The Nemesis of Perkins  (1896) 
by John Kendrick Bangs

From Harper's Magazine, Nov 1896




IT was a pleasant night in the spring of 189-.

The residents of Phillipseburg were enjoying an early spring, and suffering from the demoralizing influences of a municipal election. Incidentally Mr. Thaddeus Perkins, candidate, was beginning to feel very much like Moses when he saw the promised land afar. The promised land was now in plain sight; but whether or not the name of Perkins should be inscribed in one of its high places depended upon the voters who on the morrow were to let their ballots express their choice as to who should preside over the interests of the city and hold in check the fiery untamed aldermen of Phillipseburg.

The candidate was tired, very tired, and was trying to gain a few hours' rest before plunging again and for the last time into the whirlpool of vote-getting; and as he sat enjoying a few moments of blissful ease behind the close-drawn portières of his library there came the much-dreaded sound of heavy feet upon the porch without, and the door-bell rang.

"Norah!" cried the candidate, in an agonized stage-whisper, as the maid approached in answer to the summons, "tell them I'm out, unless it's some one of my personal friends."

"Yis, sorr," was the answer. "Oi will."

And the door was opened.

"Is Misther Perkins in?" came a deep, unmistakably "voting" voice from without.

"Oi dun'no'. Are yees a personal friend of Misther Perkins?" was the response, and the heart of Perkins sought his boots.

"Oi am not, but—" said the deep voice.

"Will, he isn't in," said Norah, positively.

"When 'll he be back?" asked the visitor.

"Ye say ye niver met him?" demanded Norah.

"Oi told ye oi hadn't," said the visitor, a trifle irritably. "But—"

"Thin he'll niver be back," put in the glorious Norah, and she shut the door with considerable force and retired.

For a moment the candidate was overcome; first he paled, but then catching Mrs. Perkins's eye and noting a twinkle of amusement therein, he yielded to his emotions and roared with laughter. What if Norah's manner was unconventional? Had she not carried out instructions?

"My dear," said the candidate to Mrs. Perkins, as the shuffling feet on the porch shuffled off into the night, "what wages do you pay Norah?"

"Sixteen dollars, Thaddeus," was the answer. "Why?"

"Make it twenty hereafter," replied the candidate. "She is an emerald beyond price. If I had only let her meet the nominating committee when they entered our little Eden three weeks ago, I should not now be involved in this wretched game of politics."

"Well, I sincerely wish she had," Mrs. Perkins observed, heartily. "This affair has made a very different man of you, and as for your family, they hardly see you any more. You are neglecting every single household duty for your horrid old politics."

"Well, now, my dear—" began the candidate.

"The pipes in the laundry have been leaking for four days now, and yet you won't send for a plumber, or even let me send for one," continued Mrs. Perkins.

"Well, Bessie dear, how can I? The race is awfully close. It wouldn't surprise me if the majority either way was less than a hundred."

"There you go again, Thaddeus. What on earth has the leak in the laundry pipes to do with the political situation?" asked the puzzled woman.

The candidate showed that in spite of his recent affiliations he still retained some remnants of his former self-respect, for he blushed as he thought of the explanation; but he tried nevertheless to shuffle out of it.

"Of course you can't understand," he said, with a cowardly resolve to shirk the issue. "That's because you are a woman, Bess. Women don't understand great political questions. And what I have particularly liked about you is that you never pretended that you did."

"Well, I'd like to now," persisted Mrs. Perkins. "I want to be of as much assistance to my husband in his work as I can, and if public questions are hereafter to be the problems of your life, they must become my problems too. Besides, my curiosity is really aroused in this especial case, and I'd love to know what bearing our calling a plumber has upon the tariff, or the money question, or any other thing in politics."

The candidate hesitated. He was cornered, and he did not exactly like the prospect.

"Well—" he began. "You see, I'm standing as the representative of a great party, and we—we naturally wish to win. If I am defeated, every one will say that it is a rebuke to the administration at Washington; and so, you see, we'd better let those leaks leak until day after to-morrow, when the voting will all be over."

Mrs. Perkins looked at her husband narrowly.

"I think I'll have to call the doctor," was her comment. "Either for you or for myself, Teddy. One of us is gone—wholly gone, mentally. There's no question about it, either you are rambling in your speech, or I have entirely lost all comprehension of the English language."

"I don't see—" began Perkins.

"Neither do I," interrupted Mrs. Perkins; "and I hardly hope to. You've explained and explained, but how a plumber's calling here to fix a laundry leak is to rebuke the administration at Washington is still far beyond me."

"But the plumbers are said to hold the balance of power!" cried the candidate. "There are a hundred of them here in Phillipseburg, and each one controls at least five assistants, which makes six hundred voters in all. If I call in one, he and his five workers will vote for me, but the other five hundred and ninety-four will vote for Haskins; and if they do, the administration might as well go out of business. Can't you see? It's the same way with the dandelions. These spring elections are perfect—ah—Gehenna for a candidate if it happens to be an early spring like this."

Perkins's voice had the suggestion of a wail in it as he spoke of the dandelions, and his wife's alarm grew upon her. She understood now about the plumber, but his interjection of the dandelions had brought a fearful doubt into her heart. Surely he was losing his mind.

"Dandelions, Thaddeus?" she echoed, aghast.

"Yes, dandelions," retorted the candidate, forcibly. "They've queered me as much as anything. The neighbors say I'm not a good neighbor because I don't have them pulled. Mike's been so thoroughly alcoholic all through the fight, looking after my interests, that he can't pull them; and if I hire two men to come and do the work, seven hundred other men will want to know why they didn't get a chance."

"But why not employ boys?" demanded Mrs. Perkins.

"And be set down as an advocate of cheap child labor? Not I!" cried Perkins.

"Then the dandelion-pullers are another balance of power, are they?" asked Mrs. Perkins, beginning to grow somewhat easier in her mind as to her husband's sanity.

"Precisely; you have a very remarkable gift of insight, Bess," answered the candidate.

"And how many balances of power are there?" demanded the lady.

"The Lord only knows," sighed Perkins. "I've made about eighty of 'em solid already, but as soon as one balance is fixed a thousand others rise up like Banquo's ghost, and will not down. I haven't a doubt that it was a balance of power that Norah just turned away from the front door. They strike you everywhere. Why, even Bobbie ruined me with one of them in the Eighth Ward the other day—one solidified balance wiped out in a moment by my interesting son."

"Bobbie?" cried Mrs. Perkins. "A six-year-old boy?"

"Exactly—Bobbie, the six-year-old boy. I wish you'd keep the children in the house until this infernal business is over. The Eighth Ward would have elected me; but Bobbie ruined that," said Perkins, ruefully.

"But how?" cried Mrs. Perkins. "Have our children been out making campaign speeches for the other side?"

"They have," assented Perkins. "They have indeed. You remember that man Jorrigan?"

"The striker?" queried Mrs. Perkins, calling to mind a burly combination of red hair and bad manners who had made himself very conspicuous of late.

"Precisely. That's just the point," retorted Perkins. "The striker. That's what he is, and it's what you call him."

"But you said he was a striker at breakfast last Wednesday," said Mrs. Perkins. "We simply take your word for it."

"I know I did. He's also a balance of power, my dear. Jorrigan controls the Eighth Ward. That's the only reason I've let him in the house," said Thaddeus.

"You've been very chummy with him, I must say," sniffed Mrs. Perkins.

"Well, I've had to be," said the candidate. "That man is a power, and he knows it."

"What's his business?" asked Mrs. Perkins.

"Interference between capital and labor," replied Perkins. "So I've cultivated him."

"He never struck me as being a very cultivated person," smiled Mrs. Perkins. "He has a suggestion of alcohol about him that is very oppressive."

"I know—he has a very intoxicating presence," said the candidate, joining in the smile. "But we are rid of his presence now and forever, thanks to Bobbie. I got the news last night. He and his followers have declared for Haskins, in spite of all his promises to me, and we can attribute our personal good fortune and our political loss to Bobbie. Bobbie met him on the street the other day."

"I know he did," said Mrs. Perkins. "He told me so, and he said that the horrid man wanted to kiss him."

"It's true," said Perkins. "He did, and Bobbie wouldn't let him."

"Well, a man isn't going back on you because he can't kiss your whole family, is he?" asked Mrs. Perkins, apprehensively. "If that's the situation, I shall go to New York to-morrow."

Perkins laughed heartily. "No, my dear," he said. "You're safe enough from that. But Jorrigan, when Bobbie refused, said, 'Well, young feller, I guess you don't know who I am?' 'Yes, I do,' said Bobbie. 'You are Mr. Jorrigan,' and Jorrigan was overjoyed; but Bobbie destroyed his good work by adding, 'Jorrigan the striker,' and the striker's joy vanished. 'Who told you that?' said he. 'Pop—and he knows,' said Bobbie. That night," continued Perkins, with a droll expression of mingled mirth and annoyance, "the amalgamated mortar-mixers of the Eighth Ward decided that consideration for their country's welfare should rise above partisan politics, and that when it came to real statesmanship Haskins could give me points. A ward wiped out in a night, and another highly interesting, very thirsty balance of power gone over to the other side."

"I should think you'd give up, then," said Mrs. Perkins, despairfully. She wanted her husband to win—not because she had any ambition to shine as "Lady-Mayor," but because she did not wish Thaddeus to incur disappointment or undergo the chagrin of a public rebuke. "You seem to be losing balances of power right and left."

"Why should I give it up?" queried Perkins. "You don't suppose I am having any better luck than Mr. Haskins, do you?"

"Is he losing them too?" asked Mrs. Perkins, hopefully.

"I judge so from what he tells me," said Perkins. "We took dinner together at the Centurion in New York the other night, and he's a prince of good fellows, Bess. He has just as much trouble as I have, and when I met him on the train the other day he was as blue as I about the future."

"You and the captain dining together?" ejaculated Mrs. Perkins.

"Certainly," said Perkins. "Why not? Our hatred is merely political, and we can meet on a level of good-fellowship anywhere outside of Phillipseburg."

Mrs. Perkins laughed outright. "Isn't it funny!" she said.

"Why, Haskins is one of my best friends, generally," continued Perkins. "I don't see anything funny about it. Just because we both happen to be dragged into politics on opposite sides at the same moment is no reason why we should begin cutting each other's throats, my dear. In fact, with balances of power springing up all over town like mushrooms, we have become companions in misery."

"Well, I don't see why you can't get together, then, and tell these balances to go to—to grass," suggested Mrs. Perkins.

"Grass is too mild, my love," remarked, the candidate, smiling quietly. "They wouldn't go there, even if we told them to, so it would be simply a waste of breath. We've got to grin and bear them until the polls close, and then we can pitch in and tell 'em what we think of them."

"Just the same," continued Mrs. Perkins, "an agreement between Mr. Haskins and you to ignore these people utterly, instead of taking them into your family, would stop the whole abuse."

"That's a woman's idea," said Perkins, bravely, though in the innermost recesses of his heart he wished he had thought of it before. "It isn't practical politics, my love. You might as well say that two opposing generals in a war could save thousands of lives by avoiding each other's armies and keeping out of a fight."

"Well, I do say that, "replied Mrs. Perkins, positively. "That's exactly my view of what generals ought to do."

"And what would become of the war?" queried the candidate.

"There wouldn't be any," said the good little woman.

"Precisely," retorted Perkins. "Precisely. And if Haskins and I did what you want us to do, there would be no more politics."

"Well, what of it?" demanded Mrs. Perkins. "Are politics the salvation of the country? It's as bad as war."

"Humph!" grunted Perkins. "It is difficult to please women. You hate war because, to settle a question of right, people go out into the field of battle and mow each other down with cannon; you cry for arbitration. Let all questions, all differences of opinion, be settled by a resort to reason, say you—which is beautiful, and undoubtedly proper. But when we try to settle our differences by a bloodless warfare, in which the ballot is one's ammunition, you cry down with politics. A political contest is nothing but a bit of supreme arbitration, for which you peace people are always clamoring, by the court of last resort, the people."

Mrs. Perkins smiled sweetly, and taking her husband's hand in hers, stroked it softly.

"Teddy dear, you mustn't be so politic with me," she said; "I'm not a campaign club. I know that sentiment you have just expressed is lofty and noble, and ought to be true, and I know we used to think it was true—three weeks ago I believed it when you said it; but this is now, dear. This is to-night, not three weeks ago, and I have changed my mind."

"Well," began the candidate, hesitatingly, "I don't know but what I am weakening a trifle myself."

"I know," interposed Mrs. Perkins, "you are weakening. You know as well as I do that the hard work you are doing is not in appealing to the reason of the supreme court of arbitration, the people. You are appealing, as you have said yourself, to a large and interesting variety of balances of power, that do not want your views or your opinions or your arguments, but they do want your money to buy cigars and beer with. They want you to buy their good-will; and even if you bought it, I doubt if they would concede to you a controlling interest in it if Mr. Haskins should happen to want some of it, and I don't doubt he does."

"You don't know anything—" the candidate ventured.

"Yes I do, too," returned Mrs. Perkins, with the self-satisfied nod which the average new woman gives when she thinks she is right, though Mrs. Perkins had no pretensions in that direction, happily for her family. "I know all that you have told me. I know that when you were to dine at Colonel Buckley's on Wednesday night you wore your evening dress, and that when leaving there early to go to the city and address the Mohawk Independent Club you asked your manager if you could go dressed as you were, and his answer was, 'Not on your life,' and you went home and put on your business suit. You told me that yourself, and yet you talk about the supreme court of arbitration, the people!"

"But, Bess, the Mohawks are a powerful organization," pleaded Perkins. "I couldn't afford to offend them."

"No. It was the first balance of power that turned up. I remember it well. It was to be convinced by arguments. You were going down there to discuss principles, but you couldn't appeal to their judicial minds or reach their reason unless you changed your clothes; and when you got there as their guest, and ventured to ask for a glass of Vichy before you spoke, do you remember what they brought you?" demanded Mrs. Perkins, warming up to her subject.

The candidate smiled faintly. "Yes," he answered. "Beer."

"Exactly; and when he gave you the beer, that MacHenty man whispered in your ear, 'Drink that; it 'll go better wid the byes.' "

"He did," said Thaddeus, meekly.

"And yet you talk about this appeal to a reasonable balance of power! Really, Teddy, you are becoming demoralized. Politics, as I see it, is an appeal to thirst, and nothing else."

" 'You never miss the voter till the keg runs dry,' " sang the candidate, with a more or less successful attempt at gayety, as he rose up and kissed his wife tenderly. "Never mind, Bess. I've had enough, and if I'm beaten this time I'll never do it again. So don't worry; and, after all, this is only a municipal election. The difference between a grand inspiring massive war for principle and a street riot. The supreme court of arbitration, the people, can be relied on to do the right thing in the end. They are sane. They are honest. They are not all thirsty, and in this as in all contests the blatant attract the most attention. The barker at the door of the side show to the circus makes more noise than the eight-headed boy that makes the mare go."

"You're a trifle mixed in your metaphors, Teddy," said Mrs. Perkins.

"Well, who wouldn't be, after a three weeks' appeal to an arid waste of voters?"

"A waste of arid voters," amended Mrs. Perkins.

"The amendment is accepted," laughed Thaddeus. And at that moment a telephone call from headquarters summoned him abroad.

"Good-night, Bess," he said, kissing his wife affectionately. "This is the last night."

"Good-night, Teddy; I hope it is. And next time when they ask you to run—"

"You shall be the balance of power, sweetheart, and decide the question for me," said the candidate, as, with sorrow in his heart, he left his home to seek out what he called "the branch office of Hades," political headquarters, where were gathered some fifty persons, most of whom began life in other countries, under different skies, and to whom the national anthem "America" meant less and aroused fewer sentiments worth having than that attractive two-step "St. Patrick's Day in the Morning," and who were yet sufficiently powerful with the various "balances" of the town to hold its political destinies in their itching palms.

Two months after this discussion the late Honorable Thaddeus Perkins, ex-candidate, and Mayor of Phillipseburg only by courtesy of those who honor defeated candidates with titles for which they have striven unsuccessfully, was strolling through the country along the line of the Croton Aqueduct, trying to disentangle, with the aid of the fresh sweet air of an early summer afternoon, an idea for a sonnet from the mazes of his brain. Stopping for a moment to look down upon the glorious Hudson, stretching its shimmering length like a bimetallic serpent to the north and south, he suddenly became conscious of a pair of very sharp eyes resting upon him, which a closer inspection showed belonged to a laborer of seemingly diminutive stature, who was engaged in carrying earth in a wheelbarrow from one dirt-pile to another. As Thaddeus caught his eye the laborer assumed towering proportions. He rose up quite two feet higher in the air and bowed.

"How do you do?" said Perkins, returning" the salutation courteously, wondering the while as to what might be the cause of this sudden change of height.

"Oi'm well—which is nothin' new to me," replied the other. "Ut sheems to me," he continued, "thot youse resimbles thot smart young felly Perkins, the Mayor of Phillipseburg—not!"

Perkins laughed. The sting of defeat had lost its power to annoy, and his experience had become merely one of a thousand other nightmares of the past.

"Do I?" he replied, resolving not to confess his identity, for the moment at least.

"Only thinner," chuckled the laborer, shrinking up again; and Perkins now saw that the legs of his new acquaintance were of an abnormally unequal length, which forced him every time he shifted his weight from one foot to the other to change his apparent height to a startling degree. "An' a gude dale thinner," he repeated. "There's nothin' loike polithical exersoize to take off th' flesh, parthicularly when ye miss ut."

"I fancy you are right," said Perkins. "I never met Mr. Perkins—that is, face to face—myself. Do you know him?"

The Irishman threw his head back and laughed.

"Well," he said, "oi'm not wan uv his pershonal fri'nds. But oi kno w um when oi see um," and he looked Thaddeus straight in the eye as he grew tall again.

"I'm sure it is Perkins's loss," returned Thaddeus, "that you are not a personal friend of his."

"It was," said the Irishman. "My name is Finn," he added, with an air which seemed to assume that Perkins would begin to tremble at the dreaded word; but Perkins did not tremble. He merely replied,

"A very good name, Mr. Finn."

"Oi t'ink so, "assented Mr. Finn. "Ut's better nor Dinnis, me young fri'nd."

Perkins assented to this proposition as though it was merely general, and had no particular application to the affairs of the moment. "I suppose, Mr. Finn," he observed, shortly, "that you were one of the earnest workers in the late campaign for Mr. Perkins?"

"Was he elicted?" asked Finn, scornfully.

"I believe not," began Thaddeus. "But—"

"Thot's me answer to your quistion, sorr," said Finn, with dignity. "He'd 'a' had lamps befoor his house now, sorr, if he hadn't been gay wid his front dure."

"Oh—he was gay with his front door, was he?" asked Perkins.

"He was thot, an' not ony too careful uv his windy-shades," replied Finn.

Perkins looked at him inquiringly.

"Givin' me, Mike Finn, song an' dance about not bein' home, wid me fri'nds outside on the lawn watchin' him troo de windy, laffin' loike a hayeny."

"Excuse me—like a what?" said Thaddeus.

"A hayeny, "repeated Mr.Finn. "Wan o' thim woild bastes as laffs at nothin' much. 'Is he home?' sez oi. 'Are yees a pershonal fri'nd?' says the gurl. 'Oi'm not,' sez oi. 'He ain't home,' says the gurl. 'Whin 'll he be back?' says oi. 'Niver,' says she, shlammin' the dure in me face; and Mike Finn wid a certifikut uv election for um in his pocket!"

"A certificate of election?" cried Perkins. "And he wouldn't see you?"

"He would not."

"You were to an extent the balance of power, then?"

"That's what oi was," said Finn, enjoying what he thought was Perkins's dismay: for he knew well enough to whom he was talking. "Oi was the rale bonyfiday balance uv power. Oi've got foive sons, sorr, and ivery wan o' thim byes is conthracthors, or, what's as good, bosses uv gangs on public an' proivate works. There ain't wan uv thim foive byes as don't conthrol twinty-foive votes, an' there ain't wan uv 'em as don't moind what the ould raon says to um. Not wan, sorr. An' they resints the turnin' down uv their father."

"That's as it should be," said Perkins.

"An' ut's as ut was, me young fri'nd. Whin oi wint home to me pershonal fri'nds at th' Finn Club, Misther Perkins had losht me. Wan gone. Whin oi tould the Finn Club, wan hundred sthrong, he losht thim. Wan hundred and wan gone. Whin oi tould th' byes, he losht thim. Wan hundred an' six gone. An' whin they tould their twinty-foive apiece, ivery twinty-foive o' thim wint. Wan hundred an' six plus wan hundred an' twinty-foive makes two hundred an' thirty- wan votes losht at the shlammin' uv the front dure. An' whin two hundred an' thirty-wan votes laves wan soide minus an' the other soide plus, th' gineral result is a difference uv twoice two hundred an' thirty-wan, or foor hundred an' sixty-two. DVe mind thot, sorr?"

"I see," said Perkins. "And as this—ah—this particular candidate was beaten by a bare majority of two or three hundred votes—"

"It was me as done it!" put in the balance of power, shaking his finger at Perkins impressively. "Me—Mike Finn!"

"Well, I hope Mr. Perkins hears of it, Mr. Finn," put in Tbaddeus. "I am told that he is wondering yet what hit him, and having put the affront upon you, and through that inexcusable act lost the election, he ought to know that you were his Nemesis."

"His what?" queried the real balance.

"His Nemesis. Nemesis is the name of a Greek goddess," explained Perkins.

"Oi'm no Greek, nor no goddess," retorted Finn, "but I give him the throw-down."

"That's what I meant, "explained Thaddeus. "The word has become part of the English language. Nemesis was the Goddess of the Throw-down, and the word is used to signify that."

"Oh, oi see," said Finn, scratching his head reflectively. Perkins took his revelation a trifle too calmly. "You say you don't know this Perkins?" he asked.

"Well, I never met him," said the ex-candidate, smiling. "But I know him."

Finn laughed again. "Oi'll bet ye do; an' oi guiss ye've seen his fa-ace long about shavin'-toime in the mornin' in the lukin'-glash—eh?"

"Well, yes," smiled Perkins. "I confess I'm the man, Mr. Finn; but now we are—personal friends—eh? I was fagged out that night, and—you didn't send in your card, you know—and I didn't know it was you." The balance of power cast down his eyes, and rubbing his hand on his overalls as if to clean it, stretched it out. Perkins grasped it, and Finn gave a slight gulp. He wasn't quite happy. The proffered friendship of the man he had injured rather upset him; but he was equal to the occasion.

"Niver moind, sorr," he said, when he had quite recovered. "You're young yit. They've shoved yees out this toime, but wait awhoile. Yees 'll be back."

"No, Mr. Finn," replied Perkins, handing Finn a cigar. "Thanks to you, I got out of a tight hole, and as our maid said to you that night, I'll 'niver be back.' But if you happen down my way again, I'll be glad to see you—at any time. Good-by."

The two parted, and Thaddeus walked home, thinking deeply of the far-reaching effect in this life of little things; and as for Finn, he bit off half the cigar Perkins had given him, and as he chewed upon it, sitting on the edge of his barrow, he remarked, "Well, oi'll be da-amned!"

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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