Three Angry People, by James Stephens

I

He sat cross-legged on the roadside beside a heap of stones, and with slow regularity his hammer swung up and down, cracking a stone into small pieces at each descent. But his heart was not in the work. He hit whatever stone chanced to be nearest. There was no cunning selection in his hammer, nor any of these oddities of stroke which a curious and interested worker would have essayed for the mere trial of his artistry.

He was not difficult to become acquainted with, and, after a little conversation, I discovered that all the sorrows of the world were sagging from his shoulders. Everything he had ever done was wrong, he said. Everything that people had done to him was wrong, that he affirmed; nor had he any hope that matters would mend, for life was poisoned at the fountain-head and there was no justice anywhere. Justice! he raised his eyebrows with the horrid stare of a man who searches for apparitions; he lowered them again to the bored blink of one who will not believe in apparitions even though he see them—there was not even fairness! Perhaps (and his bearing was mildly tolerant), perhaps some people believed there was fairness, but he had his share of days to count by and remember. Forty-nine years of here and there, and in and out, and up and down; walking all kinds of roads in all kinds of weathers; meeting this sort of person and that sort, and many an adventure that came and passed away without any good to it—"and now," said he sternly, "I am breaking stones on a bye-way."

"A bye-road such as this," said I, "has very few travellers, and it may prove a happy enough retreat."

"Or a hiding-place," said he gloomily.

We sat quietly for a few moments—

"Is there no way of being happy?" said I.

"How could you be happy if you have not got what you want?" and he thumped solidly with his hammer.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"Many a thing," said he, "many a thing."

I squatted on the ground in front of him, and he continued—

"You that are always travelling, did you ever meet a contented person in all your travels?"

"Yes," said I, "I met a man yesterday, three hills away from here, and he told me he was happy."

"Maybe he wasn't a poor man?"

"I asked him that, and he said he had enough to be going on with."

"I wonder what he had."

"I wondered too, and he told me.—He said that he had a wife, a son, an apple-tree, and a fiddle.

"He said, that his wife was dumb, his son was deaf, his apple-tree was barren, and his fiddle was broken."

"It didn't take a lot to satisfy that man."

"And he said, that these things, being the way they were, gave him no trouble attending on them, and so he was left with plenty of time for himself."

"I think the man you are telling me about was a joker; maybe you are a joker yourself for that matter."

"Tell me," said I, "the sort of things a person should want, for I am a young man, and everything one learns is so much to the good."

He rested his hammer and stared sideways down the road, and he remained so, pursing and relaxing his lips, for a little while. At last he said in a low voice—

"A person wants respect from other people.—If he doesn't get that, what does he signify more than a goat or a badger? We live by what folk think of us, and if they speak badly of a man doesn't that finish him for ever?"

"Do people speak well of you?" I asked.

"They speak badly of me," said he, "and the way I am now is this, that
I wouldn't have them say a good word of me at all."

"Would you tell me why the people speak badly of you?"

"You are travelling down the road," said he, "and I am staying where I am. We never met before in all the years, and we may never meet again, and so I'll tell you what is in my mind.—A person that has neighbours will have either friends or enemies, and it's likely enough that he'll have the last unless he has a meek spirit. And it's the same way with a man that's married, or a man that has a brother. For the neighbours will spy on you from dawn to dark, and talk about you in every place, and a wife will try to rule you in the house and out of the house until you are badgered to a skeleton, and a brother will ask you to give him whatever thing you value most in the world."

He remained silent for a few minutes, with his hammer eased on his knee, and then, in a more heated strain, he continued—

"These are three things a man doesn't like—he doesn't like to be spied on, and he doesn't like to be ruled and regulated, and he doesn't like to be asked for a thing he wants himself. And, whether he lets himself be spied on or not, he'll be talked about, and in any case he'll be made out to be a queer man; and if he lets his wife rule him he'll be scorned and laughed at, and if he doesn't let her rule him he'll be called a rough man; and if he once gives to his brother he will have to keep on giving for ever, and if he doesn't give in at all he'll get the bad name and the sour look as he goes about his business."

"You have bad neighbours, indeed," said I.

"I'd call them that."

"And a brother that would ask you for a thing you wanted yourself wouldn't be a decent man."

"He would not."

"Tell me," said I, "what kind of a wife have you?"

"She's the same as any one else's wife to look at, but I fancy the other women must be different to live with."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because you can hear men laughing and singing in every public-house that you'd go into, and they wouldn't do that if their wives were hard to live with, for nobody could stand a bad comrade. A good wife, a good brother, a good neighbour—these are three good things, but you don't find them lying in every ditch."

"If you went to a ditch for your wife——!" said I.

He pursed up his lips at me.

"I think," said I, "that you need not mind the neighbours so very much for no one can spy on you but yourself. If your mind was in a glass case instead of in a head it would be different; and no one can really rule and regulate you but yourself, and that's well worth doing."

"Different people," said he shortly, "are made differently."

"Maybe," said I, "your wife would be a good wife to some other husband, and your brother might be decent enough if he had a different brother."

He wrinkled up his eyes and looked at me very steadily—

"I'll be saying good-bye to you, young man," said he, and he raised his hammer again and began to beat solemnly on the stones.

I stood by him for a few minutes, but as he neither spoke nor looked at me again I turned to my own path intending to strike Dublin by the Paps of Dana and the long slopes beyond them.

II

One day he chucked his job, put up his tools, told the boss he could do this and that, called hurroo to the boys, and sauntered out of the place with a great deal of dignity and one week's wages in cash.

There were many reasons why he should not have quitted his work, not the lightest of them being that the food of a wife and family depended on his sticking to it, but a person who has a temper cannot be expected to have everything else.

Nothing makes a man feel better than telling his employer that he and his job can go bark at one another. It is the dream of a great many people, and were it not for the glamour of that idea most folk would commit suicide through sheer disgust. Getting the "sack" is an experience which wearies after the first time. Giving the sack is a felicity granted only to a few people. To go home to one's wife with the information that you have been discharged is an adventure which one does not wish to repeat, but to go home and hand her thirty shillings with the statement that you have discharged yourself is not one of the pleasantest ways of passing time.

His wife's habits were as uncertain as her temper, but not as bad. She had a hot tongue, a red head, a quick fist and a big family—ingredients to compose a peppery dish. They had been only a short time married when she gave her husband to understand that there was to be only one head of that household, and that would not be he. He fought fiercely for a position on the executive but he did not get it. His voice in the household economy, which had commenced with the lordly "Let this be done," concluded in the timidly blustering "All right, have it your own way."

Furthermore, the theory that a woman is helpmate to a man was repugnant to her. She believed and asserted that a man had to be managed, and she had several maxims to which she often gave forcible and contemptuous utterance—

"Let a man go his own road to-day and he will be shaking hands with the devil to-morrow.

"Give a man his head and he'll lose it.

"Whiskers and sense were never found in the same patch.

"There's more brains in one woman's finger than there is in the congregated craniums of a battalion of men folk.

"Where there is two men there's one fight. Where there's three there's a drinking match, two fights and a fine to be paid."

But while advocating peace at any price and a tax on muscles that were bigger than a fly's knuckle she was herself a warrior of the breed of Finn and strong enough to scare a pugilist. When she was angry her family got over the garden wall, her husband first. She did not think very much of him, and she told him so, but he was sufficient of a man not to believe her.

For a long time he had been a dissatisfied person, leading a grumpy existence which was only made bearable by gusts of solitary blasphemy. When a man curses openly he is healthy enough, but when he takes to either swearing or drinking in secret then he has travelled almost beyond redemption point.

So behold our man knocking at the door, still warmed by the fray with his late employer, but with the first tremors of fear beginning to tatter up and down his spine.

His wife opened the door herself. She was engaged in cleaning the place, a duty in which she was by no means remiss, one of the prime points in her philosophy being that a house was not clean until one's food could be eaten off the floor. She was a big comely woman, but at the moment she did not look dainty. A long wisp of red hair came looping down on her shoulders. A smear of soot toned down the roses of her cheek, her arms were smothered in soap suds, and the fact that she was wearing a pair of her husband's boots added nothing to her attractions.

When she saw her husband standing in the doorway at this unaccustomed hour she was a little taken aback, but, scenting trouble, she at once opened the attack—

"What in the name of heaven brings you here at this hour of the day, and the place upset the way it is? Don't walk on the soap, man, haven't you got eyes in your head?"

"I'm not walking on the soap with my head," he retorted, "if I was I'd see it, and if it wasn't on the floor it wouldn't be tripping folk up. A nice thing it is that a man can't come into his own house without being set slipping and sliding like an acrobat on an iceberg."

"And," cried his wife, "if I kept the soap locked up it's the nice, clean house you'd have to come into. Not that you'd mind if the place was dirty, I'll say that much for you, for what one is reared to one likes, and what is natural is pleasant. But I got a different rearing let me tell you, and while I'm in it I'll have the clean house no matter who wants the dirty one."

"You will so," said he, looking at the soapy water for a place to walk on.

"Can't you be coming in then, and not stand there framed in the doorway, gawking like a fool at a miracle."

"I'll sail across if you'll get a canal boat or a raft," said he, "or, if the children are kept out of sight, I'll strip, ma'm, and swim for it."

His wife regarded him with steady gloom.

"If you took the smallest interest in your home," said she, "and were less set on gallivanting about the country, going to the Lord knows where, with the Lord knows who, you'd know that the children were away in school at this hour. Nice indeed the places you visit and the company you keep, if the truth were known—walk across it, man, and wipe your feet on the kitchen mat."

So he walked into the kitchen, and sat down, and, as he sat, the last remnants of his courage trembled down into his boots and evaporated.

His wife came in after him—she drooped a speculative eye on her lord—

"You didn't say what brought you home so early," said she.

When a hard thing has to be done the quickest way is generally the best way. It is like the morning bath—don't ruminate, jump in, for the longer you wait the more dubious you get, and the tub begins to look arctic and repellent.

Some such philosophy as this dictated his attitude. He lugged out his week's wages, slapped it on the table, and said—

"I've got the sack."

Then he stretched his legs out, pushed his fists deep into his trouser pockets, and waited.

His wife sat down too, slowly and with great care, and she stared in silence at her husband—

"Do you tell me you have lost your employment?" said she in a quiet voice.

"I do, then," said he. "I chucked it myself. I told old Whiskers that he could go and boil his job and his head together and sell the soup for cat-lap."

"You threw up your situation yourself."

"You've got the truth of it, ma'm," he rejoined.

"Maybe you'd be telling me what you did the like of that for?"

"Because," said he, "I'm a man and not a mouse. Because I don't want to be at the beck and call of every dog and devil that has a bit more money than I have—a man has got to be a man sometimes," he growled.

"Sure, you're telling the truth," said his wife, nodding her head at him. "A man should be a man sometimes. It's the pity of the world that he can't be a man always: and, indeed, it's the hard thing for a woman to tell herself that the man she has got isn't a man at all, but a big fool with no more wit than a boy."

Now this was the first time he had found his wife take trouble lying down. As a rule she was readier for a fight than he was. She jumped into a row with the alacrity of a dog: and the change worked on him. He looked at her listless hands, and the sight of those powerful organs hanging so powerlessly wrought on him. Women often forget that their weakness is really their strength. The weakest things in the world are by a queer paradox always the strongest. The toughest stone will wear away under the dropping of water, a mushroom will lift a rock on its delicate head, a child will make its father work for it. So the too capable woman will always have a baby to nurse, and that baby will be her husband. If she buttress her womanhood too much she saps his manhood. Let her love all she can and never stint that blessing, but a woman cannot often be obeyed and loved at the same time. A man cannot obey a woman constantly and retain his self-respect: the muscles of his arms reproach him if he does, and the man with his self-respect gone is a man with a grudge, he will learn to hate the agent who brought him low. A day may come when he will rise and beat her in self-defence, with his fists if he is sufficiently brutalised, some subtler, but no less efficient, weapon if his manhood refuses to be degraded—and this was our case. His wife had grabbed the reins and driven the matrimonial coach: driven it well, that is true, but the driver, by right of precedent, had sat by hurt and angry, and at last, in an endeavour to prove his manhood among men, he had damned his employer's self and work, although in reality all his fury was directed against the mother of his children. He threw up his work, and the semi-conscious thought that went home with him was—"Now she will be sorry. If she must do everything let her earn the bread."

The woman knew what poverty meant, and she had four young children. It was the thought of these helpless ones crying with hunger (she could hear them already, her ears were dinned with their hungry lamentation) that took the fibre out of her arms, and left her without any fight. She could only sit and look with wretched eyes on the man whom she had been demoralising, and, for the first time since he knew her, the tears came, and the poor woman laid her head on the kitchen table and wept.

He was astonished, he was dismayed, but he could not stand her tears: he ran to her—the first time he ever did run to her—

"Sure, darling," said he, "is it crying you are? What would you be doing that for? If I've lost one job I can get another. I'm not afraid of work, and I know how to do it. I'll get something to do at once, if it's only wheeling a handcart, or selling cockles in public-houses. Wisha, dry your eyes—they're as pretty as they ever were," said he, trying to look at them, while his wife, with a strange shyness, would not let him see, for she felt that there was a strange man with her, some one she did not know. That was a man's hand on her shoulder, and she had never felt a man's hand before, as long as she was married.

"I'll go out at once," said he, "and when I come in to-night I'll have a job if I have to bang it out of some one with a shovel."

He slapped on his hat, kicked the soap out of the way, tramped through the water on the floor, and when at the door he turned again and came back to kiss his wife, a form of caress which had long fallen into desuetude, and so, out into the street, a man again.

When he had gone his wife returned to her scrubbing, and, as she worked she smiled at something she was remembering, and, now and again, a bit of a song came from lips that had scolded so much. Having finished her work she spent nearly an hour at the looking-glass doing up her hair (grand hair it was, too) with her ears listening for a footstep. Now and again she would run to the pot to see were the potatoes doing all right—"The children will be in shortly," said she, "and hungry to the bone, poor dears."

But she was not thinking of the children. The warmth of a kiss was still on her lips. Something in the back of her head was saying—"He will do it again when he comes in."

And the second honeymoon was pleasanter than the first.

III

She was tall and angular. Her hair was red, and scarce, and untidy. Her hands were large and packed all over with knuckles and her feet would have turned inwards at the toes, only that she was aware of and corrected their perversities.

She was sitting all alone, and did not look up as I approached—

"Tell me," said I, "why you have sat for more than an hour with your eyes fixed on nothing, and your hands punching your lap?"

She looked at me for a fleeting instant, and then, looking away again, she began to speak.—Her voice was pleasant enough, but it was so strong that one fancied there were bones in it—

"I do not dislike women," said she, "but I think they seldom speak of anything worth listening to, nor do they often do anything worth looking at: they bore and depress me, and men do not."

"But," said I, "you have not explained why you thump your lap with your fist?"

She proceeded—

"I do not hate women, nor do I love men. It was only that I did not take much notice of the one, and that I liked being with the other, for, as things are, there is very little life for a person except in thinking. All our actions are so cumbered by laws and customs that we cannot take a step beyond the ordinary without finding ourselves either in gaol or in Coventry."

Having said this, she raised her bleak head and stared like an eagle across the wastes.

After I had coughed twice I touched her arm, and said—

"Yes?"

"One must live," said she quickly. "I do not mean that we must eat and sleep—these mechanical matters are settled for many of us, but life consists in thinking, and nothing else, yet many people go from the cradle to the grave without having lived differently from animals. I do not want to be one of them. Their whole theory of life is mechanical. They eat and drink. They invite each other to their houses to eat and drink, and they use such speech as they are gifted with in discussing their food and whatever other palpable occurrence may have chanced to them in the day. It is a step, perhaps, towards living, but it is still only one step removed from stagnation. They have some interest in an occurrence, but how that occurrence happened, and what will result from it does not exercise them in the least, and these, which are knowledge and prophecy, are the only interesting aspects of any event."

"But," said I, "you have not told me why you sit for a full hour staring at vacancy, and thumping on your knee with your hand?"

She continued—.

"Sometimes one meets certain people who have sufficient of the divine ferment in their heads to be called alive: they are almost always men. We fly to them as to our own people. We abase ourselves before them in happy humility. We crave to be allowed to live near them in order that we may be assured that everything in the world is not nonsense and machinery—and then, what do we find—?"

She paused, and turned a large fierce eye upon me.

"I do not know," said I, and I endeavoured vainly to look everywhere but at her eye.

"We find always that they are married," said she, and, saying so, she lapsed again to a tense and worried reflection.

"You have not told me," I insisted gently, "why you peer earnestly into space, and thump at intervals upon your knee with the heel of your fist?"

"These men," said she sternly, "are surrounded by their wives. They are in gaol and their wives are their warders. You cannot go to them without a permit. You may not speak to them without a listener. You may not argue with them for fear of raising an alien and ridiculous hostility. Scarcely can you even look at them without reproach.—How then can we live, and how will the torch of life be kept alight?"

"I do not know," I murmured.

She turned her pale eye to me again.

"I am not beautiful," said she.

But there was just a tremor of doubt in her voice, so that the apparent statement became packed with curiosity, and had all the quality of a question.

I did not shrug my shoulder nor raise an eyebrow—

"You are very nice," I replied.

"I do not want to be beautiful," she continued severely. "Why should I? I have no interest in such things. I am interested only in living, and living is thinking; but I demand access to my fellows who are alive. Perhaps, I did not pay those others enough attention. How could I? They cannot think. They cannot speak. They make a complicated verbal noise, but all I am able to translate from it is, that a something called lip-salve can be bought in some particular shop one penny cheaper than it can in a certain other shop. They will twitter for hours about the way a piece of ribbon was stitched to a hat which they saw in a tramcar. They agitate themselves wondering whether a muff should be this size or that size?—I say, they depress me, and if I do turn my back on them when men are present I am only acting sensibly and justly. Why cannot they twitter to each other and let me and other people alone?"

She turned to me again—

"I do not know," said I meekly.

"And," she continued, "the power they have; the amazing power they have to annoy other folk. All kinds of sly impertinences, vulgar evasions, and sneering misunderstandings. Why should such women be allowed to take men into their captivity, to sequester, and gag, and restrain them from those whom they would naturally be eager to meet?

"What," she continued fiercely, "had my hat to do with that woman, or my frock?"

I nodded slowly and grievously, and repeated—

"What indeed?"

"A hat," said she, "is something to cover one's head from the rain, and a frock is something to guard one's limbs from inclement weather.—To that extent I am interested in these things: but they would put a hat on my mind, and a black cloth on my understanding."

We sat in silence for a little time, while she surveyed the bleak horizon as an eagle might.

"And when I call at their houses," said she, "their servants say 'Not at home,' a lie, you know, and they close their doors on me."

She was silent again—

"I do not know what to do," said she.

"Is that," said I, "the reason why you beat your lap with your hand, and stare abroad like a famished eagle?"

She turned quickly to me—

"What shall I do to open those doors?" said she.

"If I happened to be you," I replied, "I would cut off my hair, I'd buy a man's clothes and wear them always, I'd call myself Harry or Tom; and then I'd go wherever I pleased, and meet whoever I wanted to meet?"

She stared fixedly at herself in these garments, and under these denominations—

"They would know I was not a man," said she gravely.

I looked at her figure—

"No person in the world would ever guess it," said I.

She arose from her seat. She clutched her reticule to her breast—

"I'll do it," said she, and she stalked gauntly across the fields.