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Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/The Exiles


 

THE EXILES

 

 

THE EXILES

THE street was a narrow lane of asphalt between two walls of brownstone house-fronts; and these two walls were so exactly alike that each seemed to be staring, with all its shutterless windows, across the roadway at the other, in the dumb amazement of a man meeting his double. Both were ruled lengthwise in the same four rows of windows. Each window was like all its fellows. All were arranged as regularly in line as the inch-marks on a yardstick; and at every third window in the lowest row, a house was marked off—as if it were a foot on the rule—by the projection of a brownstone stoop, from which a flight of steps led down to the sidewalk.

It had once been a street of homes; and, in its prosperous days, its stiff monotony must have realized the ideal of the lives that were lived there, then, according to the strictest conventions of respectability. But now it had fallen into shabbiness and disrepair, and its set, methodical air seemed only proper to such a street of boarding-houses where the conduct of life was chiefly an affair of subdividing identical days into sleeping, waking, and eating, joylessly, by the clock.

It was to this street that the dining-room maid in Mrs. Henry's boarding-house had to look for entertainment whenever she was tired of her round of cooking, serving, and washing-up. She was an Irish girl; and her name was Annie Freel; and her cheeks were still as fresh as pinks from the breezes of Donegal. She had the physique of a milkmaid and a rustic gracefulness of good health that was almost beautiful by contrast with the background of Mrs. Henry's faded dining-room—a background of rusty steel engravings in tarnished gilt frames, hung on a yellowed wall-paper that made the whole room look as if the innumerable meals that had been served there had given it the complexion of a dyspeptic.

She was sitting beside the grated basement window, peeling potatoes into a dish-pan, but she kept an eye on the " area " and the street; and whenever the wheels of a wagon sounded on the pavement, she stopped her work to watch it pass behind the stone spindles of the area balustrade. The thermometer on the window frame marked 92 degrees, and her face was wet. There were heat rings under her eyes; and her eyebrows were drawn in a frown that made no wrinkle on a forehead that had never been broken to worry. Whenever she looked away from the window, she glanced anxiously at the clock; it marked a quarter past eleven, and the groceries had not come.

She let her hand fall idle into the cool water of the pan, and stared at the dust floating in the sunlight.

The cook called hoarsely from the kitchen: "Annie!"

She started. "Yis?"

"What 're y' at?"

"Peelin' pitaties."

"What 's makin' yeh so noisy?"

Annie looked down at her hands without answering.

"Why don't yeh sing no more these days?" The voice was querulous.

Annie poised a potato to her knife and blushed to the tops of her ears. "It 's too warrm," she said.

A pan banged in the kitchen. "Warrm, d' yeh call it? I call it drippin' danged hot!"

The girl did not reply; and the cook, after grumbling to herself for a while, resigned herself to a stifled silence.

A delivery wagon came clattering up the street, swung into the gutter, and pulled up with a jerk; and Annie dropped her potato and watched eagerly. When she saw a strange man climb down the wheel, she put her dish-pan on the deep window-sill and stood back from the light to regard him with a look of distress. He bustled down into the area and threw all his weight on a tug at the bell.

"Glory be!" the cook cried to her. "What 's that?"

She did not answer. She went to the door and took the basket without raising her eyes from it.

"The grocery man!" the cook greeted her in the kitchen. "Does he want to pluck the bell out be the root! That's not Jawn?"

Annie shook her head. "No," she said vacantly, and turned to empty the basket on the serving-table.

The cook studied a moment on the tone of that "No;" and then, taking up the chopper, she attacked the meat in the wooden chopping-bowl with vicious blows. She had the arm of a butcher—short but powerful—and a body of the same build; her hair was a greasy gray; her face was the flat-nosed type of Irish, that is so pathetically like an ape's.

Annie went out with the empty basket, but this time she met the man's eyes with a look of inquiry that held him until she could ask: "Where 's Mr. Boland now?"

He grinned. "Jack? Oh, he 's quit. He 's got married. I don't know where he is."

She released her hold of the basket, her face as blank as a bewildered child's.

"Jack 'd sooner marry than work," he laughed. He added over his shoulder as he went, "Hot, ain't it?"

She shut the basement door, and stood for a long time with her fingers in the iron lattice, gazing out at the area with set eyes. When she turned back to the dining-room, she groped her way blindly through the dark hall. And when she sat down to her work again, her hands went about it mechanically under the fixed mask of her face.

"Is 't the heat that 's worryin' yeh?" the cook asked at their luncheon. "Sure I know it is," she persisted, at the girl's listless denial. "It 's bad weather fer young blood. Me own ould skull's splittin' like the shell of a hard-boiled egg. Phew! Go in an' lay yersilf down, that's a good child. It's out 'n the fields y' ought to be, stackin' hay, 'stid of stewin' in a kitchen here. Go on, Annie, gurl, an' rest yersilf."

Annie went. In the little bedroom that opened off the kitchen, she stretched herself flat on her back and lay stiff. The pillow was hot to her head. She put her cold hand on her burning forehead, and her eyes settled in a wild stare on a picture of Christ that was tacked on the wall at the foot of the bed, with the heart in the open breast flaming red in a yellow aureole.

The cook muttered over her work: "Please God 't will let up a bit t'-night.… What happened that boy Jawn, I wonder. The young thief! She 's been lookin' fer 'm fer a week past.… Phew, but it 's hot!… If he 's playin' games with her, I 'll break his back."

The city baked its bricks and stones in a scorching sunlight all the afternoon, till the streets were as hot and dry as a kiln. Then with the slanting of the sun, a mist as warm as steam began to gather in from the Bay; the faint breeze that had been fluttering along on the housetops feebly, fell among the chimneys; the plumes of steam rose from the elevator buildings straight in the still air. The thick dusk closed down smothering all.

Annie came white from her room. She blundered from pan to pan in the fat-smoke of the kitchen, helping the cook. Dazed and stupid, in the glare of the dining-room, she served greasy food to the tables and poured ice-water in a dream. Swaying over the pan of steaming dishes—at the sink where the roaches gathered to the sound of trickling water—she washed a thousand glasses, cups and saucers, plates and spoons, knives, forks, pans and pots, deaf to the kindly garrulity of the cook who helped her. When it was done, she went back to her bed again. "Ah, go away, Mary," she said wearily. "Go away an' let be."

Mary took the kitchen rocking-chair and carried it out resolutely to the area, "As sure 's my name 's Mary McShane," she promised herself, "I 'll break the back o' that boy Jawn! Here 's Saturda' night, an' no sight of 'm since this day week. Let 'm come now. Let 'm come. I 'll give 'm a piece o' me mind." And she sat down with her arms crossed to wait for him.

There was a fluttering of white skirts here and there on the porches across the road, where some boarders were sitting out. Men dragged past with their straw hats in their hands and their coats on their arms. The clang of trolley gongs and the iron hum of trains on the elevated railroad came to her drowsily. She relaxed to an easier posture and began to fan herself with her apron as she rocked. Both motions ceased together. She closed her eyes.

It seemed only a. moment later that she was awakened by an insistent "I say, cook! Cook!" She started up to see the young man whom she knew as "Mr. Beatty of the top-floor rear" leaning over her. He said: "What 's wrong with Annie?"

"Annie?" she gasped, wide awake. "Saints in Hiven—"

"Oh, it 's nothing," he laughed. "She seemed to be acting rather strangely. Anything wrong?"

She put her hands up to rub her eyes in a pretense of sleepiness. "Yeh scart the heart out of me," she evaded him. "I was dreamin'."

He waited.

"Annie?" she said. "Sure, she 's worried, poor gurl, be the heat. She 's not well. She 's not well, at all."

He replied: "She seemed cool enough just now. She went out in a heavy jacket.… She asked me to answer the door bell for her. I was sitting on the steps there, having a smoke."

"Gone out? Gone out, is she? Aye, indeed, thin!" She settled back in her chair. "She must 've gone out to meet that Jawn of hers. To be sure! That 's it, to be sure. I thought 't was sick she was. How 're yeh standin' the heat yersilf?"

Her voice was transparently sly. He sat down on the window-sill, amused. "Not so bad. But this is hotter than Ireland, cook."

"Ireland?" She made an exaggerated gesture of despair. "Ireland!" She folded her hands in an eloquent resignation. "I was just dreamin' I was back to it. Aw, dear, dear! Will I niver ferget it?"

He laughed. He asked in a bantering tone: "Would you like to go back?"

"Me?" she cried sharply. "Sure, what fer? What's to go back to? Naw, naw. Whin yeh 're ould there 's no goin' back to the young days—excipt while yeh sleep. An' it 's the sorry wakin' yeh have."

"That 's true," he said, to humor her.

"It is," she replied, unmollified, "but little enough yeh know of it. Yeh 'll learn whin yeh 're a dodderin' ould man with no teeth to grip yer pipe to." She nodded at a memory of her own grandfather, drowsing before the peat fire, of an evening, under the soot-blackened beams of the kitchen, with his pipe upside down in his mouth.

Beatty smiled. The talk of this old woman of the basement's underworld—with her plaintive Irish intonation and her comic Irish face and her amusing Irish "touchiness"—was as good as a play to him.

"How long have you been out?" he asked.

"Long enough to learn better. Foorty year an' more."

"Well, why did you come then?"

She turned on him. "God knows! Why did I? Why did Annie gurl? Well may yeh ask!" She tossed her head resentfully. "Beca'se roasted pitaties an' good buttermilk were too poor fer proud stummicks. Beca'se we wud be rich, as they tol' us we wud, here in Ameriky. An' what are we? The naygurs o' the town, livin' in cellars, servin' thim that pays us in the money that we came fer, an' gettin' none o' the fair words an' kindness we left behind. Sure at home they 're more neighborly to the brute beasts than y' are here to the humans." She looked out at the stifling street. "We 're strangers in a strange land, as Father Tierney says. We 're a joke to yez, an' that 's the best yeh 'll iver make of us."

He sobered guiltily and looked down at his feet.

"An' Annie!" she broke out, "the simple cr'ature, ust to big gossoons o' boys that swally their tongues whin they go coortin' an' have niver a word to say—what 's she to make o' this grinnin' Jawn of hers with all his blether? I know him. He 's the mate of a lad that came acrost me the first year I was out, with his hat on the corner of his head an' the divil in 's eye. An' he talked with me an' walked with me an' called me candy names, till there was nuthin' but the sound of his voice in me ears, an' the look of his smile in me eye the whole livelong day till he came again of an evenin'." Her voice broke. "Faith, the time he kissed me first—at the gate that was—I ran into the house trimblin' an' blushin' wit' the fear an' the delight of it, me han's shakin' so I cud scarce get me clo's off me to git into me bed, an' layin' a-wake weepin' an' smilin' tegither all night long to think of it. That 's the sort o' fool I was. Th' angils jus' come to Hiven were no happier.… I was come to th' ither place before I was done with him.… Poor Annie! Poor gurl!"

He looked at her, silenced and ashamed. She wiped her cheeks with her apron and sighed under a load of anxiety for Annie. He tried to think of something to say in apology and reassurance; and glancing from her, at a loss, he saw a dark figure climbing the stone steps, silhouetted against a street light, "There!" he whispered. "Is n't that—Yes it is. She 's coming back. She has n't met him.… That 's all right now. You must n't let her go out again."

"Thank Hiven," the cook said fervently. "I been keepin' her from goin' out with him any night these four weeks. She 's a mere child, raised in innocency. 'T was not like her to steal out so."

"There must be something wrong with her," he suggested.

"There is that," she said. "There 's somethin' wantin' to her an' she 'll niver find it in this town, though she seek it iver so. A home of her own back o' the boor-trees—an' a dip o' bog for to plant her pitaty slips in—an' a scraw fer her fire an' her man toastin' his big feet at it, an' the baby crawlin' between the legs of his chair, an' the neighbors droppin' in to gossip an' spit in the blaze—she 'll niver find it here! Niver, if she has my luck! An' it 's powerful small satisfaction she 'll get of writin' home to thim that has it, tellin' thim the big wages she earns an' sendin' thim money to Christmas—powerful small!"

While she had been talking, Beatty had seen a policeman stop to look up at the door and then saunter back toward his street corner. And Beatty was still frowning watchfully at the steps when he heard the cook say, "Whur 've yeh been to, Annie?" He turned to see the girl standing behind the grated basement door.

In a thick, blurred voice, fumbling slowly over her words, she replied: "Is that—is that—Jawn?" And Beatty's pipe clicked suddenly on his teeth.

"No, 't is not," the cook answered. "Go back to yer bed. He 'll not come t'-night now. 'T is too late."

"Is it?" she asked, in the simple tones of a child. "Is it too late, Mary?"

"It is that. Go to bed, gurl. Yeh 're tired out."

"Oh?" she said softly. "It 's too late." And she disappeared in the darkness.

Beatty caught a quick breath. "W-what is it? What 's the matter with her?"

The cook answered wearily: "I 've told yeh, sor, but yeh 'll not understan'."

"But there 's something wrong with her," he said huskily. "That 's not her natural voice."

"Let be, boy," she replied. "Her trouble 's come to her. We can do naught fer her now." She added, more gently: "We're like a cat with our sores, sor. 'T is best to let us go off be oursilves an' lick thim.… She 'll be quiet now.… It must 've been hot downtown this day."

"Yes," he sighed. "I thought—I thought perhaps the heat had affected her. The papers are full of deaths and prostrations."

She nodded and nodded. After a silence, she said: "No doubt. The heat, too. Are y' a Noo Yorker born?"

He cleared his throat to answer: "No, A Canadian. An exile, like yourself."

"Aye," she said. "This is a great town fer young men. Yeh get yer chanct here."

He did not reply, and she did not speak again. For a long time, they sat silent. Then they began to talk in low tones of anything but the thoughts that were in both their minds, until a stealthy rustle at the basement door brought them around with a start to see Annie, all in white, fumbling at the latch. She got the door open and drifted out into the light, bare-footed. Beatty stiffened at the sight of her face. The cook started up and caught her by the arm. She swung unsteadily. "That 's me money," she said tonelessly; and Beatty heard the ring of coins on the area paving.

"Annie! Annie!" the cook cried.

"An' that 's me purse," she said, dropping it.

The cook threw her arms about her. "Annie! Annie dear! What 's this fer? What ails yeh, gurl?"

She put a hand down to loosen the cook's arm from her side. "'T will burn yeh," she said. "Me heart 's all afire there, like the pi'ture." A bit of silver fell from her sleeve and tinkled at her feet. She looked down at it. "I put it by fer Jawn.… What 's become of Jawn? Jawn?"

The cook backed her to the rocking-chair and forced her to sit down. "Dang yer Jawn!" she cried. "Will yeh drive us all daft?"

It was then, for the first time, she got the light on the girl's face—a face set like stone, while the eyes shifted and wept—and she wailed: "Ach, Annie darlin'," and dropped on her knees beside her. "Is it come to this, gurl? Dear Lord, what 've they been doin' to yeh? Look at me. Look at me, child."

Annie was staring at Beatty, and he was sitting cold with horror on the window-sill. "Who 's that?" she said. "Good-evenin', sir," she smiled. "Yeh 're late with the groc'ries." She got no answer. "Look at 'im, Mary," she said fearfully, and put her hand up to her eyes, and peered at him through her fingers. "He glowers at me so."

"Aw, now," the cook pleaded. "Aw, now, Annie gurl. Don't be takin' on. 'T is Mister Beatty from the top floor, an' what 'll he be thinkin' of yeh talkin' such like foolishness." She whispered: "Have wit, child. Put down yer hands. Listen to me. Listen. They 'll be takin' y' away. They 'll shut y' up in Bellevue fer mad. Have yeh no sinse lift?"

Beatty had risen heavy-kneed and stumbled to the basement door. "I 'll bring—I 'll bring the doctor," he stammered, and ran in for his hat.

The cook had not heard him, but when she looked around she knew what had happened, and she jumped up in a panic. "Quick! Quick," she cried. "They 're comin';" and fell on her knees to gather up the scattered money in her apron. "Go to bed, gurl! Ach, Annie, Annie," she cried despairingly.

Annie was rocking in the chair, crooning and talking to herself. The cook caught her by the arm, pulled her to her feet and hurried her indoors. "Whist! Whist! " she pleaded. "Quit yer nonsinse, Annie. Ah, quit it—quit it! Wud yeh let yerself be taken to the madhouse? Ah, God ha' mercy—"

She hurried the girl indoors; and she had her in bed and frightened into silence when Beatty returned with the doctor. "She 's better now," she said suavely, meeting them in the dining-room. "'T was but a touch of the sun, doctor."

He looked at her. She stood blinking and shifting her small eyes. "What did you do for her?"

She began to stammer: "Wh-what did I do fer her? Why, to be sure, I—I—"

"Take me to her," he ordered.

She gave Beatty a look of hate and despair, and led into the kitchen.

Beatty did not follow. He steadied himself against the old marble mantel of the dining-room, and mopped his face and neck weakly with his handkerchief.

When the doctor reappeared, he ordered: "Call the ambulance. From Bellevue Hospital. Be quick now!"

Beatty edged slowly to the door. He darted through it, and ran upstairs, and locked himself in his room.

"You 'll have to get your breakfast at a restaurant, Mr. Beatty," the boarding-house mistress told him next morning. "My cook has left me."

"What for?" he asked guiltily.

She shrugged her shoulders. "The maid that waits on the table took ill last night. She was delirious—out of her mind—positively violent when the ambulance came for her. The doctor ordered it. I could n't keep her here. How could I? Who's to look after her here? The work has to be done—"

"How is she?" he interrupted.

"She had a sunstroke, or I don't know what. I was too upset last night—We had a terrible time with her. I don't know what it was. It must 've been a sunstroke. We had a fearful scene."

"Is she better?"

"Well," she said, in a sort of defiance, "she died early this morning in the hospital.… And Mary," she cried, "accuses me of murdering her. And she packed up her trunk and left at six o'clock this morning, without even waiting for her wages. I never heard of such a thing. It 's the most absurd—These Irish servant-girls—"

He looked away with a sickly smile. "I know," he said.