would have to do; big, fine things. The editors would beg him for more, always more, and always the checks would be larger. In the fall they would pay a little visit home, to Ireland, and they would come as gracious conquerors, flushed with success.

But at first there was a little disappointment. It is true that he threw himself into his work with a fine energy. But the next stories, sent to the same magazine, came back. Other publications followed suit. Well, never mind, they told each other, we've broken into the game; they can't keep us out. Still, the check from the editor did not last forever, and so, with jokes and laughter they had gone to a pawnshop and had raised money on a few things they had, wedding presents. After all, they had no use for that clumsy silver coffee urn of Aunt Fanny's; those horrid, ornate silver bonbon dishes.

After a while he had sold another story or two, to lesser publications, for smaller amounts. And there had been more impromptu celebrations. But again they had to resort to the hospitable place surmounted by the three gilt balls, and their sideboard began to look rather bare.

Patrick was changing. He was becoming irritable.

"Good heavens, Jane, I can't work with that baby squalling about my knees—the confounded little brat."

And he would take pad and pencil and walk down to the Public Library on Forty-second Street to do his work.

There were ugly, sordid scenes once in a while. But they loved each other, after all. There were always tears and kisses, and they would make up. But in the depth of her own heart she knew that Patrick was changing, that the generous Irish lad she had known and loved and married at home was becoming selfish—that was it, selfish. When he came home at night he was angry and nervous. The tea was cold, the food was poor—how could an artist accomplish anything under such vile living conditions, he asked. He didn't want to seem grouchy or selfish, "But, Jane, dearest, do go next door to the Jew and pawn that gold watch of yours. We must have a few things. I've forgotten what oysters taste like. And I simply must have cigarettes, otherwise I can't work,"

And so her little things went one by one. And then one day her wedding ring went into the coffers of Israel. How she had cried. But it had to be done. Patrick was a genius, an artist, a maker of splendid verse and prose. The path was thorny, but it had to be trodden. She could not expect him to bend his body and lower his head in a vile, smelly office. She dried her tears and tried to convince herself that she was glad and proud of the sacrifice. After all, it was her Patrick, her beloved Boy, she was doing it for.

So the years had rolled into the dark. They were years of drab care and misery, with once in a great while a sudden crimson flash of success, quickly spent and as quickly forgotten. Once or twice she had asked Patrick to take a steady position with some newspaper or publishing firm and to do his literary work in the evenings, as a side issue, until success came to stay. But the answer was always the same. He had the gift. He was a writer, an artist. He was going to stick to his craft. Yes, of course he knew there was the little baby—fatherhood, responsibilities—but just let her have a little more patience. He had it in him to win out.

And he really had the gift to put words together. His English was beautiful and faultless. He had style and brillliancy. But he missed the vital punch which makes a story a seller. He could never understand why the tales which interested and delighted him in the moment of conceiving and writing them did not appeal to the editors. Of course, he knew that there was such a thing as public taste and opinion, and that the American public preferred American stories. So Ireland, the land which he loved and knew how to visualize, was practically tabooed as a field of literary exploitation. He did turn to America for a source of inspiration. But he could not understand the great republic. From the start he had misread her shining lessons. America does hold out a chance for everybody. But it demands two qualities in the lover who would woo her fancies—a small dose of humility and a large dose of vital energy. And Patrick possessed neither the one nor the other.

She blushed painfully at the recollection how they had exploited all their friends and acquaintances; borrowing money right and left, never even thinking of repaying. How Patrick had cursed his friends when they asked him to repay the loans! The borrowed amounts had become smaller and smaller. They had used all manners of shameful, petty subterfuges to obtain a few dollars. Good God! Many a time she had to borrow a loaf of bread from a neighbor, a pint of milk, a few potatoes, a tin of sardines, a few slices of bacon.

It had been about this time that her beloved Boy had begun to lose his physical and mental hold over her. One day, with a sudden, merciless shock, she had discovered that her love for him was dead. The feeling had come over night. It seemed to her that the clean, generous Irish lad she had married was dead and buried; that an utter stranger had usurped his place. She saw in a horrible, clear flash that this stranger was not quite clean, that his fingernails were ill kept, that some of his front teeth were brown and decayed.

That day she cried hysterically, helplessly. And at night, when Patrick came home she did not kiss him. It was the first time since their marriage that she did not greet him with a kiss. But he did not even notice it. He was blind—blind in his mean, self-centered selfishness.

Shortly afterward they had met John Mason, with his tales of the West—the prairies, the hills, the—no, no, no. She did not want to think of John Mason.

A few days later she wrote to her mother asking her to send two hundred dollars by cable. She hated to do it. She knew that her mother could not afford it. But Patrick made her do it.

"There's no reason, my dear, why you shouldn't ask her. You're her daughter. I'll give it back to her. Just wait until I sell my new story. It's going to be a big one."

Oh, yes. They were always going to be big ones.

Her mother had sent the money, and a dear, darling, loving letter. They had taken the money and left over-night for a Jersey suburb, leaving everything unpaid behind them. She had felt wretched about it. It had seemed to her that they were like criminals, trying to escape from just punishment. But he had laughed a big, irresponsible laugh.

"What the deuce is the matter with you, Jane? I think it's a jolly good joke to do these damned duns."

So they had taken this little house, with the gray, rickety porch, the small dingy kitchen, the garden rank with dusty weeds. They had been here now six weeks. The two hundred dollars were spent, all but a few cents. The shop people refused to give them any more credit. It was the same old story.

It was all so hopeless, so sordid, so gray.

She had lost her beauty, her girlish freshness, her pretty milk-and-blood Irish complexion. Her soul was a half-dead thing, quite used up, dry, empty and useless.

But was it really useless? Suppose it was still of use to somebody else?

She looked at the grim pine trees, as if they could give answer to her silent question. Was there nothing more to live for? She put her hand over her beating heart. And she felt a letter hidden in the bodice of her gown, a crumpled, often-read letter.

It was signed "John Mason."

They had met him three years ago at the house of friends. He was a Western man who made frequent business trips to New York. He had always managed to see her when he came East. Patrick had borrowed money from him, of course. And one day, without warning, without preamble, without any romantic phrases, he had told her in his rough, direct, Western way that he loved her. He had asked her bluntly to divorce "that worthless husband of yours" and to marry him. She had tried to feel insulted, but she had not succeeded.

He had seen her again, a few weeks ago, just after they had moved to the suburb, and he had again pleaded his cause. She had felt dazed. The whole thing had seemed unreal. Why—mirrors do not lie. She knew that her beauty, her physical attraction was gone. Passion was therefore out of the question with John Mason.

Was it real love? Was this her great chance?

And now he had written her. It was a strong, simple, masterful letter. It was quite different from the beautiful, inspired prose-lyrics which Patrick had written to her years ago in Dublin, when he was on occasional visits to his mother in County Armagh. John asked her to send him a wire, to decide one way or the other—Yes or No. If she was willing to trust him, if she could find a little love for him in her heart, she should tear out her stakes. She should bring the child with her. He would love the little girl as his own. Out there, on the prairies, she would grow and develop splendidly. There would be no trouble and but little delay. There was Nevada. There were the humane laws of the big West, which gave a woman a chance to reconstruct a spoilt, broken life. So she must decide. She must wire him one way or the other.

The woman thought for a long time. After all, she had done the full of her duty to Patrick. And it had been useless, hopeless. Her love was dead. And there was duty toward herself, toward the little girl. Big John Mason would love her as his own. And Mason was a fine man, a successful man, straight and square and simple. Yes, she owned to herself with a start, she loved him.

But she was afraid. There were her people at home—her mother, her friends. What would they say? What would the Church say? Was it not cowardly to leave Patrick?

What should she do?

"I say, Jane." Her husband's voice came from the upper story window. "Won't you go down to the village and see if that bounder of a Hegemann won't let you have a couple of packages of cigarettes on tick? I must have a smoke."

"But, Patrick, I can't."

He interrupted her savagely, arrogantly.

"Well, you've got to. I can't work unless I smoke. And I'm hanged if I go and let that shop-keeping bounder insult me. Be a good girl and go. After all, you owe me some duty."

The woman arose.

"All right, Boy."

She walked down to the village, composing in her mind the telegram she would send to John Mason.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1945, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.