Three Women who Wept
by James Stephens
He was one of those men who can call ladies by their Christian names.
One day he met twenty-four duchesses walking on a red carpet, and he
winked at them, and they were all delighted. It was so at first he
appeared to her. Has a mere girl any protection against a man of that
quality? and she was the very merest of girls—she knew it. It was not
that she was ignorant, for she had read widely about men, and she had
three brothers as to whom she knew divers intimate things.
The girl who has been reared among brothers has few defences against
other males. She has acquired two things—a belief in the divine right
of man, and a curiosity as to what those men are like who are not her
brothers. She may love her brothers, but she cannot believe that they
adequately represent the other sex. Does not every girl wish to marry
the antithesis of her brother? The feeling is that one should marry as
far outside of the family as is possible, and as far outside of one's
self as may be; but love has become subject to geography, and our
choice is often bounded by the tramline upon which we travel from our
houses to our businesses and back again.
While she loved and understood her brothers, she had not in the least
understood or believed in the stories she had read, and so, when the
Young Man out of a Book came to her, she was delighted but perplexed.
It was difficult to live up to him worthily. It was difficult to know
what he would do next, and it was exceedingly difficult to keep out of
his way; for, indeed, he seemed to pervade the part of the world where
she lived. He was as ubiquitous as the air or the sky. If she went
into a shop, he was pacing on the pavement when she came out. If she
went for a walk he was standing at the place farther than which she had
decided not to go. She had found him examining a waterfall on the
Dodder, leaning over the bear-pit in the Zoological Gardens, and
kneeling beside her in the Chapel, and her sleep had been distressed by
the reflection that maybe he was sitting on her window-sill like a sad
sparrow drenched in the rain, all its feathers on end with the cold,
and its eyes wide open staring at misery.
The first time they met he spoke to her. He plucked a handkerchief
from somewhere and thrust it into her hand, saying—
"You have dropped this, I think"—and she had been too alarmed to
It was a mighty handkerchief. It was so big that it would scarcely fit
into her muff.—"It is a table-cloth," said she, as she solemnly
stuffed away its lengthy flaps. "It is his own," she thought a moment
later, and she would have laughed like a mad woman, only that she had
no time, for he was pacing delicately by her side, and talking in a low
voice that was partly a whisper and partly a whistle, and was entirely
and disturbingly delicious.
The next time they met very suddenly. Scarcely a dozen paces separated
them. She could see him advancing towards her, and knew by his knitted
brows that he was searching anxiously for something to say. When they
drew together he lifted his hat and murmured—
"How is your handkerchief to-day?"
The query so astonished her that (the verb is her own) she simply
bawled with laughter. From that moment he treated her with freedom,
for if once you laugh with a person you admit him to equality, you have
ranked him definitely as a vertebrate, your hand is his by right of
species, scarcely can you withhold even your lips from his advances.
Another, a strange, a fascinating thing, was that he was afraid of her.
It was inconceivable, it was mad, but it was true. He looked at her
with disguised terror. His bravado was the slenderest mask. Every
word he said was uttered tentatively, it was subject to her approval,
and if she opposed a statement he dropped it instantly and adopted her
alternative as one adopts a gift. This astonished her who had been
prepared to be terrified. He kept a little distance between them as he
walked, and when she looked at him he looked away. She had a vision of
herself as an ogre—whiskers sprouted all over her face, her ears
bulged and swaggled, her voice became a cavernous rumble, her
conversation sounded like fee-faw-fum—and yet, her brothers were not
afraid of her in the least; they pinched her and kicked her hat.
He spoke (but always without prejudice) of the loveliest things
imaginable—matters about which brothers had no conception, and for
which they would not have any reverence. He said one day that the sky
was blue, and, on looking she found that it was so. The sky was
amazingly blue. It had never struck her before, but there was a colour
in the firmament before which one might fall down and worship.
Sunlight was not the hot glare which it had been: it was rich,
generous, it was inexpressibly beautiful. The colour and scent of
flowers became more varied. The world emerged as from shrouds and
cerements. It was tender and radiant, comeliness lived everywhere, and
goodwill. Laughter! the very ground bubbled with it: the grasses waved
their hands, the trees danced and curtsied to one another with gentle
dignity, and the wind lurched down the path with its hat on the side of
its head and its hands in its pockets, whistling like her younger
And then he went away. She did not see him any more. He was not by
the waterfall on the Dodder, nor hanging over the bear-pit in the Zoo.
He was not in the Chapel, nor on the pavement when she came out of a
shop. He was not anywhere. She searched, but he was not anywhere.
And the sun became the hot pest it had always been: the heavens were
stuffed with dirty clouds the way a second-hand shop is stuffed with
dirty bundles: the trees were hulking corner-boys with muddy boots: the
wind blew dust into her eye, and her brothers pulled her hair and
kicked her hat; so that she went apart from all these. She sat before
the mirror regarding herself with woeful amazement—
"He was afraid of me!" she said.
And she wept into his monstrous handkerchief.
When he came into the world he came howling, and he howled without
ceasing for seven long years, except at the times when he happened to
be partaking of nourishment, or was fast asleep, and, even then, he
snored with a note of defiance and protest which proved that his humour
was not for peace.
The time came when he ceased to howl and became fascinated by the
problem of how to make other people howl. In this art he became an
adept. When he and another child chanced to be left together there
came, apparently from the uttermost ends of the earth, a pin, and the
other child and the pin were soon in violent and lamentable conjunction.
So he grew.
"Be hanged if I know what to do with him," said his father as he
rebuckled on his belt. "The devil's self hasn't got the shape or match
of such an imp in all the length and breadth of his seven hells. I'm
sick, sore and sorry whacking him, so I am, and before long I'll be
hung on the head of him. I'm saying that there's more deceit and
devilment in his bit of a carcass than there is in a public-house full
of tinkers, so there is."
He turned to his wife—
"It's no credit at all the son you've bore me, ma'am, but a sorrow and
a woe that'll be killing us in our old age and maybe damning our souls
at the heel of it. Where he got his blackguardly ways from I'm not
saying, but it wasn't from my side of the house anyway, so it wasn't,
and that's a moral. Get out of my sight you sniffling lout, and if
ever I catch you at your practices again I'll lam you till you won't be
able to wink without help, so I will."
"Musha," sobbed his wife, "don't be always talking out of you. Any one
would think that it was an old, criminal thief you were instructing,
instead of a bit of a child that'll be growing out of his wildness in
no time. Come across to me, child, come over to your mother, my lamb."
That night, when his father got into bed, he prodded his foot against
something under the sheets. Investigation discovered a brown paper bag
at the end of the bed. A further search revealed a wasp's nest, inside
of which there was an hundred angry wasps blazing for combat. His
father left the room with more expedition than decency. He did not
stop to put on as much as his hat. He fled to the stream which ran
through the meadow at the back of their house, and lay down in it, and
in two seconds there was more bad language than water in the stream.
Every time he lifted his head for air the wasps flew at him with their
tails curled. They kept him there for half an hour, and in that time
he laid in the seeds of more rheumatism than could be cured in two
When he returned home he found his wife lying on the floor with a
blanket wrapped about her head, groaning by instinct, for she was
Her face had disappeared. There was nothing where it had been but
poisoned lumps. A few days later it was found that she was blind of
one eye, and there was danger of erysipelas setting in.
The boy could not be found for some time, but a neighbour, observing a
stone come from nowhere in particular and hit a cat, located the first
cause in a ditch. He brought the boy home, and grabbed his father just
in time to prevent murder being done.
It was soon found that the only thing which eased the restless moaning
woman was the touch of her son. All her unmanageable, delirious
thoughts centred on him—
"Sure he's only a boy; beating never did good to anything. Give him a
chance now for wouldn't a child be a bit wild anyhow. You will be a
good boy, won't you? Come to your mother, my lamb."
So the lad grew, from twelve to fifteen, from fifteen to twenty. Soon
he attained to manhood. To his mother he seemed to have leaped in a
day from the careless, prattling babe to the responsibly-whiskered
miracle at whom mothers sit and laugh in secret delight. This
towering, big-footed, hairy person! was he really the little boy who
used to hide in her skirts when his father scowled? She had only to
close her eyes and she could feel again a pair of little hands clawing
at her breast, sore from the violent industry of soft, wee lips.
So he grew. Breeches that were big became small. Bony wrists were
continually pushing out of coat cuffs. His feet would burst out of his
boots. He grew out of everything but one. A man may outgrow his
breeches, he cannot outgrow his nature: his body is never too big or
too small to hold that.
Every living thing in the neighbourhood knew him. When a cat saw him
coming it climbed a tree and tried to look as much like a lump of wood
as it could. When a dog heard his step it tucked its tail out of sight
and sought for a hole in the hedge. The birds knew he carried stones
in his pockets. No tree cast so black a shadow in the sunlight as he
did. There were stories of a bottle of paraffin oil and a cat that
screeched in flames. Folk told of a maltreated dog that pointed its
nose to heaven and bayed a curse against humanity until a terrified man
battered it to death with a shovel. No one knew who did it, but every
one said there were only two living hearts capable of these
iniquities—one belonged to the devil, the other to our young man, and
they acquitted Satan of the deeds.
The owner of the dog swore by the beasts in the field and the stars in
the sky that he would tear the throat of the man who had injured his
The father drove his one-eyed wife from the house, and went with her to
live elsewhere; but she left him and went back to her son, and her
husband forswore the twain.
When women saw him in the road they got past him with their breath
hissing through their teeth in fear. When men passed him they did it
warily, with their fists clenched and their eyes alert. He was shunned
by every one. The strength of his arms also was a thing to be afraid
of, and in the world there was but two welcomes for him, one from his
mother, the other from an old, grey rat that slept in his breast—
"Sure, you're all against him," his mother would say. "Why don't you
give the boy a chance? It's only the hot blood of youth that's working
in him—and he never did it either. Look how kind he is to me! never
the bad word or the hard look! Ye black hearts that blame my boy, look
among yourselves for the villain. No matter who is against you, come
to your mother, my lamb."
He was found one day at the foot of the cliff with his neck broken.
Some said that he had slipped and fallen, some said he had committed
suicide, other some pursed their lips tightly and said nothing. All
were relieved that he was gone, saving his mother only, she mourned for
her only son, and wept bitterly, refusing to be comforted until she
She had begun to get thin. Her face was growing sharp and peaked. The
steady curve of her cheek had become a little indeterminate. Her chin
had begun to sag and her eyes to look a little weary. But she had not
observed these things, for we do not notice ourselves very much until
some other person thinks we are worthy of observation and tells us so;
and these changes are so gradual and tiny that we seldom observe them
until we awaken for a moment or two in our middle age and then we get
ready to fall asleep again.
When her uncle died, the solicitors who had administered his will handed
her a small sum of money and intimated that from that date she must hew
out her own path in life, and as she had most of the household furniture
of her late uncle at her disposal, she decided to let lodgings. Setting
about that end with all possible expedition she finished writing
"apartments to let" on a square of pasteboard, and, having placed it
prominently in a window, she folded her mittened hands and sat down with
some trepidation to await the advent of a lodger.
He came in the night time with the stars and the moon. He was running
like a youthful god, she thought, for her mind had not yet been weaned
from certain vanities, and she could not see that a gigantic policeman
was in his wake, tracking him with elephantine bounds, and now and again
snatching a gasp from hurry to blow furious warnings on a whistle.
It was the sound of the whistle which opened her eyes through her ears.
She went to the door and saw him coming framed in the moonlight, his arms
pressed tightly to his sides, his head well up and his feet kicking a
mile a minute on the pavement. Behind him the whistle shrilled with
angry alarm, and the thunder of monumental feet came near as the
policeman sprinted in majesty.
As the lodger ran she looked at him. He was a long-legged, young man
with a pleasant, clean-shaven face. His eyes met hers, and, although he
grinned anxiously, she saw that he was frightened. That frightened smile
gripped her and she panted noiselessly, "Oh, run, run!"
As he drew level he fixed his gaze on her, and, stopping suddenly, he
ducked under her arm and was inside the house in a twinkling.
The poor lady's inside curled up in fear and had started to uncurl in
screams when she felt a hand laid gently on her arm, and, "Don't make a
noise, or I'm caught," said a voice, whereupon, and with exceeding
difficulty, she closed her mouth while the scream went sizzling through
her teeth in little gasps. But now the enemy appeared round the corner,
tooting incessantly on his whistle, and whacking sparks from the
cobblestones as he ran. Behind her she could hear the laboured breathing
of a spent runner. The lodger was kneeling at her skirts: he caught her
hand and pressed his face against it entreatingly—
The policeman drew near—
"Did you see a fellow skedaddling along here, ma'am?" said he.
She hesitated for only a moment and then, pointing to a laneway opposite,
"He went up there."
"Thank you, ma'am," said the policeman with a genial smile, and he
sprinted up the laneway whistling cheerily.
She turned to the lodger—
"You had better go now," said she.
He looked at her ruefully and hesitated—
"If I go now," he replied, "I'll be caught and get a month. I'll have to
eat skilly, you know, and pick oakum, and get my hair cut."
She looked at his hair—it was brown and wavy, just at his ears it
crisped into tiny curls, and she thought it would be a great pity to cut
it. He bore her scrutiny well, with just a trifle of embarrassment and a
shyly humorous eye—
"You are the kindest woman I ever met," said he, "and I'll never forget
you as long as I live. I'll go away now because I wouldn't like to get
you into trouble for helping me."
"What did you do?" she faltered.
"I got into a fight with another man," he replied, "and while we were
hammering each other the policeman came up. He was going to arrest me,
and, before I knew what I was doing, I knocked him down."
She shook her head—
"You should not have done that. That was very wrong, for he was only
doing his duty."
"I know it," he admitted, "but, do you see, I didn't know what I was
doing, and then, when I hit him, I got frightened and ran."
"You poor boy," said she tenderly.
"And somehow, when I saw you, I knew you wouldn't give me up: wasn't it
What a nice, gentlemanly young fellow he is, she thought.
"But, of course, I cannot be trespassing on your kindness any longer," he
continued, "so I'll leave at once, and if ever I get the chance to repay
your kindness to a stranger——"
"Perhaps," said she, "it might not be quite safe for you to go yet. Come
inside and I will give you a cup of tea. You must be worn out with the
excitement and the danger. Why, you are shaking all over: a cup of tea
will steady your nerves and give him time to stop looking for you."
"Perhaps," said he, "if I turned my coat inside out and turned my
trousers up, they wouldn't notice me."
"We will talk it over," she replied with a wise nod.
That was how the lodger came. He told her his name and his
employment—he was a bookmaker's clerk. He brought his luggage,
consisting mostly of neckties, to her house the following day from his
"Had a terrible time getting away from them," said he. "They rather
liked me, you know, and couldn't make out why I wanted to leave."
"As if you weren't quite free to do as you wished," quoth his indignant
"And then, when they found I would go, they made me pay two weeks' rent
in lieu of notice—mean, wasn't it?"
"The low people," she replied. "I will not ask you to pay anything this
He put his bandbox on the ground, and shook hands with her—
"You are a brick," said he, "the last and the biggest of them. There
isn't the like of you in this or any other world, and never was and never
will be, world without end, amen."
"Oh, don't say that," said she shyly.
"I will," he replied, "for it's the truth. I'll hire a sandwichman to
stop people in the street and tell it to them. I'll get a week's
engagement at the theatre and sing it from the stage. I'll make up a
poem about your goodness. I don't know what to do to thank you. Do you
see, if I had to pay you now I'd have to pawn something, and I really
believe I have pawned everything they'd lend on to get the money for that
two weeks' rent. I'm broke until Friday, that's my pay day, but that
night I'll come home with my wages piled up on a cart."
"I can lend you a few shillings until then," said she laughing.
"Oh, no," said he. "It's not fair. I couldn't do that," but he could.
Well the light of the world shone out of the lodger. He was like a sea
breeze in a soap factory. When he awakened in the morning he whistled.
When he came down to breakfast he sang. When he came home in the evening
he danced. He had an amazing store of vitality: from the highest hair on
the top of his head down to his heels he was alive. His average language
was packed with jokes and wonderful curses. He was as chatty as a girl,
as good-humoured as a dog, as unconscious as a kitten—and she knew
nothing at all of men, except, perhaps, that they wore trousers and were
not girls. The only man with whom she had ever come in contact was her
uncle, and he might have been described as a sniffy old man with a cold;
a blend of gruel and grunt, living in an atmosphere of ointment and pills
and patent medicine advertisements—and, behold, she was living in
unthinkable intimacy with the youngest of young men; not an old,
ache-ridden, cough-racked, corn-footed septuagenarian, but a young,
fresh-faced, babbling rascal who laughed like the explosion of a
blunderbuss, roared songs as long as he was within earshot and danced
when he had nothing else to do. He used to show her how to do
hand-balances on the arm-chair, and while his boots were cocked up in the
air she would grow stiff with terror for his safety and for that of the
The first morning she was giving him his breakfast, intending afterwards
to have her own meal in the kitchen, but he used language of such
strangely attractive ferocity, and glared at her with such a
humorously-mad eye that she was compelled to breakfast with him.
At night, when he returned to his tea, he swore by this and by that he
would die of hunger unless she ate with him; and then he told her all the
doings of the day, the bets that had been made and lost, and what sort of
a man his boss was, and he extolled the goodness of his friends, and
lectured on the vast iniquity of his enemies.
So things went until she was as intimate with him as if he had been her
brother. One night he came home just a trifle tipsy. She noted at last
what was wrong with him, and her heart yearned over the sinner. There
were five or six glasses inside of him, and each was the father of an
antic. He was an opera company, a gymnasium, and a menagerie at once,
all tinged with a certain hilarious unsteadiness which was fascinating.
But at last he got to his bed, which was more than she did.
She sat through the remainder of the night listening to the growth of her
half-starved heart. Oh, but there was a warmth there now. . . .!
Springtime and the moon in flood. What new leaves are these which the
trees put forth? Bird, singing at the peep of morn, where gottest thou
thy song? Be still, be still, thou stranger, fluttering a wing at my
breast. . . .
At the end of a month the gods moved, and when the gods move they trample
mortals in the dust.
The lodger's employer left Dublin for London, taking his clerk with him.
"Good-bye," said he.
"Good-bye," she replied, "and a pleasant journey to you."
And she took the card with "Apartments to Let" written upon it and placed
it carefully in the window, and then, folding her mittened hands, she sat
down to await the coming of another lodger, and as she sat she wept