The Rent

CHARACTERS: Mrs. Button, a tenant. I, a landlord.

SCENE:A tenement, owned by I, but referred to as Mrs. Button’s, which is perhaps more correct.

MRS. BUTTONis washing dishes. The room steams. Slow creaks outside as of a reluctant man coming upstairs. MRS. BUTTON smiles enigmatically.A knocking at the door, as inMacbeth.’

MRS. BUTTON. —Come in. (I enters.) I (laughing with affected lightness).— Ah, good-morning, Mrs. Button. I’ve come for the rent.

MRS. BUTTON (weeping). — It’s not me, as ye know, sir, that likes to be behind with th’ rint. I’m proud.

I (touched in spite of himself by thesight of a strong woman in tears). — I know that. But you ’ve been here seven months, Mrs. Button, without —

MRS. BUTTON (wiping her eyes). — Yis, I’m an old tenant, and’t would break me heart to go. An’ me goin’ to begin payin’ reg’lar only nixt week, sir. It’s th’ only home I’ve got, an’ it’s cruel harrd to leave it.

I (sternly). — Very well. Very well. I shall expect the money next week. Good-day, Mrs. Button.

MRS. BUTTON. — Good-day, sir.

I exits. MRS. BUTTONresumes washing dishes, smiling enigmatically. The room steams, and steps are heard going hastily downstairs, fainter and fainter.

(CURTAIN)

It is a grave responsibility — this power to dispossess other human beings of their little home — to say nothing of the recurrent task of making them behave themselves in it. Perhaps, on some other and happier plane of being, all landlords will be just and all tenants reasonable of disposition and stable of income. Then, indeed, the landlord need have nothing in common with a well-known walrus, of whom it is told that, in dealing with certain oysters,

‘ with sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size.’ But something might even now be done by compulsory psychopathic— I had nearly said psychopathetic — treatment; for thus the effort to solve the rent problem would go to the soil in which it is rooted, and no complicated laws would be needed. Landlords and tenants — in fact, everybody—would have to take the treatment, including, of course, the psychopathic practitioners, — who would treat each other, — but it would be a fine thing for the world if it worked.

One sees in imagination the profiteering landlord, after looking long and intently at a bright object, say a fivedollar gold-piece, dropping peacefully asleep; one hears the voice of the scientist repeating, firmly and monotonously, ‘When you wake up you will never want anything more than a just rent — a just rent — a just rent — a just rent.’

One sees this profiteering landlord, once more wide awake, busy at his desk with pencil and paper, scowling conscientiously as he endeavors to figure out exactly what a just rent will be. Investment, so much; taxes; insurance; repairs; laths and plaster here, wallpaper there; water, light, putty, paint, janitor, Policeman’s Annual Ball, postman at Christmas, wear and tear on landlord’s shoes, etc., etc., etc., etc.— now, if ever, there is a tired business man.

Or, — to take another aspect of this great reform, — there is the sad case of Mrs. Murphy, who can no longer endure the children of Mrs. Trolley, who lives in the flat above her. They run and play, run and play; they produce in Mrs. Murphy a conviction that presently the floor will give way, and the children, still running and playing, will come right through on her poor head. Yet it is the nature of children to run and play, run and play: the landlord cannot, try as he may, persuade Mrs. Trolley to chain her offspring. So away, away to the Public Psychopathic Ward with poor Mrs. Murphy. ‘Madam, when you awake, the sound of running feet over your poor head will suggest the joys of innocent childhood, and you will be very happy when they run and play, run and play — happy all day — run and play — run and play — happy all day — run and play.’

But alas, so far even psychopathic treatment cannot promise to stabilize incomes. There must still be times when the just landlord must say to his tenant, ‘All is over between us; we must part forever — and at once.’ To which, judging by the tenor of some of the laws that have lately been suggested, the tenant may presently answer, ‘All right, all right, you Old Devil. This is the tenth of the month, and I’ll shake the dust of your disgraceful premises off my feet two years and six months from to-morrow.’

It’s a puzzling time for us landlords. Not long ago I felt compelled to raise the rent of fourteen married women and one (so far as I know) unmarried Chinaman. And then, overcome by conscience I sat down and figured out a just rent. And when I had finished I came upon a distressing discovery. I had raised the rent of neither Mrs. Murphy, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Cawkins, Mrs. Trolley, Mrs. Karsen, Mrs. Le Maire, Mrs. Barber, Mrs. Sibley, Mrs. Carrot, Mrs. Mahoney, Mrs. Hopp, Mrs. Ranee, Mrs. Button, nor Charlie Wah Loo, anything like enough.