The Pendulum by O. Henry
"Eighty-first street—let 'em out, please," yelled the shepherd in
A flock of citizen sheep scrambled out and another flock scrambled
aboard. Ding-ding! The cattle cars of the Manhattan Elevated rattled
away, and John Perkins drifted down the stairway of the station with
the released flock.
John walked slowly toward his flat. Slowly, because in the lexicon
of his daily life there was no such word as "perhaps." There are no
surprises awaiting a man who has been married two years and lives in
a flat. As he walked John Perkins prophesied to himself with gloomy
and downtrodden cynicism the foregone conclusions of the monotonous
Katy would meet him at the door with a kiss flavored with cold cream
and butter-scotch. He would remove his coat, sit upon a macadamized
lounge and read, in the evening paper, of Russians and Japs
slaughtered by the deadly linotype. For dinner there would be pot
roast, a salad flavored with a dressing warranted not to crack or
injure the leather, stewed rhubarb and the bottle of strawberry
marmalade blushing at the certificate of chemical purity on its
label. After dinner Katy would show him the new patch in her crazy
quilt that the iceman had cut for her off the end of his
four-in-hand. At half-past seven they would spread newspapers over
the furniture to catch the pieces of plastering that fell when the
fat man in the flat overhead began to take his physical culture
exercises. Exactly at eight Hickey & Mooney, of the vaudeville
team (unbooked) in the flat across the hall, would yield to the
gentle influence of delirium tremens and begin to overturn chairs
under the delusion that Hammerstein was pursuing them with a
five-hundred-dollar-a-week contract. Then the gent at the window
across the air-shaft would get out his flute; the nightly gas leak
would steal forth to frolic in the highways; the dumbwaiter would
slip off its trolley; the janitor would drive Mrs. Zanowitski's five
children once more across the Yalu, the lady with the champagne
shoes and the Skye terrier would trip downstairs and paste her
Thursday name over her bell and letter-box—and the evening routine
of the Frogmore flats would be under way.
John Perkins knew these things would happen. And he knew that at a
quarter past eight he would summon his nerve and reach for his hat,
and that his wife would deliver this speech in a querulous tone:
"Now, where are you going, I'd like to know, John Perkins?"
"Thought I'd drop up to McCloskey's," he would answer, "and play a
game or two of pool with the fellows."
Of late such had been John Perkins's habit. At ten or eleven he
would return. Sometimes Katy would be asleep; sometimes waiting up,
ready to melt in the crucible of her ire a little more gold plating
from the wrought steel chains of matrimony. For these things Cupid
will have to answer when he stands at the bar of justice with his
victims from the Frogmore flats.
To-night John Perkins encountered a tremendous upheaval of the
commonplace when he reached his door. No Katy was there with her
affectionate, confectionate kiss. The three rooms seemed in
portentous disorder. All about lay her things in confusion. Shoes in
the middle of the floor, curling tongs, hair bows, kimonos, powder
box, jumbled together on dresser and chairs—this was not Katy's way.
With a sinking heart John saw the comb with a curling cloud of her
brown hair among its teeth. Some unusual hurry and perturbation must
have possessed her, for she always carefully placed these combings
in the little blue vase on the mantel to be some day formed into the
coveted feminine "rat."
Hanging conspicuously to the gas jet by a string was a folded paper.
John seized it. It was a note from his wife running thus:
Dear John: I
just had a telegram saying mother is very sick. I am going to take
the 4.30 train. Brother Sam is going to meet me at the depot there.
There is cold mutton in the ice box. I hope it isn't her quinzy
again. Pay the milkman 50 cents. She had it bad last spring. Don't
forget to write to the company about the gas meter, and your good
socks are in the top drawer. I will write to-morrow.
Never during their two years of matrimony had he and Katy been
separated for a night. John read the note over and over in a
dumbfounded way. Here was a break in a routine that had never
varied, and it left him dazed.
There on the back of a chair hung, pathetically empty and formless,
the red wrapper with black dots that she always wore while getting
the meals. Her week-day clothes had been tossed here and there in
her haste. A little paper bag of her favorite butter-scotch lay with
its string yet unwound. A daily paper sprawled on the floor, gaping
rectangularly where a railroad time-table had been clipped from it.
Everything in the room spoke of a loss, of an essence gone, of its
soul and life departed. John Perkins stood among the dead remains
with a queer feeling of desolation in his heart.
He began to set the rooms tidy as well as he could. When he touched
her clothes a thrill of something like terror went through him. He
had never thought what existence would be without Katy. She had
become so thoroughly annealed into his life that she was like the
air he breathed—necessary but scarcely noticed. Now, without
warning, she was gone, vanished, as completely absent as if she had
never existed. Of course it would be only for a few days, or at most
a week or two, but it seemed to him as if the very hand of death had
pointed a finger at his secure and uneventful home.
John dragged the cold mutton from the ice-box, made coffee and sat
down to a lonely meal face to face with the strawberry marmalade's
shameless certificate of purity. Bright among withdrawn blessings
now appeared to him the ghosts of pot roasts and the salad with tan
polish dressing. His home was dismantled. A quinzied mother-in-law
had knocked his lares and penates sky-high. After his solitary meal
John sat at a front window.
He did not care to smoke. Outside the city roared to him to come
join in its dance of folly and pleasure. The night was his. He might
go forth unquestioned and thrum the strings of jollity as free as
any gay bachelor there. He might carouse and wander and have his
fling until dawn if he liked; and there would be no wrathful Katy
waiting for him, bearing the chalice that held the dregs of his joy.
He might play pool at McCloskey's with his roistering friends until
Aurora dimmed the electric bulbs if he chose. The hymeneal strings
that had curbed him always when the Frogmore flats had palled upon
him were loosened. Katy was gone.
John Perkins was not accustomed to analyzing his emotions. But as he
sat in his Katy-bereft 10×12 parlor he hit unerringly upon the
keynote of his discomfort. He knew now that Katy was necessary to
his happiness. His feeling for her, lulled into unconsciousness by
the dull round of domesticity, had been sharply stirred by the loss
of her presence. Has it not been dinned into us by proverb and
sermon and fable that we never prize the music till the sweet-voiced
bird has flown—or in other no less florid and true utterances?
"I'm a double-dyed dub," mused John Perkins, "the way I've been
treating Katy. Off every night playing pool and bumming with the
boys instead of staying home with her. The poor girl here all alone
with nothing to amuse her, and me acting that way! John Perkins,
you're the worst kind of a shine. I'm going to make it up for the
little girl. I'll take her out and let her see some amusement. And
I'll cut out the McCloskey gang right from this minute."
Yes, there was the city roaring outside for John Perkins to come
dance in the train of Momus. And at McCloskey's the boys were
knocking the balls idly into the pockets against the hour for the
nightly game. But no primrose way nor clicking cue could woo the
remorseful soul of Perkins the bereft. The thing that was his,
lightly held and half scorned, had been taken away from him, and he
wanted it. Backward to a certain man named Adam, whom the cherubim
bounced from the orchard, could Perkins, the remorseful, trace his
Near the right hand of John Perkins stood a chair. On the back of it
stood Katy's blue shirtwaist. It still retained something of her
contour. Midway of the sleeves were fine, individual wrinkles made
by the movements of her arms in working for his comfort and
pleasure. A delicate but impelling odor of bluebells came from it.
John took it and looked long and soberly at the unresponsive
grenadine. Katy had never been unresponsive. Tears:—yes, tears—came
into John Perkins's eyes. When she came back things would be
different. He would make up for all his neglect. What was life
The door opened. Katy walked in carrying a little hand satchel. John
stared at her stupidly.
"My! I'm glad to get back," said Katy. "Ma wasn't sick to amount to
anything. Sam was at the depot, and said she just had a little
spell, and got all right soon after they telegraphed. So I took the
next train back. I'm just dying for a cup of coffee."
Nobody heard the click and rattle of the cog-wheels as the
third-floor front of the Frogmore flats buzzed its machinery back
into the Order of Things. A band slipped, a spring was touched, the
gear was adjusted and the wheels revolve in their old orbit.
John Perkins looked at the clock. It was 8.15. He reached for his
hat and walked to the door.
"Now, where are you going, I'd like to know, John Perkins?" asked
Katy, in a querulous tone.
"Thought I'd drop up to McCloskey's," said John, "and play a game or
two of pool with the fellows."