A Knife for Her Husband

IN the harbor of New York, on a dark still October night, a police boat down on Erie Basin, prowling silently along through the shadows close to the wharves, suddenly threw its searchlight on a black speck out on the bay, a dory moving toward the shore. The speck slipped off into the dark, but in a moment was caught again by that long glaring arm of the law. In the chase that followed, two dark little figures were seen to dive overboard; and they must have swum ashore, for when the police came up to the boat they found only an old Italian woman with a shawl around her head. On closer view, she looked not so old. A sturdy figure, neatly dressed, with a small valise at her side, all alone out on the harbor, sitting motionless in the boat, bewildered but quite unafraid, she looked up at her inquisitors with stolidly indignant eyes — obviously respectable eyes.

What under the stars was she doing out there? An alien, being smuggled ashore? She could speak no English and answered all their questions in a deep-throated Italian which they could not understand. They took her aboard and searched her bag. Only clothes — and a small gleaming knife. Then they took her to Ellis Island, and an interpreter next day found that she had no passport, no quota number, and no ticket, nor could she give the name of the boat on which she had come from Italy. In due time she was brought up before a board of inquiry.

‘Where did you come from?’

‘Italy. I am a Roman,’ she replied.

‘What did you come to America for?’

‘I have come with a knife for my husband,’ she said. Her surprised examiners looked at her with interest. Such an obviously respectable dame, she faced them with unflinching eyes; and, when asked why she wanted to knife her husband, she answered in her deep, low voice: ‘Because he promised to come home — and I have waited nineteen years for him to grow tired of New York.’

In response to further questioning, her answers at first were calmly brief. But her judges were keenly curious now, and the interpreter sympathetic, and their efforts soon brought out the story of her marriage over twenty years ago, and of the first years with her husband, up in the hills not far from Rome. They had a little vineyard there.

‘He also was a Roman,’ she said. ‘He was not quite so tall as I, but such a man as a woman can love — with black mustachios, very strong, a smile that flashed, eyes very gay. I loved him. I wished to give him sons — but only a girl bambino came. Still, there was plenty of time, I thought, for we had been married only two years. So we were happy, working hard from the first daylight until dark. We needed money to pay for our vineyard. For what is life worth, I ask you, if you do not own your soil? So we worked hard upon our vines, fine old ones, and we made good wine and sold it — and in ten years more we should have been able to pay for our land.

‘But then the people in our village began talking of New York. One had gone there and come back with plenty of money. And he talked. He talked so loud that many listened. Some went with him. Others followed. They came home, they also talked; and now my husband lost his senses and thought only of New York. While we worked, while we loved, he talked of New York and he said we must go. And I grew angry with him then. Should I take my small bambino to some cold and crowded city where all winter snow and ice lay upon the dirty streets — a place I knew nothing about at all? For this should I leave the sunshine and the vineyard which I loved? No, I answered! But in spite of all my talking, all my praying, and the candles that I burned before the Blessed Mother of Christ, my husband went away without me!

“‘In a year I will come back,” he said, “with the money we need to pay for our land.”

‘But a year went by and he wrote to me, “Come.” He was working in a café in New York, where the life was fine and gay, he said. There people danced and drank and feasted all the nights of the year, he declared. But how can such people grow hungry for feasting, when they do nothing all day long, or do only such work as cities provide, in dark little rooms shut in from the sun? And what do such people know about wine? Have they made it? Have they pruned the vines, picked the grapes and treaded them down? I ask you, what do they know? To drink a little wine is good, but to drink it in abundance makes one good for nothing at all! And so it is with dancing, too. A man who dances every night is good for nothing else in life — like a Neapolitan!

‘We did dance when we were young, but only on festival nights, fifteen or twenty times in a year. We danced all night until the sun came, and had strength for loving still! But now alone I did not dance, and I lay alone at night, so angry that I could not sleep — angry with my husband and still more angry with New York! I took his letter to the priest and asked him to write my reply.

‘ “No,” I said, “I will not come. For I detest all cities and I detest all snow and ice. I want our bambino to stay in the sunshine, to work in the vineyard and grow strong. Bring back your American money now, and with what you have already sent we shall be able to pay for our land. Come home and I will give you sons!”

‘He wrote again to me. He, too, was angry. He sent more money and told me to buy a ticket and come at once. For I must obey him — I was his wife. But I took his letter to the church and prayed to the Blessed Lady there: “Must a wife still obey a man who has so lost his senses that he loves such a place as New York?” And the Blessed Mother answered: “No, my daughter. Men are sometimes only children. We must manage them for the good of their souls and their bodies.”

‘So once more I went to the priest, and sent to my husband this reply: “Come home,” I said, “and we shall see. A letter is worthless. We must talk. I shall ask you many questions about this fine New York of yours and talk it over sensibly. And then who knows? Perhaps I shall come.” But he answered: “I know you. If I come home, you will not be sensible, but only try to keep me there. You will not let me sleep at night, for you will talk the whole night through. Here is more money. Come to New York. Better than ever I like it here. I have a fine job in this café.”

’He was waiting on tables — he, a Roman!

“‘It is no work for a man like you,” I replied to him. “Two years are gone. So much of our lives and our loving is lost, and I am tired of living alone. There are lovers that come, but I send them away. Come home and I will give you sons!”

‘And to show him that I was still young and such a wife as a man could love, I sent him in that letter a picture of myself and our child. But he wrote to me: “Leave those clothes behind you! People would laugh at such clothes in New York!”

‘Then I became so justly angry, both with my husband and with New York, that the priest refused to write in a letter the words that poured from my lips that day, like lava from Vesuvius. So I went to the Blessed Lady and prayed. And she seemed to say to me: “Oh, what a man! Leave him alone to come to his senses — for then he will soon hunger and thirst, for Italy and detest New York! ”

‘So I waited. Soon he wrote again, but I answered still that I would not come. Three years passed. Then came the war. But New York had so weakened the soul of this man that he, a Roman, would not fight! And when it was over, this shameless one made of it an added reason why he could not return to his wife. For he wrote to me: “Now I cannot come home, for Mussolini, that fiery one, would put me in prison as a deserter, because I did not fight in the war.”

’That was more than ten years ago; but though I have written many times, all he has done is to send me money. A year would pass without any reply. In all this time I worked in our vineyard from before daylight until night. I grew older, the blood ran less warm in my veins, and now I could sleep well at night. I paid all the money we owed for our land and added to our little house another room and a verandah, which in the spring is covered with roses. I planted, too, some olive trees and others for lemons and oranges. My little daughter worked at my side; she grew tall and beautiful and strong, and she worked well and long each day. But still it was hard without a man, and I sorrowed because I had no sons. And she went to dance on festival nights, just as I had done in my youth. And I felt how all my youth was gone.

‘Last year she married a fine young man, but not even to celebrate this event would her unworthy father come home. He sent only a little money for the marriage portion of his child; and though, since she left, I have lived alone, he no longer even tries to make me come to him in New York. Shall I tell you why? Because he works now in a café managed by Neapolitans! If you would know what I mean by that, ask any Roman and see him smile! For we know those men and girls of Naples who dance and sing the whole night long — the good-fornothing shameless ones — young wantons with their slender hips! And for them I have been robbed of my sons!

‘So I wrote him once more: “I am growing old. Our daughter is gone. I need help in our vineyard.” And when he did not even reply, I made up my mind to come to New York and find this sinful husband and end his utterly shameless life, unless he consented to come home! So on a train I went to Naples, and there, to a man in a little bank, I gave nearly all the money I had for a ticket both to go and to come back, and also for my passport. But in place of providing me with these things he took me at night out to a ship and left me there in a dark little place surrounded by casks of olive oil and bags of onions — a stowaway! Me, a respectable woman, who owned her land and had paid a large price to come as a passenger to New York! He gave money to a cook on the ship to hide me and feed me with some terrible food. And when we arrived they tried to take me ashore in the night — like a Neapolitan beggar or thief!’

She finished her little narrative with an angry gleam in her eyes. She had with her the address of her husband. This was given to a society which aids stranded travelers; but when one of its agents went to the place she found that it was a night club and he had left nearly a year before. In the next few weeks the agent patiently traced him from place to place, and found him at last in a humble but genial little Italian café down town. And though he was greatly perturbed at first by the news that his wife had arrived, after a good deal of argument he agreed to go out to Ellis Island. The agent went with him and found his wife up in the women’s detention room, standing at a barred window staring across the bay at New York. It looked very cold that afternoon, with the first gray clouds of winter sweeping over the tall buildings.

‘Your husband is here,’ the agent said.

With a quick turn of her powerful head, the woman from Italy silently listened to the account of how he had been found. Then she followed the agent to a room divided in the centre by a heavy grating of steel, and in silence looking through she saw, in the place of her lover of long ago, a seedy, jaunty little old man, nearly bald and with few teeth left in his head — a man grown old before his time, the result of nineteen years of life in the night clubs of New York. Nervous and embarrassed before that steady motionless gaze, the little man valiantly did his best and in voluble Italian began pouring out the reasons why he had never come back home. He told of the wonders of New York. If she had only obeyed him and come, what a life they might have had! And all this time, without a word, his wife, erect and powerful, stood watching him. At last she spoke.

‘What a Roman!’ she said, in her deep low voice. Then she turned and went slowly out of the room, and to the agent later she said: ‘ I do not want him any more. He is of no use to my vineyard now.’

She turned to the window and fixed a long bitter look on New York, across the cold and wintry bay. ‘It is just what I thought it was,’ she said, ‘and I am tired of waiting here.’ She glanced down at her strong brown hands. ’I am still strong and I have a good life. I wish only to go home to the sunshine. My daughter will have a bambino soon. I shall burn many candles in the church and pray to the Blessed Lady to let the little one be a son.'

The next week she sailed for Italy.