In the Absence of Mrs. Halloran
THE screaming of the child in the next room suddenly subsided into wailing ; and Khalil Khayat, the old editor of Kawkab Elhorriah, — which, translated from the Arabic, is Star of Liberty, — knew that the day’s causeless beating was over. Mrs. Halloran had quit through very exhaustion; and, intent on reviving draughts, she shuffled along the hallway and clattered down the stair, blowing, and railing blatantly between breaths. She groped her way in reckless wrath ; but the hall’s darkness was safely familiar, — for she was drunk, — and her left hand knew the shattered stair post, and her feet the sunken floor strip and broken step ; so the tenants soon heard the last of her.
Khayat sustained his interest in the sad philosophy of Abo Elola Elmoarri, that lay open in his lap, until the sobbing on the other side of the partition appealed to him out of the near silence that the going of Mrs. Halloran gave. He closed the big black book, and laid it, with fleeting regret, in its place ; and stood musing in the thin sunshine that the shadow of the opposite building had chased to his window sill. He listened to the shouts of the children in the street far below, where, in the first freedom of spring, they sported, swarming, making the most of the day’s end ; and fine simplicity made music of shrill cries for him, so that he smiled, and blessed his God, in his own way, that the little children of other men should so shed light into his dark dwelling place. Then he bethought himself of the present distress of the boy, his friend, — who, of all in the great tenement, called him Mister Khayat, and never Khayat the Dago nor (ah, the bitterness of the name, for he was a Christian and a Syrian) Khayat the Turk, — and sighed, and tiptoed in to tell him a story, as he had often done. Mrs. Halloran’s scrawny last-born was stretched out prone on the floor in the deeper dusk near the table’s sound leg. Khayat gathered him in his arms, hearing never a whimper of protest, and lifted him out of the window to the fire escape. Billy Halloran had to be lifted over high places ; for he was a cripple from birth, and had pains in his back and his leg half the days. He bestowed his body comfortably against a tub ; and Khayat, with imperturbable deliberation, climbed out after him, and squatted with his back against the railing. Sitting so in the sunshine, he lit the precious short pipe the Oxford professor had given him in the days of foolishness, when he longed to touch the liberty that men from the West boasted, and told Billy Halloran the story he had liked to hear best, long, long ago and far away, when he was a child on his mother’s knee : —
“ Long ago — ver-ee long ago — there leeve a Keen’ een Beirout, my home, een Syria ; an’ he was a Jew. An’ een those days a grea-at dragon he come up from the sea, — come crawlin’, roarin’ — roarin’ ” —
“ W’at’s a dragon ? I do’ know,” Billy plainted.
“ Ho ! W’at ees ? A fear-rful creature. Thees dragon’s head eet was the head of a serpent ; an’ hees eyes they were eyes for the night an’ for the day, an’ green an’ — an’ — ho, yes — an’ greenhot ; an’ hees tongue eet was a sharp, twistin’ flame ; an’ black smoke an’ fires come from hees red nose. Hees bod-ee eet was like a mountain for greatness, an’ covered with glees-ten-in’ green scales, — to hees head, to hees tail an’ to the end of eet, which was a spear ; an’ hees ween’s were like the ween’s of ten thousan’ black bats. Lo, he come roarin’ out of the sea, cry in’ : ‘ Geeve me somethin’ to eat! Geeve me somethin’ to eat, for I am hungry !’ An’ he go to a dark cave een the mountain near the city to leeve there ; an’ the people fly een great hurry to the city to escape, cryin’, ‘ O Keen’, O mighty Keen’, our Keen’, save us from the jaws of the dragon ! ’ ”
“ W’at kin a King do ? ”
“ Ver-ee powerful man, a Keen’. Ho, yes ! He ” —
“ Like a cop ? ”
“ Much more, — very, ver-ee powerful.
“ Like de roun’sman, Hogan ? ”
“ Yes, yes ; as ” —
“ Like MacNamara ? Naw, ’e ain’t! ” “MacNamara? W’at ees he, MacNamara ? ”
“ De block does w’at ’e says, you bet. ’E’s a alderman.”
“ As twelve hun’red MacNamaras ! ” exclaimed Khayat.
“ Gee ! ” said Billy, and dismissed the matter as beyond comprehension.
“ Now, I know that thees the story my mother have told me as a leetle chil’ eet ees true,” Khayat went on ; “ for I have seen the cave, an’ the print of the dragon’s claws een the very rock. Ah ! my eyes shall see the mountain side nevermore. Oh, oh, I am sad, — so ver-ee sad ! No more shall I go back. Oh, oh! For do they not look for me to keel me ? Oh, cruel! W’at ” —
“ Eh ? W’at’d y’u do ? ” asked Billy, with an extraordinary access of interest.
“ I have so much write against the Sultan of Turkey,” Khayat answered gravely. “ An’ een Aleppo — sh-h-hh ! — I keel three Mohammaden — I, myself. My seester — you would not understan’ — eet was for my seester I shed blood. God he strength my arm an’ sharp my knife.”
“ Was y’u pinched ? ”
“ I escape,” said Khayat quietly.
“ Did y’u git it off ? ”
“ De blood. One-lip Bill says it won’t come off ’is ’and. ’E’s left-’anded, an’ w’en ’e stabbed Yellow Mag de knife ” — “ Sh-h-hh ! I talk no more of eet. Well, I can go back — no. Eet ees God’s weel. Eet matters not for you. Enough. Yes, I have seen the cave an’ know eets darkness ; an’ the print of the dragon’s feet I have touch with my feengers. So I know the story my mother have told me ees true, every word. I now tell eet to you.”
Khayat lit his pipe again, and Billy got his bad leg in a more comfortable position.
“ Now, the dragon begeen to devour the people,” Khayat resumed, “ seekin’ out the children first ; an’ if day an’ night the people gather before the palace gates, cryin’, ‘ O Keen’, O mighty Keen’, save our lives, an’ the lives of our leetle ones! ’ After many days the Keen’ hearken to the voices of hees people, an’, standin’ before all, said, ‘ O my people, my beloved ones, who weel keel the dragon for me, hees Keen’ ? ’ An’ no man speak ; for they have all great fear. Then deed the Keen’ cry once more, ‘ O my people, my beloved ones, who are like to my eyes so dear, heem who breen’ to me the head of thees dragon weel I make a preence een my house.’ Yet deed no man say one word. Then the Keen’ call the wise men to heem, an’ consider what could he do; an’ after, one go to the dragon een hees cave an’ make a bargain with heem for the Keen’, agreein’ to geeve each day one chil’ an’ one sheep, eef only the dragon be good ; an’ the dragon he was content. So the people return to their homes an’ have peace ; an’ every day the lot eet was cast by the wise men, an’ out of many families was geeve a dear son, an’ out of many folds a sheep. The dragon he grow fat an’ merry.
“ By an’ by eet come the turn of the Keen’, who have no son, but only one beautiful daughter. Now the Keen’ deed weep ; for he love hees daughter as he love nothin’ else, an’ he would not geeve her to the dragon. But the wise men say to heem : ‘ O Keen’, O Keen’, O Keen’, our sons have we geeve without weepin’ before all men. Who among us ees faithless, O our Keen’ ? Geeve, we pray, your daughter with a sheep to the dragon.’ The Keen’ he answer an’ say, ‘ O the people of Beirout, the chief city of my keen’dom, who weel take my keen’dom, an’ save to me my daughter ? ’ An’ the people cry: ‘ O Keen’, our Keen’, deed your servants not keep their word ? May eet please you, master, to geeve your daughter with a sheep to the dragon, — oh, please ! ’ An’ again deed the Keen’ beseech a man to take hees keen’dom, an’ save hees daughter. The people cry,
‘ Keen’, your daughter to the dragon ! ’ Three times the Keen’ he call to the people, an’ the people answer as they have done.
“ At last the Keen’ turn to hees servants an’ order them to take a white sheep an’ wash heem ver-ee clean ; an’ to hees woman servants he say, ‘ Dress my daughter, your meestress, een her finest raiment, an’ put a white veil over her face, for she ees to die.’ Then he go eento an eener room of hees palace, an’ mourn een a loud voice, so the people they deed hear heem. The servants deed as they were told; an’ when the sun was low on that day, the Keen’, with tears een hees eyes, besought hees daughter to lead the sheep to the place where the dragon was. Hees daughter bow before heem an’ say, ‘ O my dear father, as your people weel, so I do ; an’ een doin’ so I grieve because I do not as you weel.’ At thees speech the Keen’ cry aloud, so ver-ee sad was he ; but hees daughter, with greater courage than any woman, go out alone, leadin’ the sheep. Now the people follow afar off; an’ the Keen’ was with them. So deed they all go out of the city’s gates; an’ the Keen’ he weep an’ cry out all the time,
‘ Who weel take my keen’dom, an’ save my daughter ? ’ — for there was yet time. But the people loved not the Keen’ for that he deed not save hees own daughter ; an’ they were silent, all men of them. “ Now, when the dear lady, leadin’ the white sheep, come to the place where the dragon was, she cry, ‘ O Monster, come forth! Here ees blood an’ flesh, — flesh an’ blood of chil’ an’ beast, as the Keen’, my father, agree.’ An’ there come from the mouth of the cave black smoke, grea-at clouds, an’ a roarin’ from the bowels of the earth. Then the people look up from the plain, where they stan’ een one great throng, an’ observe with their two eyes, shadin’ them from the sun, for eet was evenin’; an’ again the Keen’ he cry een a voice terrible with grief, ‘ Oh, oh, who weel take my keen’dom, an’ breen’ me back my leetle daughter ? ’ Steel were the people silent ; but some call upon their God to send an angel from heaven to slay the dragon.
“ Then a wonderful theen’ eet happen ; for afar off on the road was a cloud of dust observed, an’ out of the dust come a horseman, ridin’ very mad ; an’ anon there stan’ at the side of the Keen’s daughter a great knight, with armor of silver an’ a helmet of shinin’ gold ; an’ tall feathers wave een the leetle weend above hees helmet, an’ a spear he carry een hees han’.
“ ‘ O beauteous lady,’ deed the horseman say to the daughter of the Keen’,
‘ how beautiful are you ! But why stan’ you here alone with a white sheep, near where the smoke of a fearful dragon come from the mouth of a cave ? Oh, fear not, beauteous one, for I weel slay the dragon.’
“ An’ the lady tremble, but not of fear, for the voice of the knight eet was gentle ; an’ she answer to heem : ‘ O young man, O young man, fly from thees dreadful place, for the dragon ees a great dragon as ever was, an’ very hungry, for they have not fed heem for four days. Seek not to die for me, but fly quickly.’
“ ‘ Ho, ho ! ’ said the knight. ‘ Ees eet so ? A great dragon, an’ not fed for four days ! What a joy an’ dignity for me to slay heem ! ’ “‘ Oh, try not,’ said the lady, ‘ but fly, fly.’
Beauteous lady,’ deed the knight say then, ‘ I may not fly from dragons, for I am the Christian George ; an’ eef I might, I would not.’
“ An’ three times deed the lady beseech heem to go; an’ thrice deed he answer her, ‘ Oh, fear not ; eet ees my task to slay dragons, an’ ’ ” —
“ ’Is work ? ” Billy Halloran demanded.
“ Yes,” answered Khayat, and continued : “ ‘ Eet ees my work to slay dragons, an’ ’ ” —
“ ’Is business, — ’is reg’lar trade ? ” Billy asked in wonderment.
“ Ay,” said Khayat impatiently, “ hees trade, — say eet so. An’ the knight he say, ‘ An’ slay thees ’ ” —
“ Say,” said Billy eagerly, “ any chanst fer a willin’ boy over there now, — a boy wit’ a bad leg, but willin’ — willin’ ” —
“ Boy ? For what, a boy ? ”
“ Fer dis dragon - slayin’ business. George was on horseback, an’ ” —
“ Sh-h-hh ! ” said Khayat. “ Eet ees all dead now. There ees no more of eet.”
Billy Halloran sighed. “ Bloody good business,” he said regretfully, and was silent.
“ Well,” Khayat pursued, “ the knight he say to the lady : ‘ I would not fly eef I might, while you stan’ here all, all alone. Eet weel be to me a greater joy, so, to keel the drag— ’ ”
“ W’ere ’s de dragon all dis time ? ” Billy interrupted. " Ain’t ’e doin’ any stunts ? ”
“ Well, the dragon he come roarin’ from the cave in terrible wrath ; an’ smoke an’ fire come from hees mouth an’ blood sweat from hees belly, so fearrful was hees madness. Hees ween’s he flap with the noise of a great weend, an’ hees claws he stretch as an angry cat ; an’ the sun fall on the green scales of hees bod-ee an’ on the purple scales
of hees head, so that they shine brighter than the armor of the knight, — ay, with a magic lustre that ob-scured the sun an’ blind the eyes of the people on the plain. Eet ees truth ; so deed the scales of the dragon shine unteel God he touch the armor of the Christian George with cool flame ; then deed the light een them fade to very blackness een the people’s eyes. Then the knight he speak comfort to the lady, an’ ride up against the dragon, cryin’ : ‘ The Lord for George an’ the lady ! The Lord geeve help to George ! ’”
“ De Lord, w’at’s ’e ? I do’ know,” said Billy.
Khayat, silent, motionless, stared at Billy Halloran.
“ Oh, do you not know, boy ? ” he whispered distressfully at last. “ He ees our Father, — the Lord Almighty, who ” —
“ Aw, y’u mean Gawd. W’y don’t y’u talk 'Nited States ? ’E ” —
“ Sh-h-hh ! ” with a gesture of deprecation.
“ Well, ’e ain’t no business mixin’ in de scrap,” Billy persisted sullenly, and continued argumentatively : “It ain’t no square t’ing fer de dragon. Gawd ’e jumped up an’ t’rew sand in de dragon’s eyes, did n’t ’e, eh ? Aw ” —
“ Stop, boy! ” Khayat exclaimed. “ Say not so. Oh, do not. Eet ees not so. Oh no — the story ” —
“ Well, was Gawd anyw’ere roun’ w’en George give de signal ‘ ”
“ Een heaven he was, O boy ! You not know ” —
“ I know more ’n y’u t’ink,” said Billy, with a knowing side glance. “ A Salvationer tol’ me a t’ing er two w’en she fix me leg. Say, y’u can’t tell w’ere t’ look fer Gawd in them days. ’E might ’a’ bin in a tree, an’ ’e might ’a’ bin in a fire ; an’ ’e might ’a’ bin a stone on de groun’ an’ y’u would n’t know it, an’ ’e might ’a’ bin in de win’ an’ y’u could n’t see ’im.” Billy’s voice had taken on a tone of mystery, and his eyes were round ; and now he continued plaintively : “I t’ink an’ I t’ink, an’ I don’t know w’at ’e is er — er — I do’ know.”
“ Well, he was een heaven,” said Khayat.
Billy sighed, — for nothing immediate. “ George must ’a’ had ’is ally wit’ ’im, if Gawd was dere,” he said. “G’wan.”
It was Khayat’s turn to sigh. “ The dragon,” he said, taking up the thread of his story, “ he turn an’ go eento hees cave, where no eye could see heem; an’ the knight ride up an’ shake hees spear at the darkness of the cave an’ mock the dragon. Then deed the people laugh loud at the dragon ; an’ the knight cry :
‘ So cowardly a dragon deed I never see een my life! Come forth an’ fight, that I may keel you. See, I throw away my sword, an’ my helmet I cast aside. Now have I only my spear ; an’ my face eet ees bare to your tongue of flame. Come to the sunlight. Geeve me fight for the lady.’
“ Now the dragon was a cunnin’ fellow, meanin’ all the time to come forth an’ keel the Christian George by a treek. Lo, as the people look, even as they laugh most loud, a smoke cloud, black an’ theek like a night tempest, eet creep, creep from the mouth of the cave, bein’ carried on the breath of the dragon, an’ gather round about the knight, an’ envelop heem from the people’s sight. Then was there terrible fear een the people’s hearts, who know much of the treeks of dragons; an’ they say, each man to hees own heart, ‘ Lo, the blade cloud ees the poison breath of the dragon, an’ the brave knight weel surely perish.’ Thrice deed George call upon hees God, an’ hees voice was the evenin’ prayer bell for sweetness ; an’ thrice deed he shout hees battle cry, an’ hees voice was as the roarin’ of a crouch-ed lion for — for — fear-rfulness. The darkness on the mountain side eet was terrible as night at noonday, an’ the people tremble an’ cover their faces to conceal the sight of the dragon’s magic. “ Lo, the dragon leap forth with smoke an’ fire an’ great noise, as a shot of iron from a cannon’s mouth. Hees tongue eet was as lightnin’ een a black storm. Lo, a great roarin’ come from the cloud, an’ again a roarin’, an’ for the third time a grea-ater ro-oarin’ than ever before. With suddenness deed God gather the smoke een hees han’ an geeve eet to the four weends. Then was there silence as of rest-time, as of a tomb of ten thousan’ years, as of hot noon on a desert of no endin’. Lo, the great victory of the Christian George deed affright the people. The knight he stan’ by the mouth of the dragon ; an’ hees spear was thrust through the throat of the beast, an’ black blood flow from the woun’, —ay, a river of black blood. Lo, the dragon was dead ; an’ the knight was not hurt, even een one sma-all hair of hees head.”
“ Gee ! ” the boy ejaculated.
“ Now the Keen’ was possessed of so great joy that he could not contain eet een heem, an’ ran before the bearers of hees chair, not waitin’ for them, to the place where hees daughter stan’ with the white sheep. Then he embrace hees daughter three times ; for he was so please to see her alive an’ the dragon dead. The Christian knight he come to where they stan’ ; an’ the Keen’ he say to heem, ‘ O young man of great courage an’ skeel with the spear, favored of God an’ beautiful een the eyes of all men, een whose bosom there leeve no fear, neither of the might nor the magic of dragons, come, I pray you, eat with me of the best een my house, an’ rest from the terrible conflict.’
“ An’ the Christian George say, ‘ 0 my lord, when I have bury the dragon, then weel I come.’
“ Then deed George call for twelve oxen to be brought an’ fasten to the dragon’s bod-ee with a strong rope to draw eet to a deep hole ; an’ so eet was done as he have order. Now the oxen pull, an’ again pull they very hard ; but they could not move the dragon so much as one eench, so very beeg was he.
“ ‘ Oh, breen’ to me a cotton thread,’ the knight say.
“ An’ they breen’ to heem a cotton thread ; an’ he tie the thread to the dragon’s tooth an’ pull the great bod-ee, as a miracle — alone — heemself — with one arm ; an’ he bury eet een a deep hole. Then, immediately, he go to the Keen’s palace; an’ as soon as he have come to the door, the Keen’ meet heem as equal to heemself, an’ begeen to address heem, sayin’, ‘ My son, I have no chil’ but only one daughter ; an’ I would that you marry my daughter, whose life eet ees yours, an’ be a son to me, to sit on my throne after me.’
“ Now when the young lady she have heard thees, she have great fear ; for, lo, she love the knight with all the love she have. So queek she run to her women, an’ cry to them, ‘ Oh, take me to my chamber! ’ So the women look on the Keen’ with frowns, an’ do as she have said.
“ George he bow very low to the Keen’, an’ say: ‘ Gracious master, to whom God, my God, grant to leeve one hun’red years an’ more, surely never was there kin’ness like to the great kin’ness you have show to your unworthy servant. How beauteous ees your dear daughter ! What reward more great ’ ” —
“ Cheese it! ” whispered Billy Halloran. “ She’s a-comin’ back. Can’t y’u ’ear ’er ? ”
A creak, —prolonged peculiarly, like the wail of a baby in pain, — a pause, a ponderous footfall, warned Billy Halloran that his mother had reached the seventh step of the last stair, and that there was now no time for the escape of the editor. He stretched his neck through the window, and peered with alert eyes at the door. Khayat got to his knees, and pressed his dark face against the pane above, his heart quaking.
“ She shall not beat you once more thees day,” he whispered, his voice shrill with high resolve. “ I, Khalil Khayat, say eet. My arm shall defend you. The Lord God Almighty, the poor servant of heem I am, geeve me strength an’ courage to prevail against the woman ! Hees enemies, though they be as one thousan’ against one, are as one against ten thousan’ before hees might. Hees ees the power, an’ hees shall be the glory for thees good deed. Eet ees to heem ” —
Billy’s chuckling shattered Khayat’s rapture.
“ Know w’at she done t’ de ol’ man ? ” Billy asked, mischief in his eye ; and he added in warning, “ ’E’s in de ’ospital.”
“ Her strength I care not for,” Khayat answered doggedly. “ The strength of God ees mine.”
Billy was tempted to prove his mother’s single superiority ; but just then Mrs. Halloran lurched in, and stood to rest, blinking stupidly at the window. She was drunk near to the point of collapse ; and her corpulent body swayed this way and that, its besting of her exhausted legs imminent. Her face was loose ; it was as though intelligence had left her in disgust. Matted strands of hair hung in the way of her eyes, and she swept her great grimy hand across her brow at sudden intervals, but vainly. Her dress was undone at the throat, revealing the degradation of uncleanliness and the depth of her poverty. It was now a step — then a step — a fearful fight to keep upright — always a groping after handholds, as she made her way toward the mattress in the corner.
Billy instinctively pushed Khayat back from the sight, and, of a sudden overcome by the humiliation of his presence, began to cry. He sobbed and sobbed, turning himself away from comfort, and at last asked sharply, returning to the story, “ Did ’e marry ’er ? ”
“ The people een Beirout say to thees very day,” Khayat answered, “ that the Keen’s daughter weep many days ; an’ at last she die of the strange seekness of heart, — eet ees call love.”
“ Huh ! ” said Billy.
There was a heavy fall in the room that seemed to shake the house. Mrs. Halloran had lain down.
“ Lobster if ’e ’d ’a’ done it,” Billy said, drying his eyes.
“ To take her for hees wife, — ah no, no,” Khayat said in protest.
“ A beauteous lady ! ” Khayat pursued. “ Ah no ! ” and he looked away.
Billy gave him a knowing leer. “ Onelip Bill, me frien’,” he said, “ says it ain’t necess’ry.”
Now Khayat did not understand ; so his gentle old face did not sadden this time. He clambered through the window and crept like a cat to his own room, to resume the reading of Abo Elola Elmoarri’s sad philosophy in the big black book ; and, later, into the night, to write wisdom concerning the oppression of his own people, for the men of his race to read in their own tongue, in the little restaurants of lower Washington Street, where his thoughts are to be found in a new Kawkab Elhorriah, every evening, — that they might ponder, perchance to their awakening, some day. And Billy Halloran was left alone on the fire escape, in the dusk and chill of evening, between the things of home, that repelled him, and the romp and laughter of the street, far below, that were greatly to be desired, but were out of the reach of a little boy who chanced to be a cripple from birth.