The Two Mollies

The Two Mollies  (1889) 
by Hjalmar H. Boyesen

Extracted from Scribner's magazine, 1889, pp. 116-120. Accompanying illustration may be omitted.



By H. H. Boyesen.

JIM was a gentleman. At least, he strenuously insisted that he was. It might be inferred from this that his claim met with opposition; but opposition could not shake his conviction, which, like certain weeds, nourished the better the more it was trampled upon. Jim had his infirmities, as, in his amiable moments, he freely admitted, but they did not affect his estimate of his worth.

"James O'Flaherthy is a gintleman, begorra, from the tap of his hid to the sowl of his boots," he would remark, in a challenging manner; "an Oirish gintleman, sor, as ud knock the stuffin out of any mon as come around carryin his nose pritintious-loike."

As there were many who, in Jim's opinion, carried their noses in that offensive manner, his ever-bristling desire to assert his dignity brought him into frequent collisions with gentlemen of his own nationality and pugnacious disposition. But on these occasions Jim was invariably worsted. He emerged, however, from his most disastrous and ignominious defeats with undiminished self-esteem and the same cheerfully challenging spirit. Molly, his mare, the only creature for whose opinion he greatly cared, had not the heart to add insult to injury. She only shook her aged, frowsy head, raised one ear, while the other hung limply down, and gazed at her master with mild disapprobation.

"I know what ye be wantin to say, auld girrel," Jim would observe ruefully, when Molly shook her head at him; "ye be wantin to say that Oi be a good-furr-nothin cowarrd, Molly, me beauty. Say it, auld girrel, say it. Oi can stand it from you bitter than from the rist."

There were reasons why Jim could stand rebuke better from Molly than from his two-legged critics. Molly had been his constant companion for sixteen years, and had shared good and evil days with him. She knew his infirmities, chief among which was a deep aversion for water in its various uses, and a corresponding devotion to a more inspiriting liquid. At the time Jim went into the express business and settled as a squatter in Shanty Town, Molly was already well on in years, though nobody knew when she had first seen the light, or where. She was then, as now, of sedate demeanor and deliberate in her movements. She had a shaggy coat of brown hair, which had since become bleached into a dirty yellow and sprinkled with gray. Under her jaws and belly there was a thin fringe of hair thrice as long as the rest. Of her tail, which once had been long and handsome, there was only a scanty wisp left. Her legs were thick and knotted, and had only one joint, which was at the top. If you could not count her ribs, it was not because the flesh interposed any difficulties, but because the frowsy hair hid them. The hip-bones, which did not in an equal degree enjoy this protection, rose almost to the level of the spine. Molly's harness, which lay half imbedded in deep ruts, was so seldom taken off that it seemed an integral part of her. It was mended in half a dozen places with bent nails and pieces of string, and where it was inclined to "gnaw" her, pieces of woolly sheepskin had been sewed under.

I have hinted that Molly's early history was wrapped in gloom. Jim bought her at an auction of the effects of a defunct compatriot over on the Jersey side. He paid nine dollars and a half for her, and had a suspicion, when he got home, that he had himself been sold. The evidences of age and hard usage were quite visible to the sober eye, and if Jim's eye had been sober at the time it would, perhaps, have discovered them. A serious question it was, too, how to raise the nine dollars and a half in thirty days. Jim did not rejoice in an extended credit, even at the saloons which he habitually patronized; and though there were several among his acquaintances who, at a pinch, would have lent him fifty cents, he had quarrelled with so many of them that he could not, even in his most sanguine moods, estimate their number at nineteen. And nineteen fifty-cent pieces he needed to pay for Molly. In this dire distress Jim happened to remember that his second cousin, Molly O'Reilly, had once confided to him that she had two hundred dollars in the bank; and forthwith he resolved to make himself agreeable to Molly with a view to obtaining from her a loan of the required sum. As a preliminary he named his horse after her.

"Molly O'Reilly," he said to his second cousin, whom with this wily purpose he visited in the basement of a Madison Avenue mansion, where she received her company, "Oi am afther namin me horrse fur ye."

"God bless ye, Jimmy, me harrut's darlint!" exclaimed Molly, surrendering to Jim's blandishments with quite unexpected precipitancy. She, in fact, misunderstood the nature of the overture he had made to her, overwhelming him with an affection which he had never coveted. It occurred to him, at second thought, however, that it was no bad thing, on the whole, to marry a girl with two hundred or more in the bank, and that by taking the human Molly, as it were, incidentally, he would make doubly sure of keeping the equine Molly in his possession. To Jim, in his unsentimental moods, the latter seemed the more valuable acquisition. He took, however, good care to drop no hint of such an opinion to his second cousin. On the contrary, he submitted unmurmuringly to her caresses, and was even, at times, faintly responsive. Just as the thirty days were about to expire he had the satisfaction of leading her to the altar and transferring her bank account to his own name. He bought, with her consent, an old express wagon, which had in past ages been green, and exhibited over his front door a sign-board, on which he had painted with lamp-black in irregular characters: Flaherty Express Co. He added the "Co." as a mere gratuitous embellishment, because he liked the sound of it; while Molly approved of it, because it seemed to imply a recognition of herself as the capitalist behind the concern. The building of a shanty on the unoccupied land west of Central Park made further inroads into Mrs. O'Flaherty's savings, and two visits to a second-hand dealer in furniture on Ninth Avenue reduced the remnant by more than half. What remained Jim took care to dispose of in a prolonged spree, in which, as he endeavored to persuade his wife, he indulged out of regard for her—in order to celebrate his own happiness and her virtues. Mrs. O'Flaherty was so touched by this evidence of his affection that, after a little grumbling, she freely forgave him. It was not until he showed a disposition to continue the celebration beyond all reason that she lost her temper. And then it was surmised by the neighbors that Jim had a hard time of it. Still sadder his fate became when, at the end of a year, a daughter was born to him, who, with her tiny groping hands, drove him out from her mother's heart. This was, at least, the way it looked to Jim, who could not see that his own eccentricities were of a kind to make him forfeit any rational creature's regard.

He turned in his distress to Mrs. O'Flaherty's namesake, the mare, whom he held to be vaguely responsible for the troubles that had overtaken him. It was her unfortunate existence which had involved him with his uncongenial matrimonial partner. With her one erect and one recumbent ear Molly had an air of meditation, of impartial, yet not unsympathetic judgment, which was calculated to encourage confidences.

"Jimmy, my dear," her expression seemed to say, "you are a sad case with your sprees and your quarrelsome temper. It is useless to pretend that I approve of you. But your wife might have a little patience with you, considering that you are the man in the family, and considering the fact, too, that she flung herself at your head when you had no thought in the world of marrying her."

It did Jim good to see these observations, with which he often justified him self, reflected in Molly's countenance. If she had opened her mouth and spoken, like Balaam's ass, she could not have added to his confidence in regard to the sentiments which she entertained toward him. He felt, of course, that it would be quite useless to pretend to her that he was any better than he was. She knew a little too much of his private history—a good deal more even than her namesake up in the shanty. Many and many a cold winter night, when he had been bounced from saloons with superfluous impetus, and been on the point of going to sleep on the sidewalk, she had gently lifted him with her teeth, by the collar, and shaken him, until he found the use of his legs, or by some friendly hand was helped into the wagon. Then, in an extremely deliberate jog-trot, she would betake herself, without guidance, to the West Side Shanty Town, where she would surrender her helpless master to the judgment which awaited him at the hands of his vigorous wife. If, as sometimes happened, he fought imaginary foes and fell out on the way, the old mare perceived it instantly, and remained motionless until a policeman took both her and Jim in charge, or a good Samaritan enabled them to prosecute their journey. On the morning after such an escapade Jim was apt to find the society of Mrs. O'Flaherty doubly uncongenial, and he would resort in a rueful mood to the little lean-to in which Molly had her stall, and seating himself on a reversed bucket, at her head, would discourse to her in somewhat the following fashion:

"Molly, ould girrel, ye be shakin' yer hid at me. Oi know what ye be manin' to say to me, Molly. Jim, ye be a pig and a hog and a dirrety dog, that's what ye be manin' to say to me, Molly. Ye hav' a woife and choil, Jim, and ye can't be kapin' yersilf dacent lang enough to slape off one spray before ye be inter another. Ye oughter be ashamed of yersilf, James O'Flaherty. Ye knowed bitter 'un to be goin' into O'Leary's saloon, whin ye had had half a point on yer conscience alriddy, in the mornin', and ye knowed bitter un to be shakin' yer dirrety fist under Frinchy's nose, he bein' a man as could knock yer as flat as a posthage sthamp. Howly Mother o God, Jim, what's to become of yer, if ye kape on makin' a swoine of yersilf and wallerin' in the dirrut of yer sins and miserrable iniquities? Ye be roight intoirely to be shakin' yer hid at me, Molly. Oi be a miserrable mortel, Molly, endade Oi be. Me throat is as droy as a chimney, and as hot as purgatory. Don't ye be harrud on me, ould girrel; me harrut is burrstin' entoirely. Don't ye be harrud on me, Molly; Oi be a-goin arround the carrner, jist to see a friend, jist a verry little one, to end up with, Molly, and call it quits."

As might have been expected, O'Flaherty's Express Company did not flourish while its projector and chief functionary devoted himself so assiduously to extraneous pursuits. Mrs. O'Flaherty's and her little girl's chances of keeping body and soul together would have been slender if they had depended up on the fruits of his exertions. Mrs. O'Flaherty, therefore, at an early date took the matter into her own hands, and having convinced herself that O'Flaherty's Express Company was a failure, hired out her services as a house-cleaner, and earned thereby a sense of virtuous superiority over the Express Company, which lost its combative disposition as far as she was concerned, and slunk about in guilty humility. If its former spirit occasionally flared up in a feeble spurt of temper, it was promptly put down. The trouble was that Jim had no argument at hand (except the old and rather ignoble one of her flinging herself at his head), to meet the irrefutable fact that he was really his wife's pensioner. His daily excursions to the public square where formerly he had been in the habit of picking up a little custom, were becoming more and more unprofitable; and there seemed at last to be no other excuse for undertaking them than the chances they afforded of escape from domestic difficulties. The old mare was never in a hurry; nor was Jim. He sat in the bottom of his rickety wagon, smoking plug tobacco out of a short clay pipe, and conversing with himself or with Molly, whose one backward-pointed ear seemed an evidence of attention. It was during one of these confidential harangues that he was, one day in January, hailed by a man, who asked him to drive over to Hoboken, to the dock of one of the European steamship companies, and get him four trunks which, for some reason, had failed to arrive, though they had been examined by the custom-house officer. Jim, though he was not very eager to go to Hoboken, felt vaguely that here was an opportunity to vindicate the usefulness of the Express Company and supply himself with some heavy ammunition wherewith to repel the next attack upon his dignity. He therefore listened carefully to the instructions which the gentleman gave him, and promised to carry them out to the letter. Even Molly felt the exhilaration of this important commission, and shook first one ear, then the other, and at last her whole head, preparatory to the exertion. In spite of these elaborate preliminaries, however, she did not attain much beyond her ordinary jog-trot. But, like the turtle in the fable, she made up in endurance what she lacked in vivacity. The pier of the steamship company was reached while the sun was yet high, and after a great deal of aimless running about and interviews with officials, Jim was able to identify the four trunks and obtain permission to remove them. He was somewhat dismayed when he saw how large they were; and when, as a mere experiment, he tried to lift one of them, he became aware that O'Flaherty's Express Company had undertaken a very considerable contract. There was a great jam of vehicles of all kinds about him, and the noise and confusion made him almost dizzy. Horses were backed right up against his nose, and carriage-poles poked into his ribs every moment. Cabmen and porters yelled to him and shouted all sorts of uncomplimentary appellations, one threatening him with eternal perdition if he did not move in one direction, and another making the same threat if he did not move in another. Jim felt the need of a little consultation with Molly before putting her aged muscles to so severe a trial; but here there was no chance for deliberation. A huge steamer was roaring and belching forth smoke, as it seemed, right in his ear; and the maledictions that were hurled against him grew more furious the more he strove to meditate. It suddenly began to dawn upon Jim that he was blocking the way. He had placed his wagon across the only open road which all had to travel. Still he could not very well abandon his trunks, now that they had been delivered into his keeping. He was just grappling with this problem, when two men rushed forward, tossed two of the trunks into his wagon, seized Molly by the bit, and pushed her with violent jerks back into the crowd. Jim was so astonished that his pipe dropped from his mouth, and with a dull pang he heard it crunch under somebody's feet. He hurried forward at the risk of being trodden down by a pair of prancing carriage horses, and, crawling up on a bale of cotton, caught a glimpse of Molly's poor old head pathetically upturned in the midst of a jam of drays and cabs and wagons. She appeared to be equally in the way, wherever she turned. She knocked people down, stepped on their toes, and stuck her nose into their faces out of sheer embarrassment. Some resenting such familiarity, beat her with canes, whips, or whatever they happened to have at hand. Jim saw a herculean porter, whose hat she had brushed off, leap up with a volley of oaths, and pound her about the head with his clenched fists. He felt every blow on his own head. He was too bewildered to be angry. His only feeling was pity for Molly and a desire to come to her help. "Kape stiddy, Molly, ould girrel," he cried hoarsely, above the din; "Oi be a comin to yis."

But it was no easy thing for Molly to keep steady. She was not accustomed to being beaten. Whatever spirit there was left in her old carcass revolted against the indignity. With a shrill broken whinny, she reared on her hind legs, pawed the air with her fore hoofs, and flung back her head.

"Molly," yelled Jim, striding along over bales, and boxes, and carts, "kape stiddy, auld girrel, kape stiddy!"

He stumbled, fell, rose up again and fell again. He was poked and punched by rude elbows, pushed, yelled at, and knocked about by valises and trunks. He was half stunned and dazed, but still full of anxiety for Molly. He reached, he scarcely knew how, a second eminence and saw, as through a dimly-shining veil, a horse's head wildly tossed above the crowd, and a group of excited men striking at it with sticks and fists and whip-handles. He tried to call Molly's name once more, but his voice stuck in his throat. The wagon was but a few inches from the edge of the pier, which at this point had no railing. One more jerk—one more blow—and it shot out over the edge! The weight of the trunks pulled Molly back on her haunches, she struggled for a moment to keep her footing, but in vain! With a whinny which sounded like a shriek of despair, she vanished over the edge of the pier. Into the place which she had left vacant, Jim jumped down, and stood staring incredulously at the spot where she had sunk.

"Molly—auld girrel," he cried, weeping, and wrung his grimy hands.

Suddenly, as if in response to his call, he saw something gleam through the water—and Molly's head rose between two cakes of ice. She snorted, and panted, and blew steam out of her nose. In her struggle for life, she had managed to rid herself of the wagon. A fragment of the torn harness still clung about her neck.

"Oi be a-comin', auld girrel! Oi be a-comin'," cried Jim, exultingly, and leaped into the river. The icy water chilled him to the heart. It closed above his head, and opened no upward path again. He sank like a stone.

"A fool of an Irishman," said the people, having exhausted their efforts to rescue him; "he jumped into the river to save his old mare!"

But they did not know Jim. Neither did they know Molly.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.