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The Wars of the Rileys by Jacob A. Riis

 

It was the night before Washington's Birthday that Mr. Riley broke loose. They will speak of it long in the Windy City as “the night of the big storm,” and with good right—it was “that suddint and fierce,” just like Mr. Riley himself in his berserker moods. Mr. Riley was one of the enlivening problems of “the Bureau” in the region back of the stock-yards that kept it from being dulled by the routine of looking after the poor. He was more: he rose to the dignity of a “cause” at uncertain intervals when the cost of living, underpay and overtime, sickness and death, overpopulation, and all the other well-worn props of poverty retired to the wings and left the stage to Mr. Riley rampant, sufficient for the time and as informing as a whole course at the School of Philanthropy. In between, Mr. Riley was a capable meat-cutter earning good wages, who wouldn't have done a neighbor out of a cent that was his due, a robust citizen with more than his share of good looks, a devoted husband and a doting father, inseparable when at home from little Mike, whose baby trick of squaring off and offering to “bust his father's face” was the pride of the block.

“Will yez look at de kid? Ain't he a foine one?” shouted Mr. Riley, with peals of laughter; and the men smoking their pipes at the fence set the youngster on with admiring taunts. Mike was just turned three. His great stunt, when his father was not at hand, was to fall off everything in sight. Daily alarms brought from the relief party of hurrying mothers the unvarying cry, “Who's got hurted? Is it Mike?” But only Mike's feelings were hurt. Doleful howls, as he hove in sight, convoyed and comforted by Kate, aged seven, gave abundant proof that in wind and limb he was all that could be desired.

This was Mr. Riley in his hours of ease and domesticity. Mr. Riley rampant was a very different person. His arrival was invariably heralded by the smashing of the top of the kitchen stove, followed by the summary ejection of the once beloved family, helter-skelter, from the tenement. Three times the Bureau had been at the expense of having the stove top mended to keep the little Rileys from starving and freezing at once, and it was looking forward with concern to the meat-cutter's next encounter with his grievance. For there was a psychological reason for the manner of his outbreaks. The Rileys had once had a boarder, when Kate was a baby. He happened to be Mrs. Riley's brother, and he left, presuming on the kinship, without paying his board. As long as the meat-cutter was sober he remembered only the pleasant comradeship with his brother-in-law, and extended the hospitality of a neighborly fireside to his wife's relations. But no sooner had he taken a drink or two than the old grievance loomed large, and grew, as he went on, into a capital injury, to be avenged upon all and everything that in any way recalled the monstrous wrong of his life. That the cooking-stove should come first was natural, from his point of view. Upon it had been prepared the felonious meals, by it he had smoked the pipe of peace with the false friend. The crash in the kitchen had become the unvarying signal for the hasty exit of the rest of the family and the organizing of Kate into a scouting party to keep Mrs. Riley and the Bureau informed about the progress of events in the house where the meat-cutter raged alone.

Mrs. Riley was a loyal, if not always a patient, woman—who can blame her?—and accepted the situation as part of the marital compact, clearly comprehended, perhaps foreshadowed, in her vow to cling to her husband “for better for worse,” and therefore not to be questioned. In times of peace she remembered not the days of storm and stress. Once indeed, when her best gingham had been sacrificed to the furies of war, she had considered whether the indefinite multiplication of the tribe of Riley were in the long run desirable, and had put it to the young woman from the Bureau, who was superintending the repair of the stove top, this way: “I am thinking, Miss Kane, if I will live with Mr. Riley any longer; would you?”—to the blushing confusion of that representative of the social order. However, that crisis passed. Mr. Riley took the pledge for the fourth or fifth time, and the next day appeared at the office, volunteering to assign himself and his earnings to the Bureau for the benefit of his wife and his creditors, reserving only enough for luncheons and tobacco, but nothing for drinks. The Bureau took an hour off to recover from the shock. If it had misgivings, it refused to listen to them. The world had turned a corner in the city by the lake and was on the home-stretch: Mr. Riley had reformed.

And, in truth, so it seemed. For once he was as good as his word. Christmas passed, and the manifold temptations of New Year, with Mike and his father still chums. Kate was improving the chance to profit by the school-learning so fatally interrupted in other days. Seventeen weeks went by with Mr. Riley's wages paid in at the Bureau every Saturday; the grocer smiled a fat welcome to the Riley children, the clock man and the spring man and the other installment collectors had ceased to be importunate. Mrs. Riley was having blissful visions of a new spring hat. Life back of the stock-yards was in a way of becoming ordinary and slow, when the fatal twenty-second of February hove in sight.

The night before, Mr. Riley, quitting work, met a friend at the gate, who, pitying his penniless state, informed him that “there was the price of a drink at the corner” for him, meaning at Quinlan's saloon. Now this was prodding the meat-cutter in a tender spot. He hated waste as much as his employers, who proverbially exploited all of the pig but the squeal. He didn't want the drink, but to have it waiting there with no one to come for it was wicked waste. It was his clear duty to save it, and he did. Among those drinking at the bar were some of his fellow-workmen, who stood treat. That called for a return, and Riley's credit was good. It was late before the party broke up; it was 3 A.M. when the meat-cutter burst into the tenement, roaring drunk, clamoring for the lives of brothers-in-law in general and that of his own in particular, and smashed the stove lids with crash after crash that aroused the slumbering household with a jerk.

For once it was caught napping. The long peace had bred a fatal sense of security. Kate was off scouting duty and Mrs. Riley had her hands full with Pat, Bridget, and the baby all having measles at once—too full to take warning from her husband's suspicious absence at bedtime. Roused in the middle of the night to the defense of her brood, she fought gallantly, but without hope. The battle was bloody and brief. Beaten and bruised, she gathered up her young and fled into the blinding storm to the house of a pitying neighbor, who took them in, measles and all, to snuggle up with his own while he mounted guard on the doorstep against any pursuing enemy. But the meat-cutter merely slammed the door upon his evicted family. He spent the rest of the night smashing the reminders of his brother-in-law's hated kin. Kate, reconnoitering at daybreak, brought back word that he was raging around the house with three other drunken men. The opening of the Bureau found her encamped on the doorstep with a demand that help come quickly—the worst had happened. “Has little Mike broken his neck?” they asked in breathless chorus. “Worse nor that,” she panted; “do be comin', Miss Kane!”

“Oh, what is it? Are any of the children dead?”

“Worse nor that; Mr. Riley has broke loose!” Kate always spoke of her father in his tantrums as Mister, as if he were a doubtful acquaintance. Her story of the night's doings was so lurid that the intimacy of many a post-bellum remorse felt unequal to the strain, and Miss Kane commandeered a policeman on the way to the house. The meat-cutter received her with elaborate inebriate courtesy, loftily ignoring the officer.

“Who is he?” he asked, aside.

She tried evasion. “A friend of mine I met.” She was sorry immediately.

“Is he that? Then he is no friend of mine. Oh, Miss Kane,” he grieved, “why did you go for to get him? You know I'd have protected you!” This with an indignant scowl at his fellow-marauders, who were furtively edging toward the door. An inquest of the house showed the devastation of war. The kitchen was a wreck; the bedroom furniture smashed; the Morris chair in which the family of young Rileys had reveled in the measles lay in splinters. “It was so hot here last night,” suggested the meat-cutter, gravely, “it must have fell to pieces.” In the course of the inspection Mrs. Riley appeared, keeping close to the policeman, wrathful and fearful at once, with a wondrous black eye. Her husband regarded it with expert interest and ventured the reflection that it was a shame, and she the fine-looking woman that she was! At that Mrs. Riley edged away toward her husband and eyed the bluecoat with hostile looks.

Between crying and laughing, “the Bureau lady” dismissed the policeman and officiated at the reunion of the family on condition that the meat-cutter appear at the office and get the dressing down which he so richly deserved, which he did. But his dignity had been offended by the brass buttons, and he insisted upon its being administered by one of his own sex.

“I like her,” he explained, indicating Miss Kane with reproving forefinger, “but she's gone back on me.” Another grievance had been added to that of the unpaid board.

The peace that was made lasted just ten days, when Mr. Riley broke loose once more, and this time he was brought into court. The whole Bureau went along to tell the story of the compact and the manner of its breaking. Mr. Riley listened attentively to the recital of the black record.

“What have you to say to this?” scowled the Judge. The prisoner nodded.

“It is all true what the lady says, your Honor; she put it fair.”

“I have a good mind to send you to Bridewell to break stone.”

“Don't do that, Judge, and lose me job. I want to be wid me family.” Mrs. Riley looked imploringly at the bench. His Honor's glance took in her face with the family group.

“Looks like it,” he mused; but in the end he agreed to hand him over to the Bureau for one more trial, first administering the pledge in open court. Mr. Riley took the oath with great solemnity and entire good faith, kissed the Bible with a smack, reached up a large red fist for the Judge to shake, and the clerk. Then he pledged lasting friendship to the whole Bureau, including Miss Kane, whom he generously forgave the wrong she had done him, presented little Mike to the Court as “de foinest kid in de ward,” took the gurgling baby from Mrs. Riley and gallantly gave her his arm. Leaning fondly upon it, a little lame and sore yet from the fight and with one eye in deep mourning, she turned a proudly hopeful look upon her husband, like a rainbow spanning a black departing cloud. And thus, with fleet-footed Kate in the van proclaiming the peace, and three prattling children clinging to their hands and clothes, they passed out into life to begin it anew. And bench and Bureau, with sudden emotion, hopelessly irrational and altogether hopeful and good, cheered them on their way.

 
 
 

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