A Great Human Principle
by Charles Hoy Fort
A three-story frame house. An old yellow house. Clapboards patched here and there and the patches painted when put up, so that the front of the house was tessellated with squares, some vivid, some dull, some of almost obliterated yellow paint. Brick sidewalk and a paling fence between it and the house. Worn-out grass behind the fence, and creeping out in tufts between bricks. Weather-worn shutters, some open, and some tied shut with dangling pieces of clothes-line. Tenement region of New York.
On the top floor lived the Boyles; the second floor, Mrs. Cassidy; first floor, Mrs. Ryan--no polyglot house here, you see; not a Schwartzenheimer nor a Tortolini in it, but straight Boyle, Cassidy, and Ryan from top to bottom.
Top floor. Early in the morning. Mr. Boyle had gone to his hodcarrying, but Mr. McGovern, the boarder, who worked for Stolliger, the plumber, was waiting for his breakfast. Miss Boyle, a large, panting person with the profile of an overfed Roman Emperor, was preparing breakfast. And Mr. McGovern was not beautiful; in his boyhood he had been a jockey, and the print of a horseshoe ran along one cheek to his nose. If you should not be acquainted with Mr. McGovern, it would be almost impossible to have him say a word to you, but let him become acquainted and feel himself at home and his diffidence would be less marked. He was "good," the neighbors would tell you. "As quiet and decent a man as you'd care to meet," they'd tell you.
In the Boyles' kitchen. An undulating floor, for the house had settled; stove that inclined so that when one part of the frying-pan was full of lard the other part was drying and smoking; green-painted walls with stovepipe holes in them, and the holes stopped with green-painted beer-car covers; bare floor with loose boards that squeaked and rattled when trodden on. With a spade and a pickaxe and a crowbar on his knees, Mr. McGovern sat at the table, which had a newspaper on it for a tablecloth, fretting because breakfast was not ready.
"Too bad about you!" said Miss Boyle.
She boiled coffee, and boiled half a dozen eggs in the coffee, which is a very good way to economize with the fuel. Half-a-dozen eggs, in a bowl, set before Mr. McGovern, who rested his elbows on the tools on his knees, and tapped an eggshell.
"I hope they'll suit you!" said Miss Boyle. "I hope we can have one breakfast that'll suit you!"
Mr. McGovern, cracking an egg. "They're too soft," complained Mr. McGovern.
"Are they?" Miss Boyle snatching the bowl with five eggs in it. And right at his forehead she threw an egg. A splashing and a dripping of yellow down Mr. McGovern's astonished countenance!
"Are they?" panted Miss Boyle. An egg to the eyebrow.
"Minnie Boyle, me curse on you!" said unfortunate Mr. McGovern, sitting still, too astonished to dodge a third egg, which burst on his nose and dripped beautiful golden nuggets down his collar.
"Are they?" panted Miss Boyle, throwing the fourth and the fifth eggs.
"There, now! Now, are they?" she panted. And she sat down violently, throwing her apron over her head, wailing aloud her views upon his ill-treatment of her.
Mr. McGovern's yellow lips alternating in rolling between his teeth. Mr. McGovern glancing toward the window; but he was a man of self-control and did not throw her out; besides she was too heavy.
"Minnie Boyle, me curse on you!" repeated Mr. McGovern. Then he rose from the table, tools hugged under one arm, and felt his way to the door, and seeing yellow, went down yellow stairs to a yellow sink, where Mrs. Cassidy was filling a pail.
"Honor of Gawd, Mr. McGovern, what's happened to you?" said Mrs. Cassidy.
"'Tis Minnie Boyle has me in this deplorable condition!" said Mr. McGovern, feeling for the faucet. "Me curse on her!"
"Ah, no, Mr. McGovern, I'd not say that! There's not a day's luck for them that calls down curses. But, in the name of the Lord, and the good, decent man I always found you, what did you do to her?"
"He's an old crank!" wailed Miss Boyle, still sobbing with his ill-treatment of her.
"Ah, hush, you, Minnie Boyle! And you, Mr. McGovern, would you come down to my kitchen and I'll have the soap and water on you." She was a red-cheeked woman of fifty; expressionless face, bright eyes that bobbed at the floor when she spoke.
Mr. McGovern attenuating egg yolk with handfuls of water, but still dripping yellow, following her to the kitchen; pickaxe, spade and crowbar thumping with him, down the stairs.
"Didn't my two eyes tell me it I'd never believe it of Minnie Boyle!" said the widow. "Ah, but you must have plagued her in some way. Ah, but 'tis no way to treat any decent man." And she taking his coat off. And she cleaned the coat, and having an iron on, she pressed it for him.
Mr. McGovern standing very stiff, still biting first one lip and then the other, his eyes rolling wildly. "Have you a room idle, Mrs. Cassidy?" he asked.
"I have not a room," said Mrs. Cassidy. "I have the half of a room, which is my front room, which I let out to two gentlemen, which the half of it is occupied by Mr. Matthews, and the two beds in it. But sure, I'd not take a boarder away from a neighbor, and Minnie Boyle'll be the first to tell you her sorrow at mistreating you so."
"Was it to save me," said Mr. McGovern solemnly, but lifting his hand so high that there was a marked hiatus between his vest and his trousers, "another night I'll not pass beneath her roof!"
"Well, then, I have the half of a room," said Mrs. Cassidy, "if you would submit to share it with Mr. Matthews, who is a very sedate and respectable gentleman."
"I will that!" said Mr. McGovern.
"Then sit you down and have a bite to eat and a sup of coffee, before you go to your day's labor."
And that is how Mr. McGovern became Mrs. Cassidy's boarder.
But there was trouble, later in the morning. Miss Boyle had been robbed of her boarder; and Miss Boyle gasped and panted with indignation, as she though of the widow's unneighborly conduct. Miss Boyle coming down the stairs, silent until passing Mrs. Cassidy's door. Then:
"It'll be the sorry day for some people when they interfered with their neighbors! It's a true saying you don't know who your friends are, can can't trust nobody nowadays." Miss Boyle to the front stoop, and turning around to go back to her top floor. Silence from her until passing the widow's door, and then:
"If some people would mind their own affairs, 'twould be the better for them, and I'd be long sorry to do some of the things I see did all around me."
"What do you mean, Miss Boyle?--And I'd not call you
Minnie--" Mrs. Cassidy's door opening; Mrs. Cassidy, with bright eyes in her dull face, staring at the stairs, her head bobbing at the stairs. "If you're looking to stir up trouble Miss Boyle, you've come to the wrong quarters."
"I wasn't mentioning no names," panted Miss Boyle. "Let them it fits take it to themselves if they want to."
Screech from the first-floor tenant:
"Minnie Boyle's a common disturber! Don't you mind her, Mrs. Cassidy. She's been run out of three houses as a common disturber."
"Where's your old man today, Mrs. Ryan?" A panting jeer from Miss Boyle. "Think where your old man is and then keep pretty quiet and don't open your mouth to others."
Loud slamming of first-, second-, and third-floor doors! Miss Boyle standing close to her back window and jeering out at the first-floor tenant; Mrs. Ryan, with her head out her window, shrieking up frantically; Mrs. Cassidy, staring at a backyard clothes-pole, chanting monotonously.
An old man appearing at a window of the house opposite.
All three ladies expressing their bitterness and hatred.
Old man tucking a fiddle under his chin and playing.
Sudden lull in the warfare; desultory attacks, then angry accusations ceasing.
Mrs. Ryan seizing a brook and waltzing around her kitchen with it; Mrs. Cassidy, her dull face very serious, starting a solemn jig; Miss Boyle clapping her hands and her massive body swaying.
For the old fiddler was playing, as he often played, when there was trouble in the neighborhood, "Praties and fishes is very good dishes!" Whole neighborhood in terpsichorean ecstasy! Ah, 'tis a rousing old tune indeed! Indeed and it is that! "St. Patrick's Day in the morning!" And Miss Boyle and Mrs. Cassidy and Mrs. Ryan are very good friends again---and if a bit of the drop then came in to be shared among the three of them, why, sure, that is nobody's business!
But, though Miss Boyle seemed reconciled to the loss of a boarder--"Old crank and good riddance to him!"--Mr. Matthews took most unkindly to the acquisition of a boarder.
Mr. Matthews coming home to dinner and learning that he was to have a roommate. "`Tis Mr. McGovern, from upstairs, and not like a stranger brought in to you," said Mrs. Cassidy. "Quiet, decent man that he is, and never a word from him and scarce open his lips to bid the time of day to you."
Mr. Matthews, in white overalls, his face spattered with white, was a whitewasher; a man of fifty; wore a shabby suit of clothes, when not in white, but wore shirts that were broadly and glaringly pink-striped. He brushed his hat and shined his shoes; he was shabby and was fifty, but had not given up all interest in his appearance. His nose was rather ruddy and bumpy, but once it had been of strong, straight mold, and Mr. Matthews was still good-looking; an affable, jaunty, verbose man.
"Him!" said Mr. Matthews, not at all affably. "You got him here?"
"Yes," said the widow, "but what of it? You say `him' in such a funny way. Do you know aught against him?"
"Perhaps I do and perhaps I don't--" began Mr. Matthews.
But steps on the stairs! Steps passing the door and going halfway to the floor above. For Mr. McGovern was a creature of habit, and, even with his mind occupied with the morning's sad occurrence, he went halfway up the stairs he vowed he never should tread again. Mr. McGovern hurriedly descending to the second-floor kitchen. And great affability from Mr. Matthews!
"So you're now one of us, Mr. McGovern? That's good, and I'm glad to share my room with you, and you must make yourself right at home here. Take your coat off, now, and be comfortable." Mr. McGovern feeling not at all at home; Mr. Matthews feeling so thoroughly at home that his manner was decidedly proprietary. "If you'll just sit over here, where you'll be out of the way, Mr. McGovern!" and Mr. Matthews helped prepare supper. Went down to the sink and filled the kettle; cleared off the kitchen table; then kicked off his shoes and stepped into slippers. Mr. Matthews was very much at home, but Mr. McGovern was a stranger, silent, awkward and self-effacing. Table set, and, from Mr. Matthews:
"Draw up and be one of us, Mr. McGovern! Well, how's the day gone with you?"
"That's right!" said the widow. "Let the both of you chat; I do like a little chatting about me."
"Much like any other day," was Mr. McGovern's answer; knees wriggling and shoulders wriggling.
"I like to hear you chat, because then I don't so much miss the bit of a store I used to have," said Mrs. Cassidy.
"Did you?" Mr. McGovern interested so that he ceased wriggling. "That's what I always been wanting to go into and been laying by a little for."
Mr. Matthews noting this interest and saying hurriedly, "Oh, well, stores is pretty dull talking."
"Oh, no, but go on and chat!" begged Mrs. Cassidy. "I do miss my store, I do! When I had the store there was chatting all day long, what with customers and other storekeepers coming in. I do so miss the chatting of it!"
Miss Boyle thumping down the stairs; pausing on the landing and looking into the kitchen. Into the kitchen came Miss Boyle, and sat in the rocking-chair. Very hard did the lady try to seem unconscious of her lost boarder; with her left and right hands up right and left sleeves, she patted her huge arms and tried to glance about casually, but the lost boarder fascinated her. "Old crank!" Miss Boyle panted amiably. Mr. McGovern bending low over a pork chop.
Mrs. Ryan scurrying up the stairs; for in this meeting of former landlady with ex-boarder there might be something worth hearing. On Mrs. Ryan's long, sharp nose were spectacles that made her a person of most uncanny appearance. For the spectacles were of magnifying power so great that when turned full upon one the lady's eyes were increased to the size of plums.
"How's your husband getting along?" asked Miss Boyle, striving to resist the fascination of her lost boarder.
"Oh, fine!" from the enthusiastic Mrs. Ryan, turning eyes like nightmare eyes upon Mrs. Boyle. "They've promoted him twice since he's been there. Oh, yes, I'm proud of the success he's making. His behavior would carry him anywheres. Lew always was a superior man and got his superiority recognized."
Widow clearing away supper dishes, at which Mr. McGovern gazed, as he twitched and shifted and wriggled. "So your husband is getting along all right then, Mrs. Ryan?"
"Fine!" cried enthusiastic Mrs. Ryan. "They say they never had anybody like him. It isn't everybody could advance themselves like he does. From the very first day they took notice of how superior he was."
"When does he get out?" asked Miss Boyle.
"Why, half of his six months is up already. Yes," proudly, "they've promoted him twice, and now he's a trusty in the Harlem Police Court and only in his cell night-times, when he goes back to the Island. Lew always was a ambitious man and'd make his mark anywheres."
But Miss Boyle could no longer sustain the effort of her resisting. "Well, Mr. McGovern, how is your supper digesting? I don't hear you making no complaints here, like there always was for my cooking. Just wait till the strangeness wears off and Mrs. Cassidy won't be so taken with you!"
"Excuse yourself, Miss Boyle!" widow chanting and staring, "But I'm not taken by no man and once was enough for me. I 'tend to my business and cook for my boarders and try to make it homelike for them."
"Please be kind enough to excuse your own self, Mrs. Cassidy! I wasn't passing no remarks, and you don't take me up right. I'm sure you're welcome to Mr. McGovern, and much good may he do you, and no more boarders for me--no, thank you!"
"Minnie," said Mrs. Ryan, turning orbs that were startling and almost terrifying upon the excited and gasping Miss Boyle, "you're a common disturber, Minnie, and you ought to remember you was ran out of the flats for it."
"Me ran off of the flats? Me that left of my own accord? Then now you excuse yourself, Mrs. Ryan!"
And from the widow: "I'm sure I 'tend to my own business, and needn't be taken up with a man just because I cook for him, and once was enough for my lifetime!"
Three excited ladies! Mr. Matthews waving hands at them, crying, "Now, ladies! Oh, now, ladies, I implore you!"
Miss Boyle and Mrs. Ryan turning to each other wrathfully, but--
"Here's the rocky roads!" Old Mr. Doran leaning out his window fiddling. "Rocky road to Dublin, oh!" Gray-bearded old peacemaker playing his liveliest jig, starting up the moment angry voices floated to him.
"Just because I cook for a man--" but Mr. Matthews twirled the widow to a point in front of him. Widow and Mr. Matthews in jig steps. "So please excuse yourself, Mrs. Ryan--" But Miss Boyle scrambling to hook elbows with Mr. Matthews, and Mrs. Ryan hopping up to jig advances to sedate, retiring Mr. McGovern. "Rocky roads to Dublin!"
And Miss Boyle went back to her floor, having amiably parted with everybody; and Mrs. Ryan went away, shaking her head with laughter at the dancing, so that she seemed to be scattering plums broadcast, lingering in the doorway to say, "Yes, Lew'll be back in three months, now. I hope he won't be too proud to know us. He is a little that way, and it ain't goof for him to be too successful. But what I say is, if you got it in you, you'll always make your mark in the world." And away with her.
"You don't have to stay in here, McGovern, you know," said Mr. Matthews; "but go out and take a walk or do as you like. You must feel free to do just as you like, now you're one of us."
Mr. McGovern, looking as if rather resenting this supervisory attitude, but then rising and shuffling from the room, going to the front stoop, where Mrs. Ryan was eulogizing her successful husband.
"Him!" said Mr. Matthews scornfully. "Him!" said Mr. Matthews, jabbing his pipe into the little leg pocket of his white overalls.
"But what do you know about him?" the widow asked curiously.
"Oh, never mind what I know or don't know, Mrs. Cassidy. Have I in so many words, said I know aught wrong about him?"
"Not in so many words," answered Mrs. Cassidy, "but you have intimated as much. He's been in the house come a year now, and, beyond a drop of a Saturday night, which is no more than any good man's fault, who can breathe a word against him?"
Mr. Matthews became verbose and floundering in his verbosity.
"'Tis a great human principle I would apply and test him and expose his unworthiness to you," said the gentleman mysteriously. "There's deep secrets in human life, Mrs. Cassidy, and there's great delineations of character to those that can delve into them and solve their puzzles. I may say, Mrs. Cassidy, that there is in all of us those principles which are in all of us. You follow me, Mrs. Cassidy? And being in all of us they're common to the lot of us and they're only known to them that delve into them. You follow me?" Profound gentleman shaking a forefinger, advancing, forcing his landlady up and down along the undulations of the kitchen floor; his landlady bobbing and staring and turning one ear to him to concentrate her attentiveness. "So, then--you follow me?--so then, them that can delve into the complexities of humanity can apply them, and them are what I've delved into--"
Mr. McGovern returning, having wearied with the absent, but successful Mr. Ryan.
"Oh!" said Mr. Matthews, affable again, "didn't stay long? Well, you can read your newspaper, if you want to. You can sit here and read your newspaper, now you're one of us."
Mr. McGovern betraying decided resentment; Mr. McGovern sitting down and drawing his lean knees together as if that would help him express his resentment, but--but Mr. Matthews would the clock! And what a small, but what a speaking act! To wind a clock in any home seems the one significant sign of supremacy in that home. Mr. McGovern said nothing and picked up a newspaper, as he had been given permission to do.
Other evenings Mr. McGovern came home from his work and went past the Cassidy door and halfway to the rooms above before recalling that he lived no longer on the top floor. Mr. McGovern did not yet feel at home.
And he showed that he did not feel at home. Take any evening in the widow's kitchen. Miss Boyle dropping in, panting and gasping on the sofa. Miss Boyle remarking that the weather was warm, or that the weather was cold; trying to appear unconscious of Mr. McGovern, and then:
"Well, how do you like your new boarder, Mrs. Cassidy? Oh, you'll find him out in time and see how cranky he is." Mr. McGovern not retorting, but shifting in his chair uneasily.
And from Mr. Matthews: "You can light up your pipe, if you want to, McGovern."
Mr. McGovern lighting his pipe, as if recognizing permission given by one in anything.
And, "Oh, McGovern, if you'll let me have that chair! I sorter look on it as my chair."
Mr. McGovern meekly surrendering the armchair, and Mr. Matthews, feet up in another chair, making himself comfortable in it.
From Miss Boyle: "Indeed, and if he was as mild as that upstairs, there'd never of been any trouble. Just you wait, Mrs. Cassidy---" Struggling with herself to avoid an unpleasant subject. "Oh, well, what do you think about the agent giving Mrs. Ryan her floor for a dollar cheaper? Serving all alike is what I say. Does the cooking here suit you any better, Mr. McGovern?"
Briskly from Mr. Matthews: "Well, McGovern, you can turn in any time you want to, you know."
"Yes, sir; thank you, sir," meekly and humbly from Mr. McGovern.
But another evening. Mr. Matthews saying to the widow mysteriously: "Oh, everybody ain't what they seem. Oh, a quiet, decent man, is he? But wait till I try a great human principle, some day, and that's where the test comes in!"
Mr. McGovern was on the stairs. And only one step on the way to the top floor did Mr. McGovern take this evening. Force of habit was weakening in him, and he wheeled back from the first step.
Mr. McGovern coming into the kitchen and taking his coat off.
Mr. Matthews eyeing the coat askance, but saying, "That's right, McGovern; take your coat off and be comfortable."
"'Tis not necessary to tell me!" said Mr. McGovern. "I've got me strangeness wore off considerable, now." Rolling up his sleeves, taking the armchair, saying, "Mrs. Cassidy, if you're ready, I'll have my supper now." For Mr. McGovern was beginning to feel at home.
"Draw up to the table, McGovern," invited Mr. Matthews, though he scowled at the usurped armchair, which he regarded as his own armchair, "and you mustn't act like a stranger with us."
"Again," said Mr. McGovern, "'tis unnecessary to tell me, though me thanks to you for your kindness. But draw up yourself, and don't be looking so strange, Matthews. 'Tis the social side of a meal that is half its charms; and sit down yourself Mrs. Cassidy, and don't be bothered waiting on us, but let each one wait on theirselves. Sure, Matthews, man don't be looking so glum, but be like you was one of ourselves."
"I ought to be!" said Mr. Matthews glumly. "I been here long enough, too."
"And me!" said Mr. McGovern; "'Tis always my way to feel a little strange, at first, but the strangeness wears right off."
"So I see!" from gloomy Mr. Matthews.
"Bring it right here, ma'am!" Mr. McGovern to Mrs. Cassidy, who was carrying a platter of good Irish stew from a pot on the stove. "Right here forninst me, ma'am, and I'll apportion it out for the lot of us. Where's your plate, Matthews? Speak up if you want a bit of stew."
"I don't know that I do!" said melancholy Mr. Matthews. "I think I'm feeling somewhat off my feed."
"Ah, well, then, Mrs. Cassidy, so much the more for us two. But you needn't leave the table, Matthews; you can sit here and be one of us, even if you are a bit off your feed."
A melancholy Mr. Matthews all evening, and all evening a lively dominating Mr. McGovern, until Mr. Matthews though of the clock. It was an eight-day clock, but every evening Mr. Matthews would it as a crowning domestic act.
"McGovern," said Mr. Matthews weakly, "you don't have to sit up and bear us company, you know."
And Mr. McGovern's air of aggressive self-confidence had flown. "Why, no--oh, don't be bothering about me," said Mr. McGovern awkwardly. For the winding of the clock had put him back in an overshadowed position in the widow's home.
"If you'll let me have my easy-chair!" suggested Mr. Matthews briskly, all his glumness dissipated by his feeling of restoration to command. "Not troubling you too much, but that's always been my chair."
"Sure, excuse me for the liberty of monopolizing it!" awkward Mr. McGovern was quite crushed back into strangeness again.
"You must feel yourself amongst friends," said Mr. Matthews patronizingly. "Don't stand on no ceremony with us here, but just be yourself. You can go to bed, or you can go out and take a walk, just what you like."
"Why, yes--thank you, sir!" from Mr. McGovern. He had risen from the easy-chair, and he stood faltering between going to the street and going to the front room.
"Just hand me my pipe over there, like a good fellow!" Mr. Matthews stretching back in his armchair, feet up on the sofa, showing very well that he knew which was the dominating boarder. Mr. McGovern meekly handing Mr. Matthews the pipe.
The next evening! Mr. McGovern coming into the kitchen, without taking even one or even half a step toward the floor above. Mr. McGovern coolly taking Mr. Matthews' hat and coat from the nail in the door; dropping Mr. Matthews' hat and coat on a chair, hanging up his own, instead. And Mr. McGovern saying to Mrs. Cassidy: "What! Going to bother cooking for us this hot day? Here's some change; would you go out to the delicatessen and bring us in whatever strikes your fancy most?"
"I would, and glad, too!" said Mrs. Cassidy. "'Tis no pleasure standing over a hot stove, a day like this. Had you your mind set on a hot meal, Mr. Matthews?"
"Ah, sure, and he don't count!" said Mr. McGovern, laughing boisterously, but good-naturedly. "Anyway, 'tis two against one." Mrs. Cassidy feeling embarrassed, standing hesitating in the doorway.
"Oh, don't mind me!" from melancholy Mr. Matthews. "I don't count."
And when the widow brought back corned beef and potato salad he refused to eat anything sent for by his rival, but then, unable to explain continued loss of appetite, made a sandwich, with very ill grace.
Supper over, and Mr. McGovern going to the front room, where he busied himself with his trunk. And back to the kitchen he came, with several large, framed, crayon portraits under his arm.
"I might as well have these hanging on your wall, if you don't mind, Mrs. Cassidy," he said. "'Tis the portraitures of me father and mother, if you don't mind."
"I'd be pleased, and they'd be ornaments to the wall," said Mrs. Cassidy. "If you're not afraid they'll be spoiled by the smoke from the stove."
"Oh, not at all!" said Mr. McGovern, " and I have more portraitures to hang up in your front room."
Mr. Matthews sitting stiff on an uncomfortable chair, his lips moving. Very likely Mr. Matthews was saying to himself, "I don't count!"
"And, if you'll bear with me for saying as much, ma'am," from Mr. McGovern, "I don't think your chairs are fixed so economical of space, here. I'd be much preferring to have the table at the other end of the room, if 'tis all the same to you."
"It is, to be sure, Mr. McGovern," said the widow sweetly, but with an anxious glance at depressed Mr. Matthews, stiff and awkward as ever Mr. McGovern had been.
"So, if you'll move a little, Matthews!"
Mr. Matthews standing up and then not knowing where to go, for, as soon as he turned toward a chair, Mr. McGovern picked up that chair and placed it somewhere else.
"Do sit down and make yourself at home," urged Mr. McGovern, who was very much at home. And then: "Now it strikes me that this chair would make more of an appearance over here," as Mr. Matthews wretchedly stumbled toward a chair.
"Ah, but you have a great eye for effects, Mr. McGovern!" cried the admiring widow, whose indignation would have been boundless had a feminine boarder dared thus to reorganize her home.
"And have you everything in for the morning?" asked Mr. McGovern. "Is there anything you want?"
"There is not," answered Mrs. Cassidy; "there is not naught but a bit of wood to be brought up from the shed."
"Then give me the key!" Mr. McGovern going down to the woodshed, coming back with an armful of wood, which was an act of such agonizing domesticity that Mr. Matthews, stammering that the room was too warm, fled to the front stoop.
"Ah, but this is very nice and homelike!" Mr. McGovern in the armchair.
"'Tis a strange thing, sir," from the widow, "that a man like yourself, with such quiet tastes, never had a home of your own."
"'Tis me nature to be very particular," Mr. McGovern answered. "I have not met the woman would suit me. But you're right, ma'am, me tastes was always quiet and homelike, barring me ambition to have a bit of a store somewheres, for which I got the money laid by, and I'd be thinking of the home and naught else. Sit down and we'll have a chat, ma'am, and don't be bothering with them dishes, for you work too hard as it is."
"And you little dream the care a house is!" said the widow, taking a chair beside her boarder. "You could be busy from morning till night and the half of your work never done; and was I the kind to go gadding about I don't know where I'd be. Ah, yes, Mr. McGovern, 'tis a great pleasure, is a bit of a store. There's people coming in to chat with you all day long."
"Would it be second-hand furniture?" asked Mr. McGovern. "I should say there'd be money in a store like that--"
But Mr. Matthews, who had been unable to remain in the room, was then unable to remain away from the room. Coming back.
"Matthews," said Mr. McGovern, "but 'tis the uneasy mortal you are! Sit you down and don't feel like a stranger so."
But Mr. Matthews had returned with a purpose. He had returned to restore himself to his rightful rank. Then he would place chairs and tables back in their original positions, and then, with dominion re-established, those flaunting, intruding portraits should come down from the wall. Mr. Matthews striding toward the mantelpiece; he would reduce his rival to humbleness again.
"Oh, Matthews," said Mr. McGovern carelessly, "never mind that; I've already wound the clock."
"You have?" Mr. Matthews demanded fiercely. "Oh, have you?" without spirit left.
"I have that!" said Mr. McGovern. "But you can go to bed any time you want. Be easy and free and don't feel called upon to sit up, just because Mrs. Cassidy and meself are having a bit of a chat--Did you ever see the uneasy like of him!"
For Mr. Matthews had fled.
Mr. Matthews and Miss Boyle meeting on the stoop.
"Why, I thought I just saw you down here," said Miss Boyle.
"Then you see me again!"
"Oh! Crowded out?"
"No, I'm not crowded out!" indignant Mr. Matthews! "Who'd crowd me out? I'd like to see anybody crowd me out!"
"Sorry I spoke!" said Miss Boyle. "I was only thinking of your new boarder. I was only wondering if he was feeling at home yet."
"He's most--most--most damnationally at home!" spluttered wrathful Mr. Matthews. "He's-- But would you come around to Farley's and have a little drink, Miss Boyle?"
"Well," said Miss Boyle, "I might have one."
So they went to Farley's and sat in the back room, where Mr. Matthews pressed the electric button in the wall, and kept on pressing till some of his ill-temper was relieved.
"Is he at home?" spluttered Mr. Matthews. "Oh, no, but it's the retiring, timid spirit he has and not a word out of him and not daring to call his soul his own. Oh, yes, but those are the most distinguishable characteristics of him! Why don't you get him back to board with you?"
"Him? Old crank! No, thanks!"
"Why, I only thought you was sore at having him taken from you."
Bartender vigorously rubbing the table with his bar rag, splashing his customers, setting down two glasses.
"'Twas a unneighborly thing to do, and no mistake," said Miss Boyle. "I put him out and, for a million, wouldn't have him back, but 'twas a unneighborly trick to take him from me so, and, for one, I wish he wasn't in the house."
"Listen, then!" said Mr. Matthews, his elbow on the table, his forefinger waving in front of Miss Boyle's Roman nose. "There's other ways for to get him out of the house. This is between ourselves, isn't it?"
"Oh, certainly, and never go no farther, for all of me!"
"Then I know something he's done, and, when Mrs. Cassidy learns it, she'll have him no more in her rooms."
"He has?" Miss Boyle much interested, peering over a schooner's rim.
"Well, 'tis not so much I know something he's done, as I know he's done something. Now, wait! You follow me? This is between the two of us, isn't it? Then this night I'll write a letter to Mrs. Cassidy, telling her of the serpent warming its fangs at her fireside; of the wolf in human disguise; of the vulture and hyena with their parents' portraits on her walls."
Miss Boyle steadily gulping, but her eyes looking deep interest over the rim of the glass. "Why, sure, and he's an old crank," from Miss Boyle, "but is he as bad as all that, I don't know? Why will you be telling her all that?"
"To arouse the suspicions of her against him!" said Mr. Matthews.
"That'll start her investigating and looking up his record. I'd investigate him myself only I ain't never had no steadiness in me for any such detective work. But, out of her own curiosity, she will look up his record, if I once raise the suspicions of her, and she'll find out what he's done."
"Find out what?" impatiently.
"Find out what he's done!" said Mr. Matthews.
"And what's that?"
"I don't know."
"Aw, such talk! Such talk!" Miss Boyle disgusted and rising. "You don't know what he's done? Then how do you know he has done anything?"
"There's the point!" cried Mr. Matthews. "Every man has! That's just it! That's the great human principle I'm working on; which is that every man has something in his past that he'd fear to have found out. I'll rise Mrs. Cassidy, and she'll investigate what Mr. McGovern's particular secret is."
"Ho! Hum! The men is a bad lot!" said Miss Boyle indifferently.
When Mr. Matthews went back to the second-floor rooms of the old yellow house the masterfulness of Mr. McGovern irritated him highly.
"But never mind!" said Mr. Matthews to himself, "I'll fix you!" More masterfulness, under which Mr. Matthews writhed. But Mr. Matthews said: "Oh, just wait!"
The next day was Saturday. On Saturdays Mr. Matthews worked half days, so he was home a little after noon. And he went lightly up the tenement stairs. He blithely entered the Cassidy kitchen, for with Mr. McGovern away working, he might dominate. So, joyously, Mr. Matthews entered the kitchen, and--
"Merciful Father, Mr. Matthews," cried Mrs. Cassidy, "but I've been hearing strange tales of you!"
Blitheness swept away, and consternation instead! "Then she's been here?" the gentleman faltered.
"Honor of Gawd, Mr. Matthews, but I'd never thought it of you!"
"What did she say?" tremulously. "Was the childer with her? How did she find out my address?"
"Don't speak to me!" cried the widow. "The men is all alike! You can't trust nobody! So you bare-faced admit you have a wife and childer you left to shift for theirselves?"
"But I couldn't support them all!" groaned Mr. Matthews. "How long since she was here, and will she be right back? And will I have time to get my trunk packed? She'd shoot me, let alone having the police onto me, Mrs. Cassidy. It'll look bad for me leaving the lot of them in midwinter and not a cent in the house. Was she very wild about it, Mrs. Cassidy?"
But Mrs. Cassidy had run to the hall, and up on the stairs she sat until having packed his trunk, he hastened it on his shoulder, down the stairs.
"Mercy on us!" Mrs. Cassidy was saying to Miss Boyle, "But there's been revelations, this blessed morning, to me! It's a married man he's been all the time and not only married, but got a wife and small childer besides."
"But how'd you ever come to hear word of it?" Miss Boyle asked.
"'Tis that is the queer part of it," Mrs. Cassidy answered. "I did but begin accusing him, just to find out, and there, my dear, he outs and gives his own self away. `Was she here?' he says, and nobody mentioning such a person. There's the way of the wicked for you! I got this letter this morning and began accusing him, and me not knowing what I was talking about, to see if the way of the wicked would be the way of him--and it was!"
Miss Boyle reading the letter.
"But, woman, dear, this don't say which of your boarders is meant."
Mrs. Cassidy reaching for the letter and carefully reading it. "Why indeed, and you're right, and does it? But how well I lit on the right one of them and never thought of accusing t'other one. Miss Boyle, in the name of the Lord, what ails you?"
Miss Boyle shaking with billowy laughter. "Did you ever hear the like!" cried Miss Boyle. "But he was right about at least one man having something in his life he'd not want uncovered! Why, woman, dear, though he meant to rise your suspicions of the other one, you've found him out by his own letter."
To return to the Table of Contents for Charles Hoy Fort's Short Stories, click here.
To return to the Fortean Web Site of Mr. X, click here.
To send electronic mail to Mr. X, (email@example.com), click here.
© X, 1998, 1999