A Desertion

  • 02 Dec - 08 Dec, 2023
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The gas–light that came with an effect of difficulty through the dust–stained windows on either side of the door gave strange hues to the faces and forms of the three women who stood gabbling in the hallway of the tenement. They made rapid gestures, and in the background their enormous shadows mingled in terrific effect.

"Aye, she ain't so good as he thinks she is, I'll bet. He can watch over her and take care of her all he pleases, but when she wants t' fool him, she'll fool him. And how does he know she ain't foolin' him now?"

"Oh, he thinks he's keepin' her from going to the bad, he does. Oh yes. He says she's too pretty to let run around alone. Too pretty! Huh! My Sadie..."

"Well, he keeps a close watch on her, you bet. Only last week she met my boy Tim on the stairs, and Tim hadn't said two words to her before the old man begun to holler, ‘Daughter, daughter, come here; come here!'"

At this moment a young girl entered from the street, and it was evident from the injured expressions suddenly assumed by the three gossipers that she had been the object of their discussion. She passed them with a slight nod, and they swung about in a row to stare after her.

On her way up the long flights the girl unfastened her veil. One could then clearly see the beauty of her eyes, but there was in them a certain furtiveness that came near to marring the effect. It was a peculiar fixture of gaze, brought from the street, as of one who there saw a succession of passing dangers, with menaces aligned at every corner.

On the top floor she pushed open a door, and then paused on the threshold, confronting an interior that appeared black and flat like a curtain. Perhaps some girlish ideas of hobgoblins assailed her then, for she called, in a little breathless voice, "Daddy!"

There was no reply. The fire in the cooking–stove in the room crackled at spasmodic intervals. One lid was misplaced, and the girl could now see that this fact created a little flushed crescent upon the ceiling. Also a series of tiny windows in the stove caused patches of red upon the floor. Otherwise the room was heavily draped with shadows.

The girl called again, "Daddy!"

Yet there was no reply. "Oh, daddy!"

Presently she laughed, as one familiar with the humours of an old man. "Oh, I guess you are mad about your supper, dad," she said, and she almost entered the room, but suddenly faltered, overcome by a feminine instinct to fly from this black interior, peopled with imagined dangers. Again she called, "Daddy!" Her voice had an accent of appeal. It was as if she knew she was foolish, but yet felt obliged to insist upon being reassured. "Oh, daddy!"

Of a sudden a cry of relief, a feminine announcement that the stars still hung, burst from her. For, according to some mystic process, the smouldering coals of the fire went aflame with sudden fierce brilliance, splashing parts of the walls, the floor, the crude furniture, with a hue of blood–red. And in this dramatic outburst of light the girl saw her father seated at a table, with his back turned toward her.

She went over to a shelf in the corner, and taking a little lamp, she lit it, and put it where it would give her light as she took off her hat and jacket in front of a tiny mirror. Presently she began to bustle among the cooking utensils that were crowded into the sink, and as she worked she rattled talk at her father, apparently disdaining his mood.

"I'd have come earlier tonight, dad, only that fly foreman he kept me in the shop till half past six. What a fool! He came to me, you know, and he says, 'Nell, I want to give you some brotherly advice' –– oh, I know him and his brotherly advice. 'You are too purty, Nell,' he says, 'to be workin' in this shop and parading through the streets alone, without somebody to give you good brotherly advice, and I want to warn you, Nell. I'm a bad man, but I ain't as bad as some, and I want to warn you!' 'Oh, go about your business,' I says. I know him. He's like all of them, only he's a little slyer. I know him.” After a time she turned and addressed cheery words to the old man.

"Hurry up the fire, daddy! We'll have supper pretty soon."

But still her father was silent, and his form in its sullen posture was motionless.

At this the girl seemed to see the need of the inauguration of a feminine war against a man out of temper. She approached him, breathing soft coaxing syllables.

"Daddy! Oh, daddy! O–o–oh, daddy!" It was apparent from a subtle quality of valour in her tones that this manner of onslaught upon his moods had usually been successful, but tonight it had no quick effect.

The words, coming from her lips, were like the refrain of an old ballad, but the man remained stolid.

"Daddy! My daddy! Oh, daddy, are you mad at me – really, truly mad at me?" She touched him lightly upon the arm. Should he have turned then, he would have seen the fresh laughing face, with dew–sparkling eyes, close to his own.

"Oh, daddy! My daddy! Pretty daddy!" She stole her arm about his neck, and then slowly bended her face towards his. It was the action of a queen who knows she reigns notwithstanding irritations, trials, tempests.

But suddenly from this position she leaped backward with the mad energy of a frightened colt. Her face was in this instant turned to a gray, featureless thing of horror. A yell, wild and hoarse as a brute cry, burst from her. "Daddy!" She flung herself to a place near the door, where she remained crouching, her eyes staring at the motionless figure, splattered by the quivering flashes from the fire, her arms extended, and her frantic fingers at once besought and repelled. There was in them an expression of eagerness to caress and an expression of the most intense loathing. And the girl's hair, that had been a splendour, was in these moments changed to a disordered mass that hung and swayed in witchlike fashion. Again a cry burst from her. It was more than the shriek of agony; it was direct, personal, addressed to him in the chair, the first word of a tragic conversation with the dead.

It seemed that when she had put her arm about its neck she had jostled the body in such a way that now she and it were face to face. The attitude expressed an intention of rising from the table. The eyes, fixed upon her, were filled with an unspeakable hatred.

The cries of the girl aroused thunders in the tenement. There was a loud slamming of doors, and presently there was a roar of feet upon the boards of the stairway. Voices rang out sharply.

"What is it?"

"What's the matter?"

"He's killin' her."

"Slug him with anything you can lay hold of, Jack."

But over all this came the shrill, shrewish tones of a woman:

"Ah, the old fool, he's driving

her into the street – that's what he's doing. He's driving her

into the street."