The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 6/A Visit to the Autocrat's Landlady

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A VISIT TO THE AUTOCRAT'S LANDLADY.

 

By the Special Reporter of the "Oceanic Miscellany".


The door was opened by a stout, red-armed lump of a woman, who, in reply to my question, said her name was Bridget, but Biddy they calls her mostly. There was a rickety hat-stand in the entry, upon which, by the side of a schoolboy's cap, there hung a broad-brimmed white hat, somewhat fatigued by use, but looking gentle and kindly, as I have often noticed good old gentlemen's hats do, after they have worn them for a time. The door of the dining-room was standing wide open, and I went in. A long table, covered with an oil-cloth, ran up and down the length of the room, and yellow wooden chairs were ranged about it. She showed me where the Gentleman used to sit, and, at the last part of the time, the Schoolmistress next to him. The chairs were like the rest, but it was odd enough to notice that they stood close together, touching each other, while all the rest were straggling and separate. I observed that peculiar atmospheric flavor which has been described by Mr. Balzac, (the French story-teller who borrows so many things from some of our American loading writers,) under the name of odeur de pension. It is, as one may say, an olfactory perspective of an endless vista of departed breakfasts, dinners, and suppers. It is similar, if not identical, in all temperate climates; a kind of neutral tint, which forms the perpetual background upon which the banquet of today strikes out its keener but more transitory aroma. I don't think it necessary to go into any further particulars, because this atmospheric character has the effect of making the dining-rooms of all boarding-houses seem very much alike; and the accident of a hair-cloth sofa, cold, shiny, slippery, prickly,—or a veneered sideboard, with a scale off here and there, and a knob or two missing,—or a portrait, with one hand half under its coat, the other resting on a pious-looking book, —these accidents, and such as these, make no great difference.

The landlady soon presented herself, and I followed her into the parlor, which was a decent apartment, with a smart centre-table, on which lay an accordion, a recent number of the "Pactolian," a gilt-edged, illustrated book or two, and a copy of the works of that distinguished native author, to whom I feel very spiteful, on account of his having, some years ago, attacked a near friend of mine, and whom, on Christian principles, I do not mention,—though I have noticed, that, where there is an accordion on the table, his books are apt to be lying near it.

The landlady was a "wilted," (not exactly withered,) sad-eyed woman, of the thin-blooded sort, but firm-fibred, and sharpened and made shrewd by her calling, so that the look with which she ran me over, in the light of a possible boarder, was so searching, that I was half put down by it. I informed her of my errand, which was to make some inquiries concerning two former boarders of hers, in whom a portion of the public had expressed some interest, and of whom I should be glad to know certain personal details,—as to their habits, appearance, and so on. Any information she might furnish would be looked upon in the light of a literary contribution to the pages of the "Oceanic Miscellany," and be compensated with the well-known liberality of the publishers of that spirited, enterprising, and very popular periodical.

Up to this point, the landlady's countenance had kept that worried, watchful look, which poor women, who have to fight the world single-handed, sooner or later grow into. But now her features relaxed a little. The blow which had crushed her life had shattered her smile, and, as the web of shivered expression shot off its rays across her features, I fancied that Grief had written her face all over with 'Ws', to mark her as one of his forlorn flock of Widows.

The report here given is partly from the conversation held with the landlady at that time, and partly from written notes which she furnished me; for, finding that she was to be a contributor to the "Oceanic Miscellany," and that in that capacity she would be entitled to the ample compensation offered by the liberal proprietors of that admirably conducted periodical,—which we are pleased to learn has been growing in general favor, and which, the public may be assured, no pains will be spared to render superior in every respect,—I say, finding that she was to be handsomely remunerated, she entered into the subject with great zeal, both verbally and by letter. The reader will see that I sometimes follow her orthography, and sometimes her pronunciation, as I may have taken it from writing or from speech.

 

THE LANDLADY'S ACCOUNT.

There is two vacant places at my table, which I should be pleased to fill with two gentlemen, or with a gentleman and his wife, or any respectable people, be they merried or single. It is about the gentleman and the lady that used to set in them places, that inquiries is bein' made. Some has wrote, and some has spoke, and a good many folks, that was unbeknown to me, has come in and wanted to see the place where they used to set, and some days it's been nothin' but ring, ring, ring, from mornin' till night.

Folks will be curious about them that has wrote in the papers. There's my daughter couldn't be easy no way till she'd got a profeel of one of them authors, to hang up right over the head of her bed. That's the gentleman that writes stories in the papers, some in the same way this gentleman did, I expect, that inquiries is made about.

I'm a poor woman, that tries to get an honest livin', and works hard enough for it;—lost my husband, and buried five children, and have two livin' ones to support. It's a great loss to me, losin' them two boarders; and if there's anything in them papers he left in that desk that will fetch anything at any of the shops where they buy such things, I'm sure I wish you'd ask the printer to step round here and stop in and see what any of 'em is worth. I'll let you have one or two of 'em, and then you can see whether you don't know anybody that would take the lot. I suppose you'll put what I tell you into shape, for, like as not, I sha'n't write it out nor talk jest as folks that make books do.

This gentleman warn't no great of a gentleman to look at. Being of a very moderate dimension,—five foot five he said, but five foot four more likely, and I've heerd him say he didn't weigh much over a hundred and twenty pound. He was light-complected rather than darksome, and was one of them smooth-faced people that keep their baird and wiskers cut close, jest as if they'd be very troublesome if they let 'em grow,—instead of layin' out their face in grass, as my poor husband that's dead and gone used to say. He was a well-behaved gentleman at table, only talked a good deal, and pretty loud sometimes, and had a way of turnin' up his nose when he didn't like what folks said, that one of my boarders, who is a very smart young man, said he couldn't stand, no how, and used to make faces and poke fun at him whenever he see him do it.

He never said a word aginst any vittles that was set before him, but I mistrusted that he was more partickerlar in his eatin' than he wanted folks to know of, for I've know'd him make believe to eat, and leave the vittles on his plate when he didn't seem to fancy 'em; but he was very careful never to hurt my feelin's, and I don't belief he'd have spoke, if he had found a tadpole in a dish of chowder. But nothin' could hurry him when he was about his vittles. Many's the time I've seen that gentleman keepin' two or three of 'em settin' round the breakfast-table after the rest had swallered their meal, and the things was cleared off, and Bridget was a-waitin' to get the cloth away,—and there that little man would set, with a tumbler of sugar and water,—what he used to call O Sukray, —a-talkin' and a-talkin',—and sometimes he would laugh, and sometimes the tears would come into his eyes,—which was a kind of grayish blue eyes,—and there he'd set and set, and my boy Benjamin Franklin hangin' round and gettin' late for school and wantin' an excuse, and an old gentleman that's one of my boarders a-listenin' as if he wa'n't no older than my Benj. Franklin, and that schoolmistress settin' jest as if she'd been bewitched, and you might stick pins into her without her hollerin'. He was a master hand to talk when he got a-goin'. But he never would have no disputes nor long argerments at my table, and I liked him all the better for that; for I had a boarder once that never let nothin' go by without disputin' of it, till nobody knowed what he believed and what he didn't believe, only they was pretty sure he didn't believe the side he was a-disputin' for, and some of 'em said, that, if you wanted him to go any partickerlar way, you must do with him just as folks do that drive—well, them obstinate creeturs that squeal so,— for I don't like to name such creeturs in connexion with a gentleman that paid his board regular, and was a very smart man, and knowed a great deal, only his knowledge all laid crosswise, as one of 'em used to say, after t'other one had shet him up till his mouth wa'n't of no more use to him than if it had been a hole in the back of his head. This wa'n't no sech gentleman. One of my boarders used to say that he always said exactly what he was a mind to, and stuck his idees out jest like them that sells pears outside their shop-winders, —some is three cents, some is two cents, and some is only one cent, and if you don't like, you needn't buy, but them's the articles and them's the prices, and if you want 'em, take 'em, and if you don't, go about your business, and don't stand mellerin' of 'em with your thumbs all day till you've sp'ilt 'em for other folks.

He was a man that loved to stick round home as much as any cat you ever see in your life. He used to say he'd as lief have a tooth pulled as go away anywheres. Always got sick, he said, when he went away, and never sick when he didn't. Pretty nigh killed himself goin' about lecterin' two or three winters,—talkin' in cold country lyceums,—as he used to say,—goin' home to cold parlors and bein' treated to cold apples and cold water, and then goin' up into a cold bed in a cold chamber, and comin' home next mornin' with a cold in his head as bad as the horse-distemper. Then he'd look kind of sorry for havin' said it, and tell how kind some of the good women was to him,—how one spread an edder-down comforter for him, and another fixed up somethin' hot for him after the lecter, and another one said, —"There now, you smoke that cigar of yours after the lecter, jest as if you was at home,"—and if they'd all been like that, he'd have gone on lectering forever, but, as it was, he had got pooty nigh enough of it, and preferred a nateral death to puttin' himself out of the world by such violent means as lecterin'.

He used to say that he was always good company enough, if he wasn't froze to death, and if he wasn't pinned in a corner so't he couldn't clear out when he'd got as much as he wanted. But he was a dreadful uneven creetur in his talk, and I've heerd a smart young man that's one of my boarders say, he believed he had a lid to the top of his head, and took his brains out and left 'em up-stairs sometimes when he come down in the mornin'.—About his ways, he was spry and quick and impatient, and, except in a good company,—he used to say,—where he could get away at any minute, he didn't like to set still very long to once, but wanted to be off walkin', or rowin' round in one of them queer boats of his, and he was the solitariest creetur in his goin's about (except when he could get that schoolmistress to trail round with him) that ever you see in your life. He used to say that usin' two eyes and two legs at once, and keepin' one tongue a-goin', too, was too sharp practice for him; so he had a way of dodgin' round all sorts of odd streets, I've heerd say, where he wouldn't meet people that would stick to him.

It didn't take much to please him. Sometimes it would be a big book he'd lug home, and sometimes it would be a mikerscope, and sometimes it would be a dreadful old-lookin' fiddle that he'd picked up somewhere, and kept a-screechin' on, sayin' all the while that it was jest as smooth as a flute. Then ag'in I'd hear him laughin' out all alone, and I'd go up and find him readin' some verses that he'd been makin'. But jest as like as not I'd go in another time, and find him cryin',—but he'd wipe his eyes and try not to show it, —and it was all nothin' but some more verses he'd been a-writin'. I've heerd him say that it was put down in one of them ancient books, that a man must cry, himself, if he wants to make other folks cry; but, says he, you can't make 'em neither laugh nor cry, if you don't try on them feelin's yourself before you send your work to the customers.

He was a temperate man, and always encouraged temperance by drinkin' jest what he was a mind to, and that was generally water. You couldn't scare him with names, though. I remember a young minister that's go'n' to be, that boards at my house, askin' once what was the safest strong drink for them that had to take somethin' for the stomach's sake and thine awful infirmities. Aqua fortis, says he, —because you know that'll eat your insides out, if you get it too strong, and so you always mind how much you take. Next to that, says he, rum's the safest for a wise man, and small beer for a fool.

I never mistrusted anything about him and that schoolmistress till I heerd they was keepin' company and was go'n' to be merried. But I might have knowed it well enough by his smartin' himself up the way he did, and partin' the hair on the back of his head, and gettin' a blue coat with brass buttons, and wearin' them dreadful tight little French boots that used to stand outside his door to be blacked, and stickin' round schoolma'am, and follerin' of her with his eyes; but then he was always fond of ladies, and used to sing with my daughter, and wrote his name out in a blank book she keeps,—them that has daughters of their own will keep their eyes on 'em,—and I've often heerd him say he was fond of music and picters,—and she worked a beautiful pattern for a chair of his once, that he seemed to set a good deal by; but I ha'n't no fault to find, and there is them that my daughter likes and them that likes her.

As to schoolma'am, I ha'n't a word to say that a'n't favorable, and don't harbor no unkind feelin' to her, and never knowed them that did. When she first come to board at my house, I hadn't any idee she'd live long. She was all dressed in black; and her face looked so delicate, I expected before six months was over to see a plate of glass over it, and a Bible and a bunch of flowers layin' on the lid of the———well, I don't like to talk about it; for when she first come, and said her mother was dead, and she was alone in the world, except one sister out West, and unlocked her trunk and showed me her things, and took out her little purse and showed me her money, and said that was all the property she had in the world but her courage and her education, and would I take her and keep her till she could get some scholars,—I couldn't say not one word, but jest went up to her and kissed her and bu'st out a-cryin' so as I never cried since I buried the last of my five children that lays in the buryin'-ground with their father, and a place for one more grown person betwixt him and the shortest of them five graves, where my baby is waitin' for its mother.

[The landlady stopped here and shed and shed a few still tears, such as poor women who have been wrung out almost dry by fierce griefs lose calmly, without sobs or hysteric convulsions, when they show the scar of a healed sorrow.]

———The schoolma'am had jest been killin' herself for a year and a half with waitin' and tendin' and watchin' with that sick mother that was dead now and she was in mournin' for. She didn't say so, but I got the story out of her, and then I knowed why she looked so dreadful pale and poor. By-and-by she begun to get some scholars, and then she would come home sometimes so weak and faint that I was afraid she would drop. One day I handed her a bottle of camphire to smell of, and she took a smell of it, and I thought she'd have fainted right away.—Oh, says she, when she come to, I've breathed that smell for a whole year and more, and it kills me to breathe it again!

The fust thing that ever I see pass between the gentleman inquiries is made about, and her, was on occasion of his makin' some very searchin' remarks about griefs, sech as loss of friends and so on. I see her fix her eye steady on him, and then she kind of trembled and turned white, and the next thing I knew was she was all of a heap on the floor. I remember he looked into her face then and seemed to be seized as if it was with a start or spasm-like,—but I thought nothin' more of it, supposin' it was because he felt so bad at makin' her faint away.

Some has asked me what kind of a young woman she was to look at. Well, folks differ as to what is likely and what is homely. I've seen them that was as pretty as picters in my eyes: cheeks jest as rosy as they could be, and hair all shiny and curly, and little mouths with lips as red as sealin'-wax, and yet one of my boarders that had a great name for makin' marble figgers would say such kind of good looks warn't of no account. I knowed a young lady once that a man drownded himself because she wouldn't marry him, and she might have had her pick of a dozen, but I didn't call her anything great in the way of looks.

All I can say is, that, whether she was pretty or not, she looked like a young woman that knowed what was true and that loved what was good, and she had about as clear an eye and about as pleasant a smile as any man ought to want for every-day company. I've seen a good many young ladies that could talk faster than she could; but if you'd seen her or heerd her when our boardin'-house caught afire, or when there was anything to be done besides speech-makin', I guess you'd like to have stood still and looked on, jest to see that young woman's way of goin' to work.—Dark, rather than light; and slim, but strong in the arms,—perhaps from liftin' that old mother about; for I've seen her heavin' one end of a big heavy chest round that I shouldn't have thought of touchin',—and yet her hands was little and white.—Dressed very plain, but neat, and wore her hair smooth. I used to wonder sometimes she didn't wear some kind of ornaments, bein' a likely young woman, and havin' her way to make in the world, and seein' my daughter wearin' jewelry, which sets her off so much, every day. She never would,—nothin' but a breastpin with her mother's hair in it, and sometimes one little black cross. That made me think she was a Roman Catholic, especially when she got a picter of the Virgin Mary and hung it up in her room; so I asked her, and she shook her head and said these very words,—that she never saw a church-door so narrow she couldn't go in through it, nor so wide that all the Creator's goodness and glory could enter it; and then she dropped her eyes and went to work on a flannel petticoat she was makin',—which I knowed, but she didn't tell me, was for a poor old woman.

I've said enough about them two boarders, but I believe it's all true. Their places is vacant, and I should be very glad to fill 'em with two gentlemen, or with a gentleman and his wife, or any respectable people, be they merried or single.

I've heerd some talk about a friend of that gentleman's comin' to take his place That's the gentleman that he calls "the Professor," and I'm sure I hope there is sech a man; only all I can say is, I never see him, and none of my boarders ever see him, and that smart young man that I was speakin' of says he don't believe there's no sech person as him, nor that other one that he called "the Poet." I don't much care whether folks professes or makes poems, if they makes themselves agreeable and pays their board regular. I'm a poor woman, that tries to get an honest livin', and works hard enough for it; lost my husband, and buried five children. . . . . . . . . . .

Excuse me, dear Madam, I said,—looking at my watch,—but you spoke of certain papers which your boarder left, and which you were ready to dispose of for the pages of the "Oceanic Miscellany."

The landlady's face splintered again into the wreck of the broken dimples of better days.—She should be much obleeged, if I would look at them, she said,—and went up stairs and got a small desk containing loose papers. I looked them hastily over, and selected one of the shortest pieces, handed the landlady a check which astonished her, and send the following poem as an appendix to my report. If I should find others adapted to the pages of the spirited periodical which has done so much to develop and satisfy the intellectual appetite of the American public, and to extend the name of its enterprising publishers throughout the reading world, I shall present them in future numbers of the "Oceanic Miscellany."


THE OLD MAN OF THE SEA.

A NIGHTMARE DREAM BY DAYLIGHT.

Do you know the Old Man of the Sea, of the Sea?
Have you met with that dreadful old man?
If you haven't been caught, you will be, you will be;
For catch you he must and he can.

He doesn't hold on by your throat, by your throat,
As of old in the terrible tale;
But he grapples you tight by the coat, by the coat,
Till its buttons and button-holes fail.

There's the charm of a snake in his eye, in his eye,
And a polypus-grip in his hands;
You cannot go back, nor get by, nor get by,
If you look at the spot where he stands.

Oh, you're grabbed! See his claw on your sleeve, on your sleeve!
It is Sinbad's Old Man of the Sea!
You're a Christian, no doubt you believe, you believe;—
You're a martyr, whatever you be!

—Is the breakfast-hour past? They must wait, they must wait,
While the coffee boils sullenly down,
While the Johnny-cake burns on the grate, on the grate,
And the toast is done frightfully brown.

—Yes, your dinner will keep; let it cool, let it cool.
And Madam may worry and fret,
And children half-starved go to school, go to school;—
He can't think of sparing you yet.

—Hark! the bell for the train! "Come along! Come along!
For there isn't a second to lose."
"All aboard!" (He holds on.) "Fsht! ding-dong! Fsht! ding-dong!"—
You can follow on foot, if you choose.

—There's a maid with a cheek like a peach, like a peach,
That is waiting for you in the church;—
But he clings to your side like a leech, like a leech,
And you leave your lost bride in the lurch.

—There's a babe in a fit,—hurry quick! hurry quick!
To the doctor's as fast as you can!
The baby is off, while you stick, while you stick,
In the grip of the dreadful Old Man!

—I have looked on the face of the Bore, of the Bore;
The voice of the Simple I know;
I have welcomed the Flat at my door, at my door;
I have sat by the side of the Slow;

I have walked like a lamb by the friend, by the friend,
That stuck to my skirts like a burr;
I have borne the stale talk without end, without end,
Of the sitter whom nothing could stir:

But my hamstrings grow loose, and I shake and I shake,
At the sight of the dreadful Old Man;
Yea, I quiver and quake, and I take, and I take,
To my legs with what vigor I can!

Oh, the dreadful Old Man of the Sea, of the Sea!
He's come back like the Wandering Jew!
He has had his cold claw upon me, upon me,—
And be sure that he'll have it on you!

 

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.