Mrs. Bonticue and Another Landlord
by Charles Hoy Fort
A row of tenements with fire-escapes painted white! Pretty attractive, those white fire-escapes. Certainly are! See the red house trimmed with limestone? But you're fooled there; the stone trimming effect is only white paint. And in another house, see the white keystone of the arch over the door? But the "keystone" is only painted on the bricks. One landlord painted a limestone border on his house and other landlords imitated him, so that, up and down the street, you can see similar effect without expense.
And the little Dutch-brick house--yellow, light-brown, and dark-brown bricks, in the parquet-flooring designs! But, stand at the side of the house and look up its edge. You see nicks where bricks are set one upon another, but the nicks are between pairs of the little Dutch bricks, you'll notice. Little Dutch bricks only painted on the big red kind from Haverstraw!
Three floors, and two families to a floor; that's the house. Here's the landlord, one Dunphy, standing on the crooked stoop.
Hair smoothed and even polished, one would think, down to his ears, and parted in the middle. A burly man of fifty. Face spattered with red spots, as if every one-thousandth drink had rung up and registered itself there. Very black mustache, with ends cut off, smoothed and polished down so that it was just like the cut of his hair, in miniature. The irregular features seem made to express good nature. And he is a good-natured man! Listen to him.
Second-floor woman standing on the stoop, talking with him. "If you put me out, Mr. Dunphy, there's no place for me to go."
A joke and a laugh, for that was Dunphy's way of turning off every appeal to him. "A fine, likely woman like yourself?"--a poor, dull emaciated creature. "Don't be laughing at us! Why you'd have no trouble; any good man'd marry you."
A feeble, flickering smile reflecting from his own wide, good-natured grin. Dull pleading. Dull pleading eliciting nothing but:
"Sure, woman dear, it must be your own obstinacy has brought you to this condition! I'd take me oath you could have as fine a home as any in the land if you'd but consent to make some good man happy!" Landlord hanging up a sign of rooms to let.
"Then I must go, Mr. Dunphy?"
"Why, anyway, a woman like yourself is lowering herself consenting to live in this old tenement."
A fine fellow, this landlord! Grind you down and laugh and flatter you; push you to the wall and enjoy it hugely and do his good-natured best to make you enjoy it; put you out in the street and make you feel it was for your own good, and you deserved better than to live in his ugly old tenement.
Rooms to rent in second floor, east. Here are the remaining tenants: The Pagloni sisters, in second floor, west; skirt binders. Bare rooms; bologna, weak tea, and stale bread; it means that to be skirt binders. A tall, thin sister, with neither enjoyment nor interest in anything. A younger sister with interest in life still flickering in her. An imitation gold tooth that showed when she smiled at any male tenant--elder sister clutching her, for her life is for skirt binding, bare rooms, and weak tea only. Top floor! The Hammers, a young couple, who could quarrel and sing and be as lively as anybody. Beside them lived old Hannah, scrubwoman and street preacher, who never sinned and would tell you she had a strong pull with heaven.
The first-floor tenants are standing in the front hall. Mrs. Flack! A young woman who had always looked old. Premature wrinkles. Chin resting forward on her collar bone. She had a child of five. Flack had flown; he had married her in haste, but had repented more hastily.
Mrs. Flack exclaiming to a draggled beldame, first floor, east:
"I'm sure it was Flack I saw, last night!" gesticulating excitedly, as excitedly as she would gesticulate if remarking only upon the weather. "I'd recognize him anywheres. It was your father, Josie; I'm sure almost I remember what he looks like."
Beldame, mouthing and muttering, raising a scrawny arm and shaking it at a rear window. All the rear windows of the house were darkened.
"My nine man childs!" mouthed the beldame. "If they were alive, they'd tear that down and give us light! I'd have light and air and food if my nine man children was spared me!" Striding back and forth in the hall. A curious creaking sound accompanying her in her striding. Striding and mouthing. And with her went a twittering as if from a very big cricket.
A fusillade of oaths! Beldame stooping and snatching, from the floor, a wee Easter chick that had been fluttering along with her. Chick chirping affrightedly. A muttering of oaths. Then tenderly:
"Ah, chick, chick! It's mother! Little chick, chick!" Opening her dress, gently placing the chick against her bosom. Little chick closing its eyes contentedly. Beldame staggering to her rooms. The grumbling and mumbling of oaths. Then, "Sleep, little chick, chick."
Look out the rear window at which the forlorn creature had shaken her scrawny fist. You'll not look far. A foot from the window you see a structure of galvanized iron upon a strong wooden framework--the fence that clouded the house! Look down at the foot of the structure. Garbage, ashes, rags, an old mattress, old hats, shoes, tin cans, boxes, decaying matting and moldy oilcloth! And you wonder that Dunphy had built this fence? If you go around, by the way of the alley, you will see, on the other side of it, a well-paved courtyard and rear wall of a very respectable flat house. And this had been the way with dwellers in the Dutch-brick tenement.
Oh, standing at a window with a pailful of ashes, you know, and who could be bothered going all the way to the barrels? Why, just sling'em down in the courtyard, of course! May land on clothes on lines there--oh, someone else's clothes! Peeling a quart of potatoes. Don't quite see where to put the peelings--why, to be sure, let'em go out the window!
To shield his flathouse, Dunphy built the fence that darkened his tenement.
There were rebellions sometimes. Everybody out in the halls, excitedly discussing the fence. Old Hannah crying, "Oh, it would be sinful to tear it down, and I won't take any part in it--but you go ahead and I'll make it right for you! Pull down the fence, and I'll use my influence to have you forgiven!" Rest of the house, arming with flat-irons and hatchets, rushing boldly to the fence--making a tiny dent in the iron of it or cutting off a chip from the wood of it. "See that!" proudly exhibiting a speck of rust or a chip of wood. "Tore it off bodily! There ain't nobody going to coop me up!"
So the fence stood and was useful to the tenants of the very respectable flathouse, for their clotheslines went from their windows to hooks in it.
But now! Oh, just wait till Mrs. Bonticue appears in this situation! Oh, ho, but will Mrs. Bonticue stand any of a landlord's nonsense! I wouldn't bet four cents on that fence's longevity, for here comes Mrs. Bonticue!
A rainy day--surely the gloomiest of days to move into a darkened house--but wait! There were unusual circumstances in this moving of Mrs. Bonticue's--she was not put out this time. A letter had come. It told that Cousin Polly was dead. Then what would become of Cousin Polly's childer? A month or two months they might stay with other cousins in Dublin, but then?
"Be the Laird!" from Mrs. Bonticue, "But no one of me own flesh and blood shall ever go to any stranger! Let us, then, Aleck and Willie and Mary Ann and Mary Ellen, move into cheaper rooms and all of us save up to bring the childer out to us!"
A rainy day! The hollow plunk, plunk of horses' hoofs on puddle-strewn asphalt. Street filled with smoke sagging down from factory chimneys. Keepers of small stores looking drearily out at whoever was passing: a little, trudging boy delivering saturated newspapers; a wee child under an unusually large umbrella, hands holding the iron framework, tiny feet tripping over the handle--windows up and down the street filled with unhappy, listless children, whose despair seemed to make the day even more depressing; one lolling on a window sill, beating her own eye with her fist, just to do something; others tearing bits of paper and sticking them on window panes, or blowing on panes and tracing designs in condensed vapor, or, with chins in hands, blankly, hopelessly staring.
The Bonticues! Just coming around the corner. Can't afford a moving van. Hadn't seen Cousin Polly in twenty years. Had never seen her husband. Didn't even know the children's names. But,
oh--abhorrent thought--any creature of Bonticue blood eating the bread of strangers!
Cousin Willie and William, the Bavarian gentleman, bearing the stove between them. Mary Ann Thornton capering ahead of them in the rain, waving the mysterious dictionary-holder as a baton. Mrs. Bonticue's voice, Mrs. Bonticue herself not yet having turned the corner:
"Come back here, Mary Ann Thornton, and have none of your fooling, and, be the Laird, I'll not put up with your nonsense!" Behold Mrs. Bonticue! Sturdiness, I tell you! Long roll of oil-cloth under one arm, and dragging pictures under the other arm, and stove-pipe for a musket, musket setting a bedraggled hat wobbling from one eye to the other.
Animated children at windows clapping their hands, pointing gleefully at the Bonticues' moving! Cousin Mary Ellen coming up on the other side of the street, carrying a clothes-basket full of kitchen utensils, an umbrella lashed to the handle; trying to look as if she were not of the disorderly procession. Up the stoop of the Dutch-brick tenement.
Young Hammer, home from work on rainy days, greeting the new tenants pleasantly.
"And who do you think you are?" from Cousin Willie. "out of the way of a college-bred man when you meet one!" And then to Mrs. Flack, coming to call across the street to her small daughter: "Aw, shut up, you with your mouthful of busted teeth! Out of me sight! I can't bear looking at ugly women! You're a lot of ill-bred amadons, and who are you staring at?"
"Don't mind him!" from Mary Ann Thornton to the startled tenants. "All he needs is a good licking! It's going on two weeks now since he had a jolly good hiding." She led the way upstairs, climbing backward, waving the dictionary-holder as if keeping time for an imagined band with it.
Mrs. Bonticue coming blindly up the stoop, dripping hat away down over her forehead: "Be the Laird, I'm that beat out! Me poor heart is faint for a bit of a drop, but we'll wait till the moving is over."
Back for another load! And such a scurrying out in the halls. Such indignation. These new people had better be careful or--just wouldn't young Hammer show them!
Back with another load! Mary Ann Thornton, little, old, bedraggled elf, capering up the stoop, carrying a teaspoon. Mrs. Bonticue, half a block behind, roaring that she should put up with no such shirking nonsense; taking up the whole sidewalk; hat down to the tip of her nose so that she was guessing her way; arms full of pillows, hassocks and mirrors. Cousin Mary Ellen crossing over, looking worried, looking about casually, as if saying, "Don't think for a moment that I belong to this disreputable procession!"
"Be the Powers above!" Mrs. Bonticue had discovered the fence. "Praises be to the Laird, William and Willie, do you see that obstruction? And bad luck to me and where was my sense, hiring these rooms at night and never seeing it! And I'll put up with that defiance to me birthright of freedom?" Forcing her way to the head of the procession and running up the stairs. Whole procession following, running to the rear window of second floor, east.
"Who dared build that fence?" roar from Willie. "Who dares shut me out from the sunlight?" Willie running back to the stairs, running up and down the stairs, running amuck, head turned with rage, pounding on doors and kicking on doors. "Show me the man put that fence up! Who thinks they can coop up a man of seminary breeding?"
Mrs. Bonticue sitting limply on the stove. "William! William, what do you think of it? Ah, thank the Laird I always have poor, good, honest William to advise me! Sensible and sound as the day is long! What do you think of it, William?"
Bavarian gentleman thoughtfully squeezing his beard.
"Take your time, William!"
"I think it's a fence!" from the sound, sensible gentleman.
"Ah, sensible and sound as the day is long! And what shall we do about it, William? Thank the Laird, I always have poor, honest, good William to advise me for the best! What shall we do, William?"
Bavarian gentleman squeezing his pointed beard harder. Weighing the matter seriously, thinking very carefully before speaking.
"Speak up! What shall we do, William?"
"Get a pint of beer!" said William.
"Oh, the good, poor, honest fellow!" Kissing him full on the lips, so delighted with his good sound sense was she. "What would I do without William to advise me?"
And, from the drooping, jeering corner of her mouth, Mary Ellen whined:
"Mrs. Bonticue is so good to the men! She's so fond of poor William!"
Mrs. Bonticue wheeled around.
"Be the Laird, if you mean to torment me, Mary Ellen!" But a benevolent smile on the other corner of Mary Ellen's mouth quite denied that she meant jeering.
"Oh, me poor cousin, to be shut up in darkness!" from Mary Ann Thornton, dancing behind Mrs. Bonticue's back, keeping behind the broad back, as Mrs. Bonticue tried to turn to her.
"What's that you say, Mary Ann?"
"Oh, me unhappy cousin, who's persecuted!" Fingers to Mary Ann's nose. Fingers wriggling at the broad back derisively.
"Ah, you have a kind heart, Mary Ann, and your sympathy consoles me. You're full of knavery, but the kind heart is in you."
"To prosecute me poor, unhappy cousin, who's so good to everybody!" darting around so that Mrs. Bonticue could not see her, grimacing, mocking, and mimicking.
"Ah, yes, you have a good heart, Mary Ann--but, Willie!"
"Is there a man amongst you?" Cousin Willie running in from the stairs. "Are you a man like meself, William, or are you only a Dutchman? Sure, he's only a Dutchman and's not got the fiery soul of a true-born Irishman. Are you with me, William? Are you a man or only a Dutchman?
"Where's the oil-can, Mrs. Bonticue? Pour kerosene on his wood framework! Burn it down and, be the heavens above, we'll have light for true-born Irishmen who can't never be shut up in darkness! Give me that can, blast you, Mary Ann Thornton! Burn it!" Seemingly somewhat excited, the gentleman seized a strip of matting and tore it in his teeth, butting his head against the wall, wildly.
"Willie," with austerity, "'tis incongruous with cultivated instincts to adopt such incendiary methods." Very severely, "It may be permissable to tear down the fence and jump on it and throw it out in the street. We may show our independence and contempt for landlords by battering and pounding and ramming it, but--oil and fire? You are hasty, Willie!" Willie tearing off strips of matting with his teeth, chewing them violently.
"Then speak up, William! It shall be what William suggests!" Bavarian gentleman feeling his responsibility. Squeezing his beard so as to concentrate his faculties.
"Then speak! What do you suggest, William?"
"Have a dash of mulligan in it."
"My own good, honest, poor, sound, sensible William!" Even Willie paused in chewing matting to glance approval.
"Then go out for a pint, Mary Ann Thornton, and have a dash of mulligan in it, would you?" For, you may be sure, Mrs. Bonticue would not permit a man to go out in the rain when there were women to run his errands. He might catch cold. And to both men: "Now, do what the old mother tells you! Go in the front room and put dry clothes on yourselves. William, you will find a coat of Aleck's! The old mother! You must obey the old mother!"
"So motherly!" bitterly from the jeering corner of Mary Ellen's mouth. Other corner smiling, smiling pleasure in the beautiful virtue of motherliness, as Mrs. Bonticue turned combatively. Mary Ann Thornton, behind the broad back, mimicking motherliness, then going out for a pint of beer and a dash of mulligan in it.
Mrs. Bonticue went calling. Oh, no, not while the pint lasted--what do you think?--but after the third or, perhaps, the fourth pint, when the faintness in her poor heart was relieved somewhat. And, oh, dear me, but Mrs. Bonticue was not looking her best! One cheek smeared with stove-polish, bedraggled bonnet over on one ear, short old black skirt patched with yellow, her son Aleck's boots on.
Rapping on the door of ground floor, east.
"Come in, come in! Or stay out, or stay out!"
Beldame in a rocking-chair, leaning forward with arms on knees, body swinging from side to side. Staring at the floor, as Mrs. Bonticue entered.
"I beg your pardon, but I desire a little information relative to this obstruction."
Mutterings and curses. Head down, eyes staring at the floor, body monotonously swinging.
"It seems to me, madam, that by a little concerted action--"
"Nine man childs! All gone!" A mouthing of profanity. Little chick pecking at bits of corn meal on the floor and pecking where there were no grains, chirping incessantly.
"A little concerted action--"
"I'd have light and air if they was spared me--so brave and so strong and nine of them--what do I care? Gawd Almighty, sorrow comes to everybody!" Swinging and staring and blasphemy and obscenity so that the chick fluttered affrightedly. A swooping, scrawny hand, and: "Come in my bosom, little chick, chick!" Little chick fast asleep, almost instantly. Swaying, staring and cursing.
"Well, I'm glad you agree with me!" said Mrs. Bonticue. She went to the other first-floor rooms.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Flack, excitedly, "You are the lady just moved in? Won't you come in?" running ahead to take out a chair, pulling two chairs from the corner, excitedly offering a stool as well.
Ragged, dripping, smeared, Mrs. Bonticue sailing into the room magnificently. A little girl sitting in a chair, pretending to read a book, forefinger going along the printed lines.
"Oh, this is your little daughter, ma'am? How much she resembles you!"
"Arrah, girl, not at all! She do be the dead image of her father, only his hair was--yellow? 'Twas the loveliest--brown?--the loveliest brown hair he had. I'm sure I'd know him if I see him this blessed moment. You can't forget!" raising her hands, pushing out with them for emphasis. "'Twould not be natural to forget what the father of your child looks like, though I can't say he stayed long enough for us to be acquainted."
"Ah, sure not! I'm a mother meself, and one is always more or less acquainted with one's husband. You haven't seen him in some time, ma'am?"
"Not since he went out to have his shoes shined have I laid eyes on him--but he'll come back, and I'm raising Josie in the meantime, and the two of us trudging the city, looking for work. He'll come back to me some time, and I think he was a very agreeable man to get along with--it seems to me he was--"
"This fence, ma'am!" Mrs. Bonticue had come upon business. "Can't the lot of us do something about it?"
"With old Dunphy? What ails you, girl! Sure, nobody can do anything with old Dunphy!"
"No one?" Mrs. Bonticue had made more than one favorable impression upon old gentlemen. "He's the gentleman I rented the rooms off of? He seems a most agreeable gentleman."
"Agreeable! Lord preserve us from such agreeableness! If you call his way agreeable, of course he's agreeable."
"Then," said Mrs. Bonticue, confidently, "it will be all right. I'm glad he's an agreeable gentleman."
Next morning. And Mrs. Bonticue! Oh, dear me, there was a feather a yard long in her hat. Real ostrich feather, too. And a long tiny-linked gold chain down the front of a pink silk waist. Yes, indeed! Silk skirt, too! Oh, dear me, such magnificence!
Calm majesty and silken magnificence out on the front stoop, waiting for the landlord. And then Dunphy coming along.
"Hello!" said Dunphy. "Moved in all right?" Didn't look impressed. Didn't tremble with awe, not Dunphy.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Dunphy, but may I have a word with you?" A curtsy to him and then again stateliness.
Oh, sure! Anybody could have a word with Dunphy. "Out with it! What's biting you, Mrs. Bonnycue, or whatever your name is?"
"Vox populi, vox Dei, Mr. Dunphy!"
"Yeh? That's good. How you making out this morning?"
With severity: "I beg your pardon, but I remarked Vox populi, vox Dei, Mr. Dunphy."
Dunphy sitting on the railing of the stoop, an amused twinkle in his shrewd eyes.
"It is customary for me to exchange references with new acquaintances, sir," holding out to him a bit of parchment with "King Edward the Fourth" faintly discernible on it. Explaining: "Me pedigree!"
And a number of ancient letters:
"These will show you who I am, sir. Letters from the Lord Mayor of Dublin!" Chin away up, letters and "pedigree" held out, eyes too far aloft to see them. Eyes coming down, for Dunphy was paying no attention. Astonished eyes seeing Dunphy examining his little Dutch bricks, caring nothing for ancient lineage.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Dunphy, but these will show you who I am."
"Sure, woman, dear, anybody can see who you are, and a credit you are to any man's property and a good recommendation for the house to be seen on its front stoop, you are!'
"Vox populi, vox Dei!" repeated Mrs. Bonticue falteringly. It was new to her not to impress and awe old and middle-aged gentlemen.
"Well, what's the kick?" asked Dunphy.
Oh, dear me, and Mrs. Bonticue had spent hours arraying herself! How hard she had thought of something effective to say to him! And here "Vox populi, vox Dei" had not stunned him. Back into their leather bag went letters and bit of parchment.
"Hic jacet!" said Mrs. Bonticue, trying again. "Hic jacet!" she repeated, feelingly, fluttering her hands toward him. Oh, wouldn't he understand that she was a very superior person and that, if she did live in tenements, she had not always lived in tenements? Why, Dunphy, like a good fellow, be impressed! Can't you open your eyes just a little when a lady is trying so hard to impress you?
"Geezers leaning against this doorway has got the paint all wore off!" grumbled Dunphy.
Then Mrs. Bonticue came to the main issue and abandoned ornaments.
"I wish to speak to you about that fence," said disheartened Mrs. Bonticue. "'Tis a menace to our health, sir. Can't it be invalidated?"
"Tore down? Sure, woman, dear, 'tis there for my own protection. Did any of them old bachelors I got in the flats see you, at your window, I'd lose a tenant."
"Be the Laird, sir, you'll not baffle me that way!" spirit flaring.
"Baffle you? Ah, Mrs. Bonnycue, I can see you have too much native cleverness for me to attempt such a thing."
"But the fence, sir!"
"Ah, blame only me own jealous disposition, ma'am. I'd not have any of them old bachelors seeing you." Nodding carelessly to her. Going on his way.
"Veni, vidi, vici!" murmured the defeated Mrs. Bonticue.
But, oh, be the Powers, when Willie heard of it. Show him Dunphy! Out the way, ye lot of amadons, and let Willie get at Dunphy! Who's Dunphy, anyhow, to deprive a theological-seminary graduate of light and air? Let a true man and a real man and no Dutchman get at this Dunphy!
But from mournful, discouraged Mrs. Bonticue:
"Willie, let William speak. Thank the Laird, I always have poor, good, honest William to advise me. Speak, William! What is your suggestion?"
"Have a little ale in it!" was poor, good, honest William's prompt suggestion. "And snatch a handful of pretzels as you go by!"
And Willie was so pleased with this readiness that he seized the poor, good Bavarian gentleman's hand, exclaiming:
"You're a real man and a true man, after all!"
"Me unfortunate cousin's been treated with scorn!" Mary Ann Thornton, safely behind the broad back, fingers to her nose, wriggling derisively.
"Ah, I have me friends around me. You have loyalty, Mary Ann. You're full of knavery, but I can forgive anything in them's loyal to me."
"Oh, me unhappy and scorned cousin!" mocking and mimicking.
"Thank you, Mary Ann!" said Mrs. Bonticue, emotionally. "You're me true friend. Then let the hand of scorn and contumely weigh heavy upon me as it may. Me tried and true friends is with me! With all me heart, thank you for your loyalty again, Mary Ann Thornton!"
Mary Ann Thornton wiping one eye and winking the other. "Me poor cousin who's so good to everybody!" Handkerchief before her face so that Mrs. Bonticue should not see winks and grimaces to the others.
"Ah, well!" sighed Mrs. Bonticue, "We'll drop the matter and say no more about it. We must live here so we can lay by a bit and bring out the childer. Did anything overtake me this night, I'd not rest easy in me grave and think of anybody of me own eating the bread of strangers."
Even dry, sour, old Mary Ellen was affected. "I'm sure," she whined, "while I have me two hands no one belonging to me will ever go to strangers."
Same clannish feeling in Mary Ann Thornton. But she had her own way of expressing everything. Dancing up to poor, good William, seizing him by his pointed beard and singing:
"Boys, won't you marry me, marry me, marry me?
Boys, won't you marry me? What the divil ails you?"
Dancing to Willie, seizing him by his hawk-beak nose, singing:
"No, I won't marry you! Why should I marry you?
How can I marry you? You're nothing but a stranger."
"Blast you!" Willie wheezed through his pinched nose, drawing back his arm as if to strike her. The others repeating, with loathing:
"Here's every cent I have, Mrs. Bonticue!" cried Willie. "Count on me for every cent I can earn. Let no black strangers have the childer--" But show him Dunphy! Whoop! Out of the way and let a college-bred man at old Dunphy!
But, really, no one helped Mrs. Bonticue with the fund she was raising. For hard times came to the second floor east, in the house of little yellow bricks from Holland that were big red bricks from Haverstraw. It was in April, and almost every day was a rainy day, so Willie, with his half days and his quarter days and the divil a day at all, could only intermittently practice his profession, which was hod-carrying. Mary Ann Thornton, who was a second cook, never lasted more than a week at any job. Mary Ellen, cranky and insulting, never lasted long anywhere, either. Then Aleck Bonticue, steady, serious fellow of thirty, lost his job of elevator running, for the office building in which he worked was to be torn down. And then fate pounced upon the Bavarian gentleman, who did general housework in a brownstone-front boarding-house. Sure, 'tis no harm to slip a bit of chicken into one's shirt bosom when one's cronies are in need of a bit of chicken! But the Bavarian gentleman was so incautious as to go about his duties with a drumstick protruding. So it was that a poor, good, Bavarian gentleman was seen to leap into space from a boarding-house window--and a very pretty leap it was, too!
Gloomy, darkened rooms, and Mrs. Bonticue sewing all day in them. Fine sewing, too, for Mrs. Bonticue was none of your botchy dressmakers--but she was slow. Eyes were not what they had been, and, though at seventy, one may be as fiery and as sure to battle with oppression as ever, at least a little difference must be seen in the suppleness of one's fingers. So Mrs. Bonticue worked very hard, but for not very much, on account of her slowness. Gloom and depression and disease-breeding of the fence! Several times Mrs. Bonticue tried to prevail upon the landlord to remove it. A joke and a laugh and firmness unassailable!
One morning. In the front hall. Mrs. Bonticue meeting the landlord.
"Good morning to you!" heartily from the hearty, genial landlord. "And how spry you're looking, and let me throw open wide the front door, for you're looking a credit to any man's property!"
"Be the Laird, I want none of your soft-soaping!" But how could she be very stern with such an appreciative, middle-aged gentleman?
"But who gave you permission to sublet your rooms the way you do, Mrs. Bonnycue?"
Better look out for yourself, Mr. Dunphy! Good deal of steel hardening into that gray eye upon you.
"Sublet, is it? Is it sublet, is it? And me with only me own around me, with the exception of one very estimable foreign gentleman, who is at liberty at present, through no fault of his own, but the big human heart he has!"
"Oh, that's all right, Mrs. Bonnycue!" carelessly, genially. "I was just thinking that if any of your men aren't working, they might come around and see me tomorrow---"
And how Mrs. Bonticue melted! How she always melted at the slightest sign or fancied sign of kindness!
"Oh, I'm sure that's very good of you, Mr. Dunphy!"
"Not at all, woman, dear! I generally have work on some of my houses--yes, I have a job for them--"
"Oh, thank you, thank you, sir! Sure, the poor lads have been a bit unfortunate, what with the rain and the big human hearts they have." Mrs. Bonticue almost weeping, thrilled with gratitude.
"Well, send them around to me, tomorrow." And Mrs. Bonticue could not answer, so emotional was she in her gratitude.
Ah, but her peculiarities! Back in her room. Sewing on a skirt. And money for this work would make it possible to save Polly's childer from the awful threatening of black strangers.
"Ah, William, and you, Mary Ann and Mary Ellen, never a word from you again about that fine gentleman, Mr. Dunphy! That grand gentleman, Mr. Dunphy! I'd lay down me life for him, this moment, and would go to the ends of the world to nurse him back to health, did sickness overtake him, and my last shilling would be his did he ever need it. Kindness itself he was! `Send the lads around to me!' he says, so hearty and cordial. 'Twould do your heart good to hear him! Grand, fine gentleman!"
But her peculiarities! Only a few minutes later, Mrs. Bonticue was mumbling to herself. Sewing, but losing all interest in her sewing. Trying to force herself to sew, but face becoming harder and harder. Suddenly:
"He needn't think he can slick me over that way!"
Some minutes later:
"He can't take advantage of our circumstances to slick us over that way! Oh, well, I'll say no more." Morning wearing on. Afternoon passing. More and more worried was Mrs. Bonticue. In a burst of wrath:
"He thinks he can shut us up like little mice by giving us work when we need it? Ah, but me spirit is too high and untrammeled for that! I'm as firm as the Rock of Cassian! Me own father could do nothing with me: no one could ever control me proud and independent nature! I'd be long sorry to think any landlord, with his smooth, slick ways could win me over. `I have work for you!' he says most insolently to me. `Then keep your work!' is the answer I should have made him."
It was evening, and Aleck Bonticue was home. His manner was languid and his words mild, but, as if feeling a futility in himself, he grimaced ferociously when speaking, as if that would cause a seeming of force he had not.
"Mother!" said Aleck. "Can't you be quiet, mother?" grimacing as if uttering a murderous threat.
"Quiet! Is it quiet, is it? Willie, would you be quiet? Willie, what are you going to do to this hand of oppression hovering over us? What'll be done by our bold Willie?"
Willie nervously drawing his knees together. Drawing back from the light of the lamp. No answer from Willie.
"Are you with me to combat the tyrant's power? Are you, Willie?"
"Oh, don't, please, go causing any ructions!" Willie pleaded, timidly. "I don't like having any trouble."
"You! Me own cousin and a true-born man, talking that way?"
Willie trembled and drew his chair into a shadowed corner.
"Are you with me to tear down the oppressor's structure?"
"Can't you--just speak to him about it?" suggested trembling, timid Willie.
"Speak, is it? And me speaking the tip off my tongue to him about it, and only palavering and blarney from him? Where is your spirit, Willie?"
Willie drawing shoulders together and crouching back in the shadow. For that was his way after every jolly good licking. The night before he had run amuck in Grogan's. And Grogan was a scrapping man of renown. Willie would remain highly civilized until, in a week or two, the remembrance of Grogan's coarse, red fist should wear away.
"Then I have no one but William! Ah, when others are far away, I shall always have poor, good William to advise me. Speak, William! What shall we do?"
"Rise the house and pull his damn fence down!" the poor, good, honest fellow suggested.
"Oh, Mrs. Bonticue, be careful!" quavered Willie.
"William!" from delighted Mrs. Bonticue. "He always advises me for the best! Sound and sensible as the day is long! Poor William's advice is always for the best! Then this night's work will bring the sunshine to us!"
She ran to the hall and rapped on the door of the next-door rooms.
"Who's that? Who's there?" Maiden ladies, having no one to protect them, hesitating to open the door. "Who's there?"
"Be the Laird, who would it be? A man to eat you? 'Tis not so fortunate you are, and no man, but only meself calling on you. Open the door! 'Tis only a poor, lorn old widow woman, who will not eat you!"
Door opened reluctantly.
"How scared you are with your padlocks!" from resentful Mrs. Bonticue. "Or are they to lock him in once you catch him? How scared you are!" Maiden ladies moving toward each other for mutual support. "But I have business this night. Have you boldness and independence in you? Prove yourselves tonight! Come!" Running to the rear window. Darting back to seize one maiden lady; then seizing the other maiden lady; dragging both to the fence.
"You're to stand here! You see? The whole house is to stand at its windows and all hammer and push together."
"But why?" asked the dazed maiden ladies.
"Why? You can ask why when you feel the hand of oppression upon your brows? You're to push! All of us push this fence down!"
"Oh! Push like this?" asked the maiden ladies. Each daintily extended a slim forefinger and gently tapped the fence.
Oh, be the Powers, such work! Upstairs with Mrs. Bonticue to enlist the top floor! Old Hannah summoned to her door and coming to peer over her spectacles. Old Hannah exclaiming:
"Oh, it would be wicked to destroy property--but I'll make it all right for you if you do it! I couldn't be so sinful, but the fence ought to come down, and you go ahead and count on me to see you be forgave in heaven for it--"
Oh, tut, tut with such talk! To top-floor, west, with Mrs. Bonticue! "'Tis only the old mother come to you, Mrs. Hammer, dear! 'Tis only the old mother come with the best advice to you! We're to tear down this murdering fence this night!" wheedling, her hands fluttering in motherliness. "Heed what the poor, old mother bids you, which is ruin and destruction, like you was me own children, and me old heart, me poor, old heart, warming to you!"
Then a quandary. For young Mrs. Hammer had good sporting blood, but, also, she had biscuits in the oven. Yes, she would join in an attack upon the fence! Seizing a flatiron and running to the rear window. But biscuits in the oven! You can't be bold and fiery and fight a tyrant's sway, and bake biscuits, too.
Mrs. Bonticue down in the front hall, calling upon the muttering beldame to rise in rebellion. Beldame shrieking curses, little chirping chick hopping along at her heels. But, by the walls of Jericho, mere curses will never pull a fence down. Mrs. Bonticue in first floor, west! Oh, yes, Mrs. Flack would help, but she only pecked at the fence from her own window. It was a murdering fence, and bad luck to it! But she didn't care much about operating from her own window, where her own handiwork might be traced.
But how she flew up the stairs after Mrs. Bonticue! And how she flew to Mrs. Bonticue's window! And, there, of what marvels of destructiveness was she capable!
"Out with the lot of you!" cried Mrs. Bonticue, sweeping Mary Ann, Willie, William, all of them from the room, arming them with hatchets and Willie's spades, driving them to the basement and setting them at work chopping down and unearthing the fence's framework.
And a torrent of blows echoing upstairs! A demon of destructiveness was little Mrs. Flack--in someone else's room! Mrs. Hammer joining her. The younger maiden lady coming in to push with a slim forefinger. Oh, how fiery and awful you and I and everybody can be--at someone else's window!
But a condition developed that might save the fence after all--a condition that has saved many a thing from doom--too much work! The beams in the fence were strong and thick. The Bavarian gentleman could make beds and wait on table with anybody--couldn't beat the Bavarian gentleman in his own line, but this was not his specialty, and he gave out first, discovering that he had pains in his elbow.
And timid Cousin Willie, skulking and self-effacing, was only too willing to throw down his spade when he saw someone else throw down a hatchet.
Mrs. Bonticue crying: "Chop it down! Do like the old mother bids you!"
Old Hannah crying: "Oh, it's wicked to destroy property--but I'll use my influence for you!"
"Ah, but you're a weak-livered crowd!" from disgusted Mrs. Bonticue. "Had I the strength of arm that I have of spirit, there'd be no murdering fence there now! Then over to the Rileys with me! From one end of the city to the other I'll hunt up me own flesh and blood and bring it here. And then how long will the fence last, with the Rileys and the Tooles and Josephine Elizabeth's family and the Boyles and the McGraths and me first cousins and me second cousins and me third cousins and all the rest of me own flesh and blood to baffle the oppressor's tyranny?"
Aleck Bonticue crawling back from the thin strip of space between house and fence. Scowling terrifically. Appealing, weakly:
"Mother! Now don't be bringing all that crowd here. Now, don't go out this night, mother, for 'tis going to rain."
"Then pull down that fence for me and show you're the boy after his mother's heart and not taking altogether after his father's people!"
"Oh, mother!" pleading feebly, "Can't we all go up and have a nice cup of tea, and have a quiet evening?"
"A quiet evening!" echoed Willie, timorously.
"Be the Laird, you want me to go out and bring me flesh and blood back with me?"
"I'll have to do it, then!" unhappy Aleck sighed, wearily. It was the recurring of his problem. "How to keep mother home nights?" He went dejectedly to the basement door and to the street.
"Ah, if I was only me own son, and had meself for a mother!" from valorous Mrs. Bonticue. "I'd have that fence down and prone while the rest of you were looking at it, if I was only me own offspring and had a man's arm to back up me own proud and independent spirit!"
A scraping at the other side of the fence. Evidently a ladder placed against the fence. Up and down the fence, on the other side of it, Aleck Bonticue could be heard doing something. What it was, no one could divine, but it took him a long time.
Chopping is too much work. Willie, creeping away, shuddering with the lawlessness of property-destroying. The Bavarian gentleman's lame elbow needed attention, so all returned to second, east. And, there, Mrs. Hammer and Mrs. Flack, demons of destructiveness, were still pounding holes in rusted iron. Oh, such spirit! Couldn't call them off! "What, are you afraid? We ain't!" Such boldness and such a torrent of blows! And the elder maiden lady coming in, looking for the younger maiden lady. Crossing herself when she saw the horrid men in the room. Clutching the younger maiden lady, and taking her away, for life is for bare rooms, skirt-binding, and bologna only. Younger maiden lady flashing an imitation gold tooth at Willie, whom she thought real nice and quiet. Chastened Willie politely opening the door for her, and then creeping to his favorite shadow. Mary Ann Thornton mocking them, clutching Mary Ellen's arm to protect Mary Ellen from possible designs of the Bavarian gentleman.
And then Aleck Bonticue returned.
"'Twill be done, mother!" he said, languidly, scowling piratically. "It is starting to rain. It won't take long, once the rain starts. Do sit down. Do make me a cup of tea and do stay home nights, mother."
"Rain! Is it rain, is it? And what can rain do that your hatchets can't?"
"Call them off, mother!" said Aleck, weakly, pointing to the demons of destructiveness. "They make my head ache with their noise."
Oh, yes, call them off! 'Tis easy said. The only way those demons could have been stopped would be to place them at their own windows, and, there, tell them to go on destroying.
"Oh, Aleck, Aleck, 'tis your father's spirit--Gawd rest his soul!--you have, and not mine. To tear down a fence with a bit of rain! You can't baffle me and pull the wool over my eyes, that way! Be the Laird!" rolling up her sleeves, grasping for a hatchet, but seizing a frying-pan. "I'll do the work meself!" Brandishing the frying-pan, rolling sleeves up higher.
"Mother! Don't you know when I say a thing, I mean it! You promised me you'd stay home if the fence fell. 'Twill fall, if you but give it a few minutes."
"Sit down! Sit down!" Mary Ann Thornton forcing everybody into a chair, then, with hand to her ear, derisively pretending to listen for signs of the fence's falling. "Of course it will fall, if Aleck says so! It's raining hard. He says the rain--"
The fence began to creak. And Mary Ann Thornton was really listening. Everybody except listless Aleck listening. The demons scampering from the window, crying, "The fence is falling!" A creaking and groaning!
"But, sure, how could a bit of rain--"
A rending of wooden supports. A loose sheet of iron crashing down upon the courtyard pavement.
"Aleck, what is it you've done! Sure as I'm living, the fence is falling!"
Listlessly: "Yes, I done it, mother. I don't know what the consequences will be, but I must do anything to keep you home nights."
An avalanche of a crash. "The fence is down! Oh, me own!" Mrs. Bonticue running to her son, embracing him. "He's proved himself me own flesh and blood this mortal night! Aleck!" holding him from her, proudly surveying him. "'Tis not your father--Gawd rest his soul!--I see, but me own bold and soaring spirit I see reflected." All the other crowding at the window, seeing a mass of fallen wood and iron, by the light in the flathouse windows.
"Me head aches, mother," said Aleck wearily. "No, don't give me any beer, but a cup of tea."
"Ah, a cup of tea, how are you! 'Tis his father--but no! 'Tis me own free and valorous spirit was this night demonstrated!"
"But how?" Everybody running back to the kitchen, after a little very gratifying jeering at protests from the indignant flathouse. "And how could you pull down the fence with a bit of rain? 'Tis like the days of miracles over again!"
"Oh, we had the supports weakened a good bit, didn't we? I knew of the ladder, didn't I? Then all I done was climb the ladder and tighten all the clotheslines on the other side of the fence. You make my head ache, Mary Ann Thornton."
"But what of that if you did?"
"Oh, the rain wet the lines, didn't it? They swelled and drew and pulled the fence down." And, fretfully, "Don't make the tea too strong, mother."
Tea, how are you, indeed! Out with the can and celebrate the triumph of Aleck Bonticue, who was not altogether of his father's people! But can, how are you! Out with the boiler! Where's the boiler! Some one find the boiler! Bavarian gentleman and Mary Ann Thornton going out with the wash boiler between them, Mary Ann Thornton wildly drumming on it with a potato masher.
But the next morning that seems to have a way of following last night! When one pulls a fence down, one may have to explain a little.
Mrs. Bonticue was arrayed and waiting for the landlord. The lily in all its glory was never arrayed like Mrs. Bonticue, with shabby old Solomon away down in third place. But Mrs. Bonticue was troubled. Oh, that troubled feeling when it is next morning! Mrs. Bonticue looked down at the wrecked fence. Couldn't bear to look at it. Looked again and wondered how much a fence costs when the same material may be used over again. One might brazen it out, deny it, or move hurriedly--common, ordinary persons might have this choice of courses, but, for the direct descendant of the Knight of Kerry, there was only one thing to do. Only one sentiment! This:
"I have had me bit of a ruction. Now let me pay for it."
Troubled Mrs. Bonticue fingered ten five-dollar bills, all she had in the world. How magnificently she could say and stifle coarse evidences of landlordly feeling:
"Why, take this, my good man, and buy yourself a new fence. It's been raining considerably lately, hasn't it?" The temptation of it! How Mrs. Bonticue was tempted to be magnificent! But strangers! Black strangers! If, in the lordly way her heart was set on, the fence should be paid for, childer of Bonticue blood would eat the bread of strangers--black strangers!
Then awful fear of the landlord possessed Mrs. Bonticue. For she not be magnificent. She could not say contemptuously, "Take this, my good man, and we shall consider the incident terminated." To be sure, she could, and she wanted to, and, if you are magnificent yourself, you will realize just what a temptation it is to be magnificent--but Mrs. Bonticue went to a branch of the post-office and sent a registered letter to Dublin.
Mrs. Bonticue returning to the little Dutch-brick tenement. And exclaiming to herself, "Gawd be with us!" For on the front stoop was the landlord. Mrs. Bonticue's head high and back straight. Marching to battle with ostrich feather flying and gold chain swinging bravely. Up the stoop with her. And now what about it?
"Mrs. Bonticue!" exclaimed the landlord. "Mrs. Bonticue. I am informed you can explain this matter to me," pointing back at bright, sunshiny rear windows.
"I can, sir!" faintly, but ostrich feather waving bravely.
"What can I say, sir, but that we tore down the fence on you?"
"What I want to know," said the landlord, "is how long did it take you?"
"About half an hour, I should say, sir."
"Half an hour?" said Dunphy, reflectively. "Now, I should figure that half an hour's work at what you want to do is equal to two days' work at what you'll be paid for. I'm sorry you've lost anything, Mrs. Bonticue, but your lads seem to have lost two days' pay by this."
"But I don't understand, Mr. Dunphy!"
"Why, I've sold the flats across the way," said Dunphy. "Then why should I darken my own house to protect another man's courtyard? 'Twas to pull down the fence I wanted to hire your lads. It seems I got it done for nothing."
Oh, the bitterness of it! Mrs. Bonticue could not repress her distress. "I've lived to see a landlord get the better of me!" Still--"Still, it's a Dublin man done it."
Crushed and defeated. But--"'Twas a Dublin man done it!" And Mrs. Bonticue was comforted.
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