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 disown it.

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 brother.

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.

II

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 lifetimes.

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 senseless.

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 beast.

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 died.

III

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, replied—

"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 queer?"

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 former lodgings—

"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 new landlady.

"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 week."

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 adjacent crockery.

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 bitterly.