MR. HARRAGAN, on first acquaintance, gives no evidence whatever of being peculiarly favored by the gods. He does not look it, his circumstances do not suggest it, not only are his friends and neighbors totally unaware of it, but they would indignantly deny such a statement if made to them. Yet it is still a fact that upon Mr. Harragan, that hopelessly ridiculous person, the gods have seen fit to bestow one of their choicest gifts.
For Mr. Harragan is a born ruler. His kingdom is small, his subjects few — two little rooms on the East Side, a wife and four children, are the measure of it. Yet in the exercise of power it would be difficult, to find his equal.
Whence comes this power? It does not have its source in the fact that upon Mr. Harragan depends the economic security of his family. On the contrary, the economic security of his family depends entirely upon Mrs. Harragan. She it is who wins the bread, bears the children, keeps the house. Yet a few minutes’ conversation with Mrs. Harragan and the children establishes beyond all doubt the fact that they all live in loving and absolute subjection to a man whose contribution to their material well-being is practically nil.
Neither can good looks explain it. Mr. Harragan is tall, lank, unkempt, not very clean, unshaven and unshorn. From strict observation of the facts, it seems fair to assume that his theory on clothes runs rather like this: they must be bought, and in due course of time — a long time — discarded. In the interim they are quite capable of taking care of themselves. He is in every way a contrast to his neat, trig, little wife.
I knew Mrs. Harragan first. I had the good fortune to have her keep my house in order when I first went to the East Side to live. She is a cleaning woman — and proud of her profession.
Mrs. Harragan is short and slender, a little woman, auburn-haired, merryeyed, immediately human. It is easy to like her. She is always happy, full of quaint wisdom, warm of heart, quick of temper, buoyant of nature.
She is active and agile. She works fast, so that no sooner has she begun her tasks than she has finished them, it seems, with a little time left on her hands for conversation. She always runs upstairs; her quick patter along the halls is unmistakable.
When Mrs. Harragan arrives, things begin to happen. Mountains of soiled dishes are, in the twinkling of an eye, arranged in washing-order, and in the twinkling of another eye they are clean and put away. Rooms are swept, beds made, fires built, with a rapidity which leaves one breathless. I cannot say that all these things are done quietly. The whole thing is in the nature of an attack. Mrs. Harragan attacks her work with vigor and enthusiasm. Dust flies, dishes rattle, fires blaze — and it is done. When she leaves, a great quiet descends upon the house.
Occasionally a dish cannot survive her energetic treatment, and great is her contempt for such a weakling; ‘uptown dishes’ is her good-natured epithet for them, and she puts the responsibility for the breakage squarely upon the shoulders of the person who transplanted them from their natural habitat into the rough-and-tumble of the East Side. ‘Do you think,’ she will remark, viewing the pieces with a pitying air, ‘dishes like that ought to be around this neighborhood?’
Yet the real marvel is that so many do survive. Mrs. Harragan is, as a matter of fact, very proud of her nondish-breaking record. She is able to tell the exact number of dishes she has broken since she married Mr. Harragan. (Before that date, her memory is blurred in everything.) Nicks she does not count, and objections to them she dismisses lightly — they are, in her mind, nothing more nor less than evidence that the objector has never been married. And thereupon satisfaction settles upon her; for any mention of marriage brings to her consciousness her own enviable state. It is strange how many roads lead back to Rome.
And she is indefatigable. She works early and late, she is not daunted by the most difficult task, and she does it all with the glory of Mr. Harragan upon her.
Not that Mrs. Harragan is in love with Mr. Harragan in any ordinary understanding of the term. That phrase, when applied to her, savors of superficiality. Rather is she completely absorbed by him.
She explains her situation thus: —
‘Mr. Harragan was hurt in his head a long time ago; he got a sunstroke, and he ‘s been weak ever since. He looks strong, but he ain’t. His head ketches him every once in so often. Many’s the time I ‘ve thought I was going to lose him.
‘Oh, but he was a great worker in his day; he used to make his thirty-five dollars a week regular. That was before I knew him. He was married then, too, but his wife died. She was always sickly; her doctor’s bills were something terrible! He worked hard that time, all right. Well,’ —her buoyancy asserted itself in an upward inflection of the voice, — ‘ it was his luck to take care of her and it’s mine to take care of him.’
Mrs. Harragan kept the wolf from the door for years by the most scrupulous management. God knows what they had to eat. She was too proud to tell; but the children looked underfed and delicate, and occasional gifts of food and clothes were received with unmistakable gratitude. Once a year she borrowed twenty dollars —for the children’s clothes. In six months this would be paid back, and for the next six months, she was a free woman.
Yet she always managed to keep Mr. Harragan in drink. Not that he is a drunkard; he has too keen a sense of propriety for that. (Mrs. Harragan boasts that the children have never seen their father drunk.) No, he goes to no unsightly extremes; he is just habitually mellowed by drink.
They live in two small, dingy rooms, one a dark one. Six people eat, sleep, and pleasure in them. And it is not mere existing: their life is rich and varied.
It is not quite true to say that Mr. Harragan does nothing whatever, in spite of the statement of his little daughter Maggie to the contrary. When she was six years old (she is now twelve), she was asked by her teacher what her father did. She answered, ‘He sits by the fire and reads the paper.’
He does this, to be sure, and more. With some help from the children — three boys and the girl — he cooks the meals. He does not clean the house, or do the washing or the mending. Mrs. Harragan does that after work and on Sundays. Cut meals he does prepare, and very grateful is Mrs. Harragan for this attention. ‘Mr. Harragan never lets me go to work without my cup of coffee,’she says appreciatively.
He also docs occasional odd jobs — as an accommodation to somebody in distress. Work with Mr. Harragan is always a chivalrous response to an appeal for help, and it ceases with the subsiding of the generous emotion. And the character of his work is such that the need for service has to be very real indeed; for to call upon Mr. Harragan for help is in itself evidence of being reduced to extremity.
The subject of payment is never mentioned in his presence. Such business is carried on later with his wife, who has an exalted idea of his worth. Yet even she cannot raise the figure very high for work which is paid by the hour. She stands there, naming a ridiculously high figure for very inferior work, on the alert, ready to spring if objection is made; for she knows perfectly well that the price named is far in excess of what is usually paid for work of that character. But objection is never made; for only in this roundabout way is it possible to pay Mrs. Harragan herself adequately for her own very good work. She constantly undercharges, and if the attempt is made to pay her more, she will leave the extra money on the table, saying:
‘I want to be paid fair, but I ‘m not looking for more than I earn. Those dishes were nothing.’
Realizing that her fine flower of independence is a more precious possession to her than the money that she needs so much, the money is meekly taken back, and Mr. Harragan is gladly paid what she thinks his work is worth.
For Mrs. Harragan believes that nobody can take care of a furnace or polish a floor quite like Mr. Harragan. Realizing that most of the world is blind to his merits, however, she always hovers near him when he works, getting him water, brushes, cloths, as he requires them, tidying up after him, protecting him from criticism.
A few years ago an attempt was made to have Mr. Harragan contribute definitely to the family budget, and it very nearly proved disastrous. Mr. Harragan undertook to be janitor of a tenement house, in return for the rent. One day Mrs. Harragan announced that they were going to move.
‘I’d rather pay rent,’she said. ‘It’s altogether too much bother to Mr. Harragan to be janitor. Why, sometimes he ‘ll be in the middle of frying a beefsteak and somebody will come to see rooms! I ‘ve been thinking of moving for a long time, but I would n’t stay a minute after what happened yesterday. You remember what a rainy day it was? Well, a man came looking for rooms. Mr. Harragan showed them to him and he went away.'
She became a little excited. ‘It seems he went next door and decided to take some there. The landlord heard about it, and he got mad at Mr. Harragan for not watching the man to see that he did n’t go into the next house. Well, how could he have seen where the man went without standing in the rain?’ Her voice blazed. ‘My husband don’t have to stand out in the rain; somebody else’s husband may, but not mine.’ Her tone sank to normal. ‘And I want to move anyway. Mr. Harragan was never cross to me all the years we ‘ve lived together until he was a janitor, and it ain’t worth it.’
The little money that Mr. Harragan brings in is negligible; his work at home is meagre. Yet somehow he manages to keep the world steady for his family. The children are scarcely less devoted than the mother. There are two grown boys now, eighteen and twenty, and up to the present moment they have shown no disposition to rebel against the destiny manifestly laid out for them, of further adding to his comfort.
Mr. Harragan receives and dispenses all the money. Mrs. Harragan has, all the years of her married life, handed her pay envelope to him unopened, and now the two boys do the same.
If Maggie appears in a new coat and is asked, ‘Where did you get your new coat, Maggie?’ her reply is immediate: ‘Papa gave it to me.’
The two boys started to work at about the same time, and they had an impulse to be generous with the first money that they earned. Did it occur to either of them to get for their selfsacrificing mother some little unaccustomed luxury ? Not at all. With the first money that they earned, they surprised papa with a new suit.
But Jimmie’s job soon had to be abandoned, although it appeared satisfactory to everybody but Mr. Harragan. For he, who takes most responsibilities very lightly, does take with seriousness the matter of making the morning coffee. Jimmie’s job began so early in the morning that it interfered with Mr. Harragan’s rising habits.
‘It ‘s the miserablest job ever I heard of,’ said Mr. Harragan; ‘breakfast at half-past six in the morning!’
All the children obey him implicitly, conscious of the honor of being so fathered. They speak of him with pride.
‘I could never bring up the children without Mr. Harragan,’ Mrs. Harragan says sometimes. ‘They think there ‘s nobody like their father; and you know how it is, especially with boys: they have more respect for a man.’ Her voice takes on color. He talks to them something grand, the lectures he gives those children! You know’ (deprecatingly), ‘Mr. Harragan is a little bit educated if he had his health. Well, if they turn out bad, it won’t be for lack of bringing up. Terrible strict he is.’
To give the devil his due, Mr. Harragan is not without charm of a sort. He receives visitors like a king, offering food and drink with regal hospitality, to the mingled admiration and dismay of his wife.
‘Maybe you don’t want to eat anything,’ she will say, fearing that he may have gone too far. ‘Don’t, mind him if you don’t. You know, if the President himself walked in, Mr. Harragan would offer him a glass of beer.’
And he has his Irish wit. One day I chanced to call there, and lying on the floor was a burlap potato-sack. Mr. Harragan was not at all nonplussed. He pointed to it, ‘See me Persian rug,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
The one daughter, Maggie, is a dainty, auburn-haired little elf, quick of movement, with a touch of her mother’s gayety. ‘ I tell Maggie sometimes,’ said Mr. Harragan to me one day, ‘that she’s a fairy. But she does n’t like that, and she begs me to say she is n’t. So then I say, “Well, no, you ‘re not exactly a fairy; but you ‘re the sister of a fairy.” ‘
And Mr. Harragan is full of interesting ideas. He has an ethical code concerning work which is entirely his own. Part of it is that washing windows or washing anything white or light is woman’s work and unfit for men or boys. Therefore, no matter how great the emergency, it is to Mr. Harragan like an invitation to sin to ask him to do any of these things. A psychological crisis is on the hands of her who makes this rash attempt. If white paint must be washed or bathrooms cleaned, Mrs. Harragan can do it in the evening. This point of view is profoundly interesting to Mrs. Harragan.
He also decrees that Mrs. Harragan is not to wash floors. Why he selects this as her one abstinence in work, nobody knows. But in this one particular she does not regard his word as law.
‘Mr. Harragan does n’t want me to wash floors,’ she says, very proud of him for the thought. ‘But sometimes you can’t be so particular when you need the money. So I just go ahead and wash them and don’t say a word to him about it. He would get mad at anybody who asked me to wash floors, and I don’t want him getting into no trouble on my account.’
But to return to Mr. Harragan’s solid virtues. If we take Mrs. Harragan’s word for it, he has courage. She rejoices in one tale of him: how one day he heard screams and blows coming from a neighbor’s apartment, and how he investigated them, and found a man most cruelly ill-treating his wife — passion at murder level. Mr. Harragan knocked the man insensible and then got him arrested.
‘And now,’ she adds, ‘after Mr. Harragan taking all that trouble for her, and actually saving her life, she ‘s so mad at him for getting her husband arrested that she won’t speak to him. But Mr. Harragan does n’t care. He says he ‘d do it all right over again.’
And one day on the street he fought and laid low a man who had most unreasonably deserted his wife. Yes, we will grant him courage.
The other evening, Mrs. Harragan appeared, quite late, to wash the dishes. She was all breathless and excited. She started on the dishes with an extra vigor, chatting meanwhile.
‘I ‘ll hurry a little to-night,’ she said. ‘I want to get home as soon as I can. I’ve been up town working to-day.’
This was astonishing, as Mrs. Harragan has scarcely been five blocks from home in twenty years.
‘I got a chance to do some work up town,’ she said, ‘and with Jimmie out of work, I thought I’d better go. Jimmie took me up, I could never have found the way alone. I got there at one and I ‘ve just come home. On Thirty-Fifth Street it was.’
She looked at me, a little awed. ‘For the first time in my life,’ she said, ‘I was homesick. I ‘ll never go so far away again. It struck me in my stomach. I could n’t eat a thing. Lord, child, they had broiled chicken and peas and strawberry shortcake, but I could n’t touch it any more than as if it was so much wood. They kept at me to eat, but it was no use. My, but I was glad to get home! I ran home a minute to see Mr. Harragan before I came here, but I did n’t stop to eat. As soon as I’ve finished these dishes I’m going home and have a good meal. I ‘ll never go so far away again.’
Mr. Harragan, you are a lazy, goodfor-nothing individual. You are a parasite, living in as much comfort as your wishes dictate, upon the hard labor of your wife and children; you are a drinker, depriving them of even the barest necessities of life; you are a slipshod worker. And balanced against this — what? A little lift of the imagination, a modicum of wit, a spark of courage. That is about all.
No, Mr. Harragan, it is not enough. The score stands heavily against you. Judged by the common standards of our day, you are a most unworthy person. And yet — beauty and harmony attend you! Mr. Harragan, you are as futile and absurd a creature as ever walked God’s earth. And yet — to you, yes, to you it has been given to discover, for at least one tiny fraction of the world, the gold at the foot of the rainbow.