Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/The Devil's Doings
THE DEVIL'S DOINGS
THE DEVIL'S DOINGS
MRS. CREGAN wept, and her tears were ludicrous. She was as fat as a Falstaff. Her features were as ill-suited for the expression of grief as a circus clown's. She had not even a channel in her plump cheeks to drain the tears from the corners of her eyes; and the slow drops, large and unctuous, trickled down her round jowl and soaked into her bonnet-strings, leaving her cheeks as fresh and as ruddy in the sunlight as if they had been merely wet with perspiration. Her eyes stared, unpuckered, apparently unconscious that they wept. Her mouth was tight in an expression of resentful determination. Only her little round chin trembled—like a child's.
And yet Mrs. Cregan was as nearly heart-broken as she had ever been in her life. She was leaving her husband. What was more grievous to her, she was leaving her home. She was on the streets of New York, with her small savings in her greasy purse—clasped tightly in her two hands under her Sunday cape, that was trimmed with fringe and tassels in a way to remind you of a lambrequin. She did not know where to go. There was no one to whom she could turn for aid, and she would not go to any one for pity. Behind her was the wreck of a breakfast table—the visible symbol of her ruined home—with a cursing Irishman, whom nobody could live with any longer, shouting, "Your house, is it? I 'll show yeh whose house it is! I 'll show yeh! I 'll break ev'ry danged thing in the place!" Before her were the crooked byways of what had once been Greenwich village, as quiet as a desert, and as indifferent, in the early morning radiance, with shuttered windows and closed doors.
The domestic peace of those old streets made her own homelessness the more pitiful to her. She felt as she had felt once before—years before—in her childhood, when she had set sail with her parents for America. It had been a cold day; and the mists had steamed up horridly from the water, with a desolate, wet sea-odor; and the memory of the sunlight on green fields and the warm perfume of the land had been like a longing for health and daylight to the darkness of a death-bed. The future had threatened her with the terrors of an unknown world. The past, despite its poverty and starvation, had been as dear as life. She had suffered all those pangs of dissolution that assail the home-loving Irish when they have to leave what association has made dear to them; for, with the Irish, familiarity does not breed contempt but affection.
She suffered these same miseries now. She saw her home through tears of regret—though unhappiness had driven her from it. And her lips were set in a determination never to return to Cregan, though her chin trembled with pity of herself in the determination.
Some distance behind her came a smaller woman, as shrunken, as withered, and as yellow as an old leaf. Even her shoes seemed to have dried and shriveled, curling up at the toes. And she fluttered along in the light morning breeze, holding back against it, on her heels, with an odd effect of being carried forward faster than she wished to go.
She was Mrs. Byrne, from the floor below Mrs. Cregan's flat, and she had been starting out on a secret errand of her own when she heard the quarrel overhead and stopped to hear the end of it. There was something guilty in her manner, and she was evidently struggling between her desire to reach the next street unseen by Mrs. Cregan and her desire to know what had happened in the Cregan flat. Her curiosity proved the stronger.
She let the wind blow her alongside her friend's portly despair. She said, in the hoarse whisper that was all she had left of her voice: "Is it yerself, Mrs. Cregan? Yuh 're off to choorch early this mornin'."
Mrs. Cregan looked around, blinking to clear her eyes. "Choorch?" she said, on the plaintiveness of a high note that broke in her throat.
"Yuh 're cryin', woman!" Mrs. Bryne's look of craftiness changed at once to one of startled distress. "Come back out o' this with yuh." She caught Mrs. Cregan's arm. "It 's no thing to be doin' on the street! Come back, now. Where 're yuh goin'?"
Mrs. Cregan marched stolidly ahead and carried her neighbor with her. "I 've quit 'm."
Mrs. Byrne expressed her emotion and showed her tact by silently compressing her lips.
"I 've quit 'im, fer good an' all." She stroked a tear down her cheek with a thick forefinger. "I 'll niver go back. Niver!"
"Come away with yuh, Mary Cregan," Mrs. Byrne cried, in her breathy huskiness. "At your age! Faith, yuh 're as flighty as one o' them girls with the pink silk petticoats. He 's yer husban', ain't he? D' yuh think yuh were married over the broomstick? Come an' behave yerself like a decent woman. What 'd Father Dumphy say to this, think yuh?"
"He 's a man. I know what he 'd say. He 'd tell me to go back to Cregan. I 'll niver go back. Niver!"
"Yuh won't! What 'll yuh do, then? Where 'll yuh go to?"
"I 'll niver go back. Niver! He 's broke me best chiny—an' kicked the leg off the chair—an' overtoorned the table—an' ordered me out o' the little bit o' home I been all these years puttin' together. The teapot th' ol' man brought from Ireland—the very teapot—smashed to smithereens! An' the little white dishes with the gilt trimmin's I had to me weddin' day, Mrs. Byrne! There was the poor things all broke to bits!" She stopped to point at the sidewalk, as if the wreckage lay there before her. "All me little bit o' chiny. All of it. All of it, Mrs. Byrne. Ev'ry bit! Boorsted!"
Her tears choked her. She could not express the piercing irreparability of the injury. It would not have been so bad if he had beaten her; a hurt will heal. But the innocent, wee cups—and the fat old brown teapot—and the sweet little chair with its pretty legs, carved and turned so daintily! She had washed them and wiped them, and dusted and polished them, and been so careful of them and felt so proud of them, for twenty years past. And, now, there they were lying, all in bits—past mending—gone forever. And they so pretty and so harmless.
The crash as they fell on the floor had sounded in her ears like the scream of a child murdered.
She started forward again, determinedly. "I 'll niver go back to 'm. He can have his house to himsilf.… What do I care for Father Dumphy? He wants nothin' but the dime I leaves at the choorch doore, an' the dime I drops on the plate! Whin me poorse 's impty, he 'll not bother his head about me!"
"Shame on yuh!" Mrs. Byrne wheezed, with her eye on the house she was passing. "Yuh talk no better than a Prod'stunt."
"An' if I was a Prod'stint," she cried, "I 'd not have to pay money iv'ry time I wanted to hear mass. I 'd not be out on the street here, not knowin' where I 'm goin' to, ner how I 'm to live. It 's thim that knows how to take care o' their own—givin' the women worrk, an' takin' the childer off to the farrms, an' all the like o' that. You Dogans——"
Mrs. Byrne glanced about her fearfully. "Stop yer talk, now. Stop yer talk. Stop it before someone hears yuh makin' a big fool o' yerself."
"I 'll not stop it. What do I care who hears me? I 'm goin' off from here fer good an' all. 'T will know me no more. 'T will not. I 'm done with it all. I 'm done with it." She held out her purse. "I 've got me bit o' money. I 'll hire me a little room uptown. I 'm done with him an' Father Dumphy an' the whole dang lot o' yuz. Slavin' an' savin' fer nothin' at all. I 'll worrk fer mesilf now, an' none other. Neither Cregan ner the choorch ner no one ilse 'll get a penny's good o' me no more. I got no one in the wide worrld but mesilf to look to, an' I 'll go it alone."
Mrs. Byrne was a little woman of a somewhat sinister aspect, her dull eyes very deep in their wrinkles, her nose pushed aside out of the perpendicular, her long lips stretched tightly over protruding teeth. She was as curious as an old monkey; but it was not only her curiosity that made her the busiest gossip and the most charitable "good soul" in the street; she had her share of human kindness, and if she was as crafty as a hypocrite, it was because she enjoyed handling men and women, like a politician.
Seeing that Mrs. Cregan was beyond the reach of shame or the appeal of the priest, she said: "Well, I don't blame yuh, woman. Cregan 's a fool—like all the rest o' the men. An' yerself such a good manager. Well, well! Yer rooms was that purty 't 'ud make yuh wistful. Where will yuh be goin'?"
"Have yuh had yer breakfast?"
Mrs. Cregan shook her head.
"Come back, then, an' have a bite with me."
"Niver! I 'll niver go back."
Mrs. Byrne hitched up her shawl. "Come along then to the da-ary restr'unt. There 's no one home to miss me. I 'll take a bit o' holiday, this mornin', meself. I 've been wantin' to taste one o' those batter cakes they make in the restr'unt windahs, this long enough."
"Yuh 've ate yer breakfast."
"I have not," Mrs. Byrne replied. "I was off to the grocer to buy some sugar when yuh stopped me."
It was a lie. She had, in fact, started out, secretly, on a guilty errand which she should not acknowledge.
"It 's a lonely meal I 'd 've been havin'," she said, "with Byrne down at the boiler house an' the boy off on his run."
Mrs. Cregan did not reply, and they came to Sixth Avenue without more words. They paused before a dairy restaurant that advertised its "Surpassing Coffee" in white-enamel letters on its shop-front windows. Mrs. Cregan's hunger drew her in, but slowly; and Mrs. Byrne followed, coughing to conceal her embarrassment.
It was the first time that Mrs. Byrne had ever sat down in any public restaurant, except the eating-halls at Coney Island (where she went with "basket parties") or the "ice-cream parlors" at Fort George. And she glanced about her, at tiled walls and mosaic floors, with a furtiveness that was none the less critical for being so sly.
"It 's eatin' in a bathroom we are," she whispered. "An' will yuh look at the cup yonder. The sides of it are that thick there 's scarce room fer the coffee in it! Well, well! It do beat the Dutch! They 're drawin' the drink out of a boiler big enough fer wash-day."
The approach of a waitress silenced her. When she saw that Mrs. Cregan was not going to speak, she looked up at the girl with a bargain-counter keenness. "Have y' any pancakes fit t' eat?… How much are they?… Ten cents! Fer how many?… Fer three pancakes? Fer three! D'yuh hear that?" she appealed to Mrs. Cregan. "Come home with me, that 's a good woman. It 's a sin to pay it. Three cents fer a pancake! Aw, come along out o' this. Ten cents! We c'u'd get two loaves o' bread fer the money an' live on it fer a week!"
But Mrs. Cregan was beyond the reach of practicalities, and she ordered her buckwheat cakes and coffee with an air that was mournfully distrait. Mrs. Byrne made a vain attempt to get her own cakes from the waitress for five cents, and then resigned herself to the senseless extravagance.
"Yuh 'll not make yer own livin' an' eat the likes o' this," she grumbled asthmatically. "Yuh 'd better be savin' yer money."
Mrs. Cregan was looking at the thick china with a sort of aggrieved despondence. It was almost the expression of a bereaved mother looking at one of her neighbor's children and thinking it a healthy, ugly brat whom nobody would have missed! She stared at the bare walls and the bare tables of the restaurant, and found the place, by comparison with her own cozy flat, as unhomelike as the waiting-room of a railroad station—the waiting-room of a railroad station when you have said good-bye to your past and the train has not yet arrived to carry you to your future.
As her pancakes were served to her, she bent over the plate to hide a tear that trickled down her nose. It splashed on the piece of food that she raised to her mouth. She ate it—tear and all.
"An' them no bigger than the top of a tomato can!" Mrs. Byrne was muttering.
Mrs. Cregan ate, and the food helped to stop her tears. It was the strong coffee, at last, that brought her back her voice. "If it 'd b'en him he 'd 'a' gone an' got drunk," she said, wiping her cheeks with her napkin. "The men have the best of it. Us women have to take it all starin' sober."
"They 're no more than children," Mrs. Byrne replied, "an' they 're to be treated as such. Sure, Cregan could n't live without yuh. He 'd have no buttons to his pants in a week."
"An' him!" Mrs. Cregan cried "Iver since the Raypublicuns got licked; there 's be'n no gettin' on with him at all. Thim Sunday papers 've toorned his head. He 's all blather about his rights an' his wrongs. Th' other moornin', did n't I try to get on his bus from the wrong side o' the crossin', an' he bawls at me: 'Th' other side! Th' other side! Yuh 're no better than any one ilse!' An' I had to chase through the mud after him! The little wizened runt! He 's talkin' like an anarchist! An' that 's why he smashed me dish. He 'll have no one say 'No' to 'im.… Ah, Mrs. Byrne, niver marry a man older than yersilf."
"Thank yuh," Mrs. Byrne replied with hoarse sarcasm. "I 'm not likely to, at my age." She added, consolingly: "Cregan 's young fer his years. Drivin' a Fift' Avenah bus is fine, preservin', outdoor work."
"It is that!" And Mrs. Cregan's tone remarked that the fact was the more to be deplored. "He 'll be crankier an' crabbeder the older he grows." She dipped to her coffee and swallowed hard.
Mrs. Byrne had screwed up her eyes to squint at an idea that could not well be looked in the face. When she spoke it was to say slyly: "God forbid! But they do go off sometimes in a puff. He looks as if he 'd live fer long enough, thank Heaven. But yuh never can tell."
Mrs. Cregan blnked, held her hand for a moment, and then began hastily to fill her mouth with food. The silence that ensued was long, enough to take on an appearance of guilt.
It was long enough, too, for Mrs. Byrne to "contrive a procedure."
"Yuh never can tell," she began, unless yuh have doin's with the-devil—like them gipsies that see what 's comin' by lookin' in the flat o' yer hand. There 's one o' them aroun' the corner, an' they say she told Minnie Doyle the name o' the man she was to marry. An' he married her, at that!"
Mrs. Cregan looked blank.
Mrs. Byrne leaned forward to her. "I never whispered it to a livin' soul but yerself—but it was her told Mrs. Gunn that her last was to be a boy. A good month ahead! An' when she saw it was true she had no peace o' mind till she heard the priest say the words over the poor child an' saw that the sprinkle o' holy water did n't bubble off him like yuh 'd sprinkled it on a hot stove."
Mrs. Cregan's vacant regard had slowly gathered a gleam of startled intelligence.
"An' if I was yerself, Mrs. Cregan—not knowin' where I was to go to, ner how I was to live—I 'd go an' have a talk with her before I went further, d' yuh see?"
"God forbid! 'T is a mortal sin."
"'T is not. When I told Father Dumphy what I 'd done, he called me an ol' fool an' gave me an extry litany fer penance. What 's a litany!"
"I 'd be scared o' me life!"
"Yuh wud not. Come along with me. I was goin'. I got troubles o' me own. Never mind that. There 's nothin' to be scared of. Nothin' at all. No one 'll see us. I been there meself many 's the time, an' no one knows it."
It was a good half hour later that Mrs. Byrne entered the "reception rooms" of Madame Wampa, "clairvoyant, palmist, and card-reader," with the propitiatory smile of the woman who knows she is doing wrong but is prepared to argue that there is "no great harm into it." And she was followed by Mrs. Cregan, still guilty, but with a sort of reverential awe, as if she were an altar-boy who had been persuaded to join in some mischievous trespass on the sanctuary.
Madame Wampa received them, professionally insolent in her indifference.
Mrs. Byrne explained that she wanted only a "small card reading" for twenty-five cents.
Madame Wampa said curtly: "Sit down."
They sat down.
Madame Wampa had been a music-hall singer when her husband was a sleight-of-hand artist, "the Great Malino, the Wizard of Milan." Her voice had long since left her; she had nothing of her beauty but its yellow ruins; and her life was made up of the consideration of two great grievances—first, that her husband was always idle, and second that her landlord overcharged her for her rooms on account of the nature of her business.
She saw nothing in Mrs. Byrne and Mrs. Cregan but their inability to help her largely in paying her rent. She said: "I give a full trance readin' with names, dates, and all questions answered, for a dollar, or a full card readin' for fifty cents. You can't tell much for a quarter."
Mrs. Byrne shook her head.
Madame Wampa said "Very well," in a tone of haughty resignation. She turned to a booth that had been made of turkey-red chintz, in one corner of the room, and lit a small red lamp and sat down before a little bamboo table. A toy angel from a Christmas tree hung above her. A stuffed alligator sat up, on its hind legs, beside her—a porcelain bell hung on a red ribbon about its neck—to grin with a cheerful uncanniness on the rigmaroles of magic. She said: "Come!"
Mrs. Byrne entered the gipsy tent, and Mrs. Cregan was left alone in the atmosphere of a bespangled past reduced to its lowest terms of imposture. There were strings of Indian corn hanging from the ceiling, Chinese coins and rabbits' feet on the walls, a horseshoe wrapped in tinfoil over the door, and a collection of grotesque bric-à-brac on shelves and tables. There were necklaces of lucky beads for sale, and love charms in the shape of small glass hearts enclosing imitation shamrocks, and dream books and manuals of palmistry and gipsy cards for fortune-telling, and photographs of Madame Wampa in a gorgeous evening dress trimmed with feathers. Over all was a smoky odor of kerosene from an oil heater.
Mrs. Cregan looked from side to side with a vaguely worried feeling that it must take a power of dusting and wiping to keep such a clutter of things clean; and this feeling gradually rose into her consciousness above the dull stupefaction of her grief.
Madame Wampa, in the chintz tent, recited without expression: "Though you travel east or west, may your luck be the best." She dropped her voice to a toneless mutter about a "journey," and some papers that were to be signed, and a "false" dark woman who pretended to be Mrs. Byrne's friend, but would do her an injury.
Mrs. Cregan sat as if she were waiting for her turn to enter a confessional, her hands folded, her head dropped. She heard Mrs. Byrne whispering hoarsely, but she did not listen.
Madame Wampa said, at last, wearily: "Very well. Send her in."
She shuffled her cards and sighed. She was professionally acquainted with many griefs, and she took her toll of them. They meant no more to her than sickness does to a quack. She looked up at Mrs. Cregan's entrance almost absent-mindedly.
But there was, at once, something so helplessly stricken about the woman's plump despair, so infantile, so touchingly ridiculous, that Madame Wampa even smiled faintly and moved the bamboo table to let Mrs. Cregan squeeze into the chair that waited her. She sat down and held out her money in her palm. Madame Wampa took her hand. "I will tell you," she said. "I will see it in your hand."
She crossed the palm three times with the coin, and began in the monotonous voice and with the expressionless face of the fakir: "You—you 're married. Many years. I see many years. You 've not been happy. Monday 'is your unlucky day. Don't begin nothin' on Monday. You are thinkin' of takin' a journey—somethin'—some change. It won't end good. You 'd better not. Whatever it is. There 's a man—a man that has horses—that drives horses. I see horses. He 'll have an accident. I think a runaway—a collision. He 'll be—hurt. Yes. He 's old—an old man. Mebbe he 'll die. P'r'aps. He 's a relative—related to you. Beware of animals. One 'll hurt you. You 'll never be rich—but comfortable. The best of your life 's comin'. You 'll have your wish."
She had finished, but Mrs. Cregan did not move. She had drawn back in her chair. Her mouth had loosened. Her hand lay limp on the table. All her intelligence seemed to have concentrated in her eyes in an expression of horrified surprise. She said faintly: "Is 't Cregan?"
Madame Wampa shrugged one shoulder in her red kimono. "The lines do not say." She blew out the lamp and rose from the table. "That 's all. You can't tell much for a quarter. I give a full trance readin', with names, dates, and all questions answered—"
"God forgi' me!" Mrs. cregan quavered, crossing herself. She staggered out blindly into the room.
Mrs. Byrne cried: "What's wrong with yuh?"
And at that, Mrs. Cregan stampeded to the door in the ponderous panic of a conscience-stricken elephant—running to find a place where she might get down on her knees. Cregan! It was himself! It was Dinny! Killed, maybe! Maybe, at this blessed minute, he was lying in a hospital, and the surgeons cutting him up with their little knives. God forgive us! She had blasphemed against the Church and Father Dumphy; and she must pray. For herself and for Cregan. Dinny! She had wished him dead.
Mrs. Byrne tugged at her cape. "Whist! Whist! What 's come over yuh, woman? What is it?"
"It 's Dinny!"
That was all that could be had out of her. Even when she reached her home again, and Mrs. Byrne followed her in, afraid of leaving the frightened woman alone lest she "blab" the whole secret to the first person she met,—even then Mrs. Cregan could not speak until she had gathered up the broken dishes and propped the broken chair against the wall, as frantically as if she were trying to conceal the evidence of a crime. Then she sank down on a sofa and burst into tears. "The poor creature!" she wept. "The poor ol' man!"
Mrs. Byrne folded her arms. "Mary Cregan," she said, in hoarse disgust, "when yuh 've done makin' a fool o' yerself, I 'll trouble yuh to listen to me. Now! If y' ever breathe a word o' this to Cregan, he 'll laugh himself blind! Mind yuh that! He 'll not believe yuh. No one 'll believe yuh. No one! An' if yuh don't want somethin' turrible to happen, yuh 'll say nothin', but yuh 'll behave yerself like a decent married woman an' go to church an' say yer prayers against trouble. That woman with the cards says whatever th' old Nick puts into her head to say."
Mrs. Cregan cried: "She saw it in me hand!"
Mrs. Byrne drew herself up like a prophetess. "Dip yer hand in holy water, an' yuh 'll hear no more of it. Now, then. Behave yerself."
"I was wishin' it!" she wailed. "I was wishin' somethin' 'd happen to him to leave me free here in m' own home!"
"An' that," Mrs. Byrne said, "is the judgment o' heaven on yuh fer carin' more fer yer dishes than yuh did fer yer husband. Yuh 're a good manager, Mrs. Cregan, but yuh 've been a dang poor wife. Think of yer man first an' yer house after, an' yuh 'll be a happier woman, I tell yuh."
"I will that. I will," Mrs. Cregan wept, "if he's spared to me."
"Never fear," Mrs. Byrne said drily. "He 'll be spared to yuh."
And he has been spared to her. At first he was suspicious of her subdued manner and remorseful gentleness; and for a long time he watched her, very warily, with an eye for treachery. Then he understood that she had succumbed to his masterful handling of her, and he was masculinely proud of his conquest.
When the Fifth Avenue bses became motor-cars, and Dinny retired, Mrs. Cregan began to hope that she had warded off the predicted bad fortune by her devoutness, but she still had her fears. "'T was the devil's doin's," she said to Mrs. Byrne.
"He had a hand in it, no doubt," Mrs. Byrne agreed with her. "An' how's Cregan?… Well, I'm glad o' that. An' the new dishes? Good luck to them.… Yuh're off early to choorch ag'in?"