Open main menu

Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/In Lovers' Meeting


 

IN LOVERS' MEETING

 

 

IN LOVERS' MEETING

"Journeys end in lovers' meeting."

IT was an April morning after a night's rain; and the day had come nimbly—clean, ruddy, and tingling—from a cool bath. It was now ten o'clock. Central Park had been stirring since the dawn with the bustle of winds that shook out the tufts of glued leaflets, and tossed and dried the wet grasses. The sunshine was as yellow as the season's daffodils. The sky, washed like a pearl, seemed to swim in a dazzling brilliancy of light.

To the old washerwoman, shuffling along the asphalt walks with her bundle, these unshaded glories of the spring were giddily bright and dizzying. She had been to West End Avenue to get a Monday washing, and she had walked the whole way. The moisture of the air had started all her aches. The light bewildered her eyes. She had a touch of vertigo that made her uncertain on her feet.

She turned aside to the path that entered the "Ramble," and sat down there on a rustic bench, dropping her bundle on the seat beside her, and clasping her hands over the ragged fringe of her shawl, as if she were clinging to the strength in her gnarled fingers. She blinked under her bonnet—a mourning bonnet, faded from black to dusty green—that did not shade her wrinkles. She seemed pitiably old in the midst of all that glow and lustiness of young life.

Among the trees there was a squirrel that had watched her coming; and it began to approach her, now, through the grass, with quick rushes and sudden stops, jerking its tail in a way that made her smile. And when she smiled, all her wrinkles fell into their places on her face in an expression of motherly good-nature that took wonderfully from her years. It was a face that had not soured with age—that was still even comely though it was as yellow as old bones, and withered. She pursed up her lips to call: "Poosy! Poosy!"

The squirrel sat up on the border of the walk, and watched her with the eyes of a rat. She clucked to it. She coaxed it with baby talk; and the sight of its comical spryness set her shaking with the stomachic, tight-lipped chuckle that is the laughter of old folk who have lost their teeth.

It darted forward a yard on the walk, and hesitated until she held out a trembling hand at her knee. Then it crept to her feet, and sat up, sniffing for the expected alms of nuts.

"Purty, purty," she crooned. "'T 's hungry, it is. Dear, aw dear." Her voice had a sweet mellowness of tone, neither cracked nor plaintive, a soft Irish accent, without the breadth of a brogue.

She reached down to touch the squirrel's head. It crouched, turned on a spring, and scurried back to the grass. She looked up to see a man approaching.

"I scart him off," he apologized, and touched the slouched brim of his felt hat in a somewhat military-salute to her. He was almost as gray as she was herself.

"Sure, I 'd nuthin' to give the poor thing," she said, peering up at him against the sun.

He put his hand in the bagged pocket of his coat. "I 've some goobers with me," he said, drawing out three of them. "I fed most of 'em to the monkeys. They 're hungry these days, ma'am."

She studied him with a puckered eye. He was undeniably "well-preserved," as she would have said; and, though his mustache was thin and gray, there was blood and color, in his tanned cheeks, in little scarlet veins in the skin.

He whistled softly to the squirrel that was spying on them from the grass, and stooped to hold out a nut to it in a brown hand, invitingly. Mrs. Dolan took her bundle from the seat and placed it on her knees. "Yeh 'll have to sit down fer 'm," she said. "They 're as timid as the mice."

She did not explain that she was on terms of friendship with all the mice of her tenement house.

"Thank, yuh, ma'am." He sat down on the edge of the bench, with a certain clumsy bashfulness, and bent over with the nut. The squirrel was erect in the grass. "Like a gopher," he said. He added in a moment. "Out West, ma'am," since she did not seem to understand. He glanced over his shoulder at her to find her smiling absent-mindedly at the squirrel. "They dig the ground full o' rat-holes," he explained, "an' throw yer horse."

She did not answer; and he returned to the squirrel. It came to the middle of the walk, but it would come no nearer. He tossed it the nut, and it ran back to the grass to peel and eat it there.

"Were ever out West, ma'am?" he asked her, shoving back into the seat.

She woke to his question. "Niver a foot," she said. "Niver a foot. It 's fifty year an' more since I landed in Noo York, an' niver a foot have I put out 'f it yet."

"Fifty years," he said. "Well, well.…. The town's changed since then, ma'am."

She nodded and nodded, compressing her lips in an expression that said the thing was beyond words. "Aw, my, my," she sighed; and the thought of the past loosened her face in a pathetic droop of mouth.

"I was a boy here myself, ma'am," he said.

She did not hear him. "Aw, my, my," she went on. "Whin I think 'f it—of a Sunda', whin there 's nuthin' to do on'y sit with yer hands in yer lap! Whin I think 'f it— An' all thim that's dead an' gone." She shook her head sorrowfully from side to side.

"It 's a long time," he said.

"Ain't it now? A long time! Fifty year an' more since I come over in th' ol' City o' Dublin!… I mind we had the ship fever aboord, an' nineteen poor souls were thrown in the sea, without so much as puttin' thim in a chist. An' there I was, cryin' m' eyes out, I was that sick; an' thinkin' ev'ry minute I 'd be the next. An' here I am, livin' yet, praise God—livin' yet."

"We were young then, ma'am."

She chuckled, with an old woman's sudden change of mood. "An' was n't I the green one! The girls at my first place, they tol' me the children in Noo York, whin they cried, took fits an' died. They tol' me that, now. An' Mrs. Elliott—God bless her. She was the good frind to me. I hope that God 'll give 'r the worth 'f it—She come upstairs, an' 'Kitty,' she says. 'What's the matter, Kitty?' she says—me cryin' woorse 'n the child! An' whin I told her! Whin I told her! Aw, my, my!"

At the mention of Mrs. Elliott, the man had turned to her, as if his head were on a rod, like a ventriloquist's dummy, without moving his shoulders. He stared at her, wooden-faced.

"I was the green one," she said. "I come straight from the farms o' County Cavan, where the gurls was brought up in innocency.… We had nuthin' but a dancin' of a Sunda' in the barn—of harvest time—no theayter—nuthin'—nuthin' at all. The folk was all dependin' to their farms." She began to chuckle again. "I mind whin I come to Thurteenth Street, with Rose—they was feedin' pigs in Thurteenth Street in thim days—I says to Rose; 'Sure,' I says, 'they 're all poor here,' I says. 'They 've neither bite ner sup,' I says, 'on'y what they buys.' An' Rose says: 'Don't be talkin' sich nonsince,' she says. Thim very words! 'Don't be talkin' sich nonsince,' she says."

He leaned down again to hold a peanut to the squirrel. "Mrs. Elliott?" he asked thickly. "Where did she live?"

"On Tinth Street, to bo sure. An' she 'd siven to help. 'T was a lov'ly place, an' a fine fam'ly—an' good frinds they was to me. The hand o' God was with me whin I wint there."

He said: "Did y' ever know Jim Farrell?"

Her hand, on the bundle of washing on her knee, twitched and trembled with a sudden leap of her heart. "Indeed, indeed," she said, "he was keepin' comp'ny with me whin he 'listed."

He dropped his head, as if shielding himself from her eyes behind the breadth of his shoulders.

"Did yeh know 'm?" she asked in a quaver.

He did not answer for a moment. Then he said huskily: "He was in th' Excelsior Brigade with me. I jus' ust to hear him talkin' about a girl at Mrs. Elliott's."

The squirrel darted away to safety with another nut, but the man did not rise from his stooping posture. As for Mrs. Dolan, she was gazing, with trembling lips, at the shimmer of sun among the trees. "What become of 'm, sur?" she whispered.

"He was killed," he said. "At Gettysburg."

Two great tears trickled down her old nose. She wiped them off with the corner of her shawl. "God rest his soul," she said. "We was to be married whin he come back.… So 'twas killed he was. Poor boy! Poor boy! … From the day he left I niver heard word of 'm, livin' ner dead." She wiped her cheeks again with a shaking hand. "What matter?" she said. "Sure, what matter? 'T 's all dead an' gone these forty years."

He looked at his foot—a small foot, neatly booted. "I went with the cav'lery after that," he explained anxiously, "fightin' Mexicans an' the Ku-Klux in Texas.… I been servin' out West ever since, enlistin' again when my terms expired.… I got my discharge now, an' my pension."

She scarcely heeded him. "We ust to call 'm 'Candy Jim,'" she said, picking at the soiled table-cloth that wrapped her bundle. 'Candy Jim'… So yeh knew 'm, sur? Well, well. It 's from afar off that God sinds sometimes.… D' yeh mind how he was killed?"

He answered after a pause: "With a bullet, ma'am." He added: "In the head." He took a package of fine-cut chewing tobacco from his hip-pocket, and helped himself hurriedly to a mouthful of it.

"He was a good lad," she said. "We ust to go ridin' time an' again on th' ol' stage down Tinth Street to the Batt'ry.… He was free of his money. An' that 's more than I 'll say fer Dolan. Did yeh know Tim Dolan, too?"

"No, ma'am," he said, and sat up with caution.

"I married Tim—rest his soul! Tim an' five children, I buried thim all." She fell back into silence.

"Did he leave yuh money?" he asked suddenly.

"Nuthin' she said, "nuthin'," with a bitterness which he did not ask an explanation of. "I been washin' iver since. These thurty years I been bendin' over tubs. Thurty years!"

"P'raps yuh put somethin' by?" he insinuated.

"Niver a cint," she said. "I 'd John's children to raise whin m' own was gone. An' that came terrible hard on me, terrible hard. Poor gurls, I didn't begrudge thim the work. I edacated thim so 's they both got good men. An' they sinds me a dollar now an' thin, God bless thim. They ain't rich—not thim. They 'd hilp their ol' aunt if they was."

He turned the fine-cut in his cheek, staring across the sunlight under eyelids that had wrinkled in the glare of alkali deserts.

"'T was easy enough, easy enough, thim times," she said. "But now I ain't got th' ambition to take heavy pieces, an' my sight 's bad. I don't get the clothes cleaned no more."

He did not speak.

"Well, well," she concluded. "What matter? Sure, what matter?" and twisted her hand in her bundle. "Good-day, sur." She got slowly to her feet.

He reached a hand to her arm, and stood beside her. "I 'll carry that," he said gruffly.

The unexpected kindness flustered her. "Not a bit of it," she protested, as he took the bundle from her. "There 's no need, man. 'T is no weight at all.… Well, well; thank yeh, sur. The kindness o' some people." Her face lit with pleasure. "Thank yeh, sur. It's a touch o' the sun I had." She shuffled along beside him. "I 'll b' all right in the shade o' the houses."

They made an odd pair. The old soldier had nothing of the gaunt veteran in his appearance; he was a small man who had not wholly lost a corpulence that must have been heavy on him in middle age. Mrs. Dolan, almost his equal in height, was a rotund little grandmother, muffled in her shawl that came nearly to her knees, and in a skirt that dragged below her heels. She talked incessantly.

He spoke only once, and that was when he was helping her across Fifth Avenue. He asked her whether there was no one in the city to take care of her. She replied with tales of the kindness of the neighbors, particularly of those who had helped her during the winter months when she had been sick and in want. The street, however, was going to the bad; the houses were filling with "Eyetalyans" that feared neither God nor man. A family, in the room above her, worked their sewing-machines from morning till night on Easter Sunday itself. "Thim Guinnys!"

She lived in a rear tenement—to which they entered from the street through a hall as dirty and dark as a rat-hole. She invited him to have a cup of tea with her; and he stumbled after her, up the stairway, the tread-boards of which were covered with tin. She led him into a narrow room that was at once her kitchen, her parlor, her dining-room, and her laundry. A windowless bedroom, as large as a clothes-closet, opened off it; and he could see the white coverlet of the bed in the shadows, and a spray of church palm on the wall above the pillow.

He sat down, in silence, on a chair with a perforated seat that had blistered and peeled with age. She set to work to light a fire in the rusty kitchen stove, pottering about busily, chatting with a voluble hospitality, showing him the brown photographs which she kept on the mantel-shelf, and apologizing for the disorder in which he found the room, with its tubs and its boilers.

He looked at the plaster on the wall, cracked and yellowed with steam. Once or twice he coughed, as if he were about to speak, but she did not wait for him.

Finally—when she had turned her back to put a pinch of tea in. the little brown teapot—he said: "If old Farrell was alive—"

She turned on him. "Sure, man," she said, "he died in Ireland—"

He caught at his hat as it fell from the table, "I meant Jim—Jim Farrell." He was red. "We called him 'old' Farrell."

"Name of Heaven, why?" she cried. "He was n't but twinty!" He shook his head. She laughed at him. "An' if he was livin' this day," she said, "what'd he be to me?"

"He 'd have his pension. A dollar a day an' more."

"An' it 's needin' it he 'd be," she replied. "He was near 's old as mesilf." She poured water in the teapot and set it on the steaming kettle.

"He 'd have no relations," he said. "He 'd want a home of his own."

"Poor boy," she sighed tremulously. "He 's home this many a day. Let bygones be."

"He could be some help to yuh, ma'am," he suggested meekly.

She felt the tears gathering in her eyes. "Well, well," she chafed. "I been gettin' on here alone these thurty years. Please God, I 'll finish it so."

He sat with his eyes on the kettle, and said nothing while she got down two stone-china cups and saucers from a shelf in the corner, and placed them on the little table. "Will yeh have a bite o' bread?" she asked him. "'T is all I have to set before yeh."

He nodded.

She ran along with an explanation that bread and tea was all she ate herself; meat was too tough for her; she had an egg on Easter Sunday, but it had made her sick.

She poured out the tea for him, and he drew up his chair at her bidding. He began to stir the drink with a pewter spoon, both elbows on the table.

"Ma'am," he said, "Jim Farrell now—I ain't sure 't he was killed at Gettysburg. He might be livin' fer all I know."

"Man alive," she cried, "will yeh niver have done? Why do yeh be botherin' an' ol' woman with sich like nonsinse! It 's forty years ago, d' yeh mind? Forty years ago! Let thim that's dead rest in peace, will yeh?" Her anger passed in the instant. "Now, I should n't be talkin' like that," she apologized. "I get few enough callers these days. Will yeh take a bit more sugar, sur—an' forget an ol' woman's blather. I 'm not mesilf this noon."

He took the sugar without a word, and drank down the tea in a gulp. She pressed him to take another cup, but he shook his head. "Thank yuh, ma'am," he said, wiping his mustache with a red cotton handkerchief. "I 'll say good-by to yuh, ma'am." He did not look at her.

She faltered: "I—I 've offinded yeh, thin?"

He went out without answering—without meeting her eyes. She stood a moment with the teapot in her hands; then she set it heavily on the table, and sank into a chair, staring, bewildered, at the closed door.

The meeting with him, and the excitement of his visit had been too much for her. She felt ill—and old. Her mouth weakened and drew down in the whimper of a child; the memories of the past which he had recalled, overcame her; she wept.

In the midst of it, she heard the door pushed open, and she checked herself quickly, looking up with a distorted face, unable to see for the tears in her eyes. "What is it?" she asked faintly.

"It 's me again," he said. "I been—lyin' to yuh. Jim Farrell was n't killed at Gettysburg. He 's—he's alive yet."

She got to her feet, blinking and wiping her cheeks. "Name of Hiven! Jimmy Farrell, d' yeh say?"

"He—he—"

"D' yeh know it?"

He nodded, avoiding her eye.

She waited, shaking. All these years she had thought of Jimmy Farrell, her old lover, dead. He was alive. He had deserted her, and deceived her. She saw the shame of it in the face of this man, even.

"Well," she said at last, in a hard voice, "what of it?"

"Nothin'. But—for the sake of ol' times yuh might—He 's got his pension."

She dropped her apron. "D' yeh mean that I 'd take money from the—the man?"

"He—he—" He fumbled with his hat. "He 'd be glad—"

"Glad!" she cried. "Glad, d' yeh say? Faith, thin, there's small reason. If Jimmy Farrell 's alive, there 's a liar livin'! Why—Why did he— All these years, an'—God hilp us, I—" Her voice broke in a sob. "I liked him better dead."

He winced and swallowed and turned the cud of fine-cut in his cheek. "He 'd be sorry to hear yuh say that."

"Would he! Would he now?" she said in a bitter, low tone. "Thin it 's God's own truth.… Jimmy Farrell.… All these years."

He kept his eyes on the floor. "Mebbe he 's done wrong, but—he could do something to put it right."

She shook her bowed head, the slow tears running down her wrinkles. "I thought to meet him—on th' other side—with all the boys an' gurls." Her hands clung together in a shaking grip. "Don't tell 'm yeh seen me, sur. The—the shame of it—'t would be as hard fer him." She reached out to the bundle of washing and began to untie it distractedly. "God ease the sin of it," she wept, "but I was happier when yeh tol' me he was shot in the head.… Don't tell him now. Let 'm leave me be. I can finish be mesilf." And Farrell stumbled out the door, blindly, his felt hat twisted in his hands.