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The Christening in Bottle Alley by Jacob A. Riis

 

All Bottle Alley was bidden to the christening. It being Sunday, when Mulberry Street was wont to adjust its differences over the cards and the wine-cup, it came “heeled,” ready for what might befall. From Tomaso, the ragpicker in the farthest rear cellar, to the Signor Undertaker, mainstay and umpire in the varying affairs of life, which had a habit in The Bend of lapsing suddenly upon his professional domain, they were all there, the men of Malpete's village. The baby was named for the village saint, so that it was a kind of communal feast as well. Carmen was there with her man, and Francisco Cessari.

If Carmen had any other name, neither Mulberry Street nor the Alley knew it. She was Carmen to them when, seven years before, she had taken up with Francisco, then a young mountaineer straight as the cedar of his native hills, the breath of which was yet in the songs with which he wooed her. Whether the priest had blessed their bonds no one knew or asked. The Bend only knew that one day, after three years during which the Francisco tenement had been the scene of more than one jealous quarrel, not, it was whispered, without cause, the mountaineer was missing. He did not come back. From over the sea The Bend heard, after a while, that he had reappeared in the old village to claim the sweetheart he had left behind. In the course of time new arrivals brought the news that Francisco was married and that they were living happily, as a young couple should. At the news Mulberry Street looked askance at Carmen; but she gave no sign. By tacit consent, she was the Widow Carmen after that.

The summers passed. The fourth brought Francisco Cessari, come back to seek his fortune, with his wife and baby. He greeted old friends effusively and made cautious inquiries about Carmen. When told that she had consoled herself with his old rival, Luigi, with whom she was then living in Bottle Alley, he laughed with a light heart, and took up his abode within half a dozen doors of the alley. That was but a short time before the christening at Malpete's. There their paths crossed each other for the first time since his flight.

She met him with a smile on her lips, but with hate in her heart. He, manlike, saw only the smile. The men smoking and drinking in the court watched them speak apart, saw him, with the laugh that sat so lightly upon his lips, turn to his wife, sitting by the hydrant with the child, and heard him say, “Look, Carmen! our baby!”

The woman bent over it, and, as she did, the little one woke suddenly out of its sleep and cried out in affright. It was noticed that Carmen smiled again then, and that the young mother shivered, why she herself could not have told. Francisco, joining the group at the farther end of the yard, said carelessly that Carmen had forgotten. They poked fun at him and spoke her name loudly, with laughter.

From the tenement, as they did, came Luigi and asked threateningly who insulted his wife. They only laughed the more, said he had drunk too much wine, and shouldering him out, bade him go look to his woman. He went. Carmen had witnessed it all from the house. She called him a coward and goaded him with bitter taunts until mad with anger and drink he went out in the court once more and shook his fist in the face of Francisco. They hailed his return with bantering words. Luigi was spoiling for a fight they laughed, and would find one before the day was much older. But suddenly silence fell upon the group. Carmen stood on the step, pale and cold. She hid something under her apron.

“Luigi!” she called, and he came to her. She drew from under the apron a cocked pistol, and, pointing to Francisco, pushed it into his hand. At the sight the alley was cleared as suddenly as if a tornado had swept through it. Malpete's guests leaped over fences, dived into cellar-ways anywhere for shelter. The door of the woodshed slammed behind Francisco just as his old rival reached it. The maddened man tore it open and dragged him out by the throat. He pinned him against the fence, and levelled the pistol with frenzied curses. They died on his lips. The face that was turning livid in his grasp was the face of his boyhood's friend. They had gone to school together, danced together at the fairs in the old days. They had been friends—till Carmen came. The muzzle of the weapon fell.

“Shoot!” said a hard voice behind him. Carmen stood there with face of stone. She stamped her foot. “Shoot!” she commanded, pointing, relentless, at the struggling man. “Coward, shoot!”

Her lover's finger crooked itself upon the trigger. A shriek, wild and despairing, rang through the alley. A woman ran madly from the house, flew across the pavement, and fell panting at Carmen's feet.

“Mother of God! mercy!” she cried, thrusting her babe before the assassin's weapon. “Jesus Maria! Carmen, the child! He is my husband!”

No gleam of pity came into the cold eyes. Only hatred, fierce and bitter, was there. In one swift, sweeping glance she saw it all: the woman fawning at her feet, the man she hated limp and helpless in the grasp of her lover.

“He was mine once,” she said, “and he had no mercy.” She pushed the baby aside. “Coward, shoot!”

The shot was drowned in the shriek, hopeless, despairing, of the widow who fell upon the body of Francisco as it slipped lifeless from the grasp of the assassin. The christening party saw Carmen standing over the three with the same pale smile on her cruel lips.

For once The Bend did not shield a murderer. The door of the tenement was shut against him. The women spurned him. The very children spat upon him as he fled to the street. The police took him there. With him they seized Carmen. She made no attempt to escape. She had bided her time, and it had come. She had her revenge. To the end of its lurid life Bottle Alley remembered it as the murder accursed of God.

 
 
 

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