THERE is a time somewhere between midnight and dawn when the vitality of man is at its lowest and that which keeps the body and soul together is most likely to relax its hold and permit the fugitive spirit to pass out into the dark. The clock on the tower of St. Aloysius’s was striking three when Father Waters, the new priest, was roused from a sound sleep by the persistent ringing of the Rectory bell. Reluctantly he rose from his warm bed and crossed to the window. Leaning out, he saw, looking up at him, the anxious face of young Willie Gavin.
‘ Please, Father, me mom says you ’re to come right away if you want to see me gran’mom alive, an’ me gran’mom will never get over dyin’ an’ the priest not there. That is, if it won’t inconvenience your reverence any.’
It would inconvenience his reverence greatly to leave his warm bed, and old Mrs. Donohoe had sent for him at least five times in the past ten days, but Father Waters, although young, was a born parish priest and would never have forgiven himself if he had allowed one of his flock to take that long journey without the consolation of the Church. Furthermore he was a kindly human being, and the look of anxiety on Willie’s upturned face touched him.
‘You run along, son, and tell them I’ll be there right away, and for your grandmom to wait.’
‘Yes, sir — yes, Father, I will,’ and young Gavin disappeared.
As he hurried through the deserted streets, Father Waters felt that it would not be long before he could tell whether it was a Riley, a Daly, a Flannagan, or a Hagan who lived in each of the little brick houses. For years to come he would advise, admonish, christen, marry, and bury these people and bring comfort to their bereaved. They were his people, the sheep of his pasture, and this parish, extending from the railroad to the river, from Lincoln Avenue to the gas tanks, was his parish which he would hold firmly in his own two capable hands.
Humble as he was in his desire to serve God, he never questioned his ability to influence his fellow man both in life and in death. As he entered the little brick house on Shimry Lane, where his coming was awaited with such eagerness and anxiety, he experienced a sense of gratitude that he had elected to be a priest of God.
On leaving the Gavins’, he again experienced the sense of gratitude that his was the noblest of all callings — that which enabled him to be the means of bringing a soul to its God, a child to its Father. Old Katie Donohoe had died happily and peacefully, with faith on her lips and in her heart. A glow was in the priest’s own heart, and the blessings of the Saints and the united Donohoe-Gavin family were on his head, as he stepped out into the night.
The streets were deserted except for the furtive night things which appear from nowhere and disappear with the first signs of day, and as he hesitated, undecided which way to take back to the Rectory, a cold mist off the river struck him, blurring the form of a cat exquisitely crossing from corner to corner on silent feet and that of a quivering white dog delicately sniffing at a garbage pail. Through the closed window of a small house a baby’s cry came to him, a thin, inhuman little wail with no suggestion of babyhood. Father Waters shivered and experienced a sensation of loneliness. The parish he knew had disappeared, entirely blotted out by the mist, and there seemed no place for him in this realm of shapes and sounds.
Suddenly he was almost knocked from his feet by the onrush of three ill-born, cadaverous dogs which came from the direction of the river, whimpering with the excitement of their nocturnal quest for food. Close behind them came a woman, so old and so small that she seemed more like a fantastic creature of the night than a human being.
As she stepped from the misty obscurity into the blurred light of the street lamp, Father Waters saw that her head and shoulders were covered by a shawl, and that she carried in her right hand a blackthorn stick which she seemed to use as a means of expression rather than of support. She passed him talking to herself and so intent on her own affairs that she was unconscious of his presence. Crossing straight to the Gavins’ house, from which Father Waters had just come, she stood by the white steps, an accusing finger pointed at an upstairs window.
“‘An’ where does Bridgy Boyle live?” an’ ye “don’t know.” Don’t know indeed! ’T is lyin’ ye were, an’ anyone else who says they don’t know where Bridgy Boyle lives, an’ her with as good a number as any woman in the neighborhood, an’ better than most! Forty-nine it is! Ask the postman himself— he’ll tell ye, for it was only a couple of years ago he brought a letter to Bridgy Boyle, straight to her own door. I ain’t like some I could name, livin’ off relatives an’ every mouthful begrudged. I ’ve fought for me number an’ I’ll keep it. Bridgy Boyle’s always had a number livin’, an’ she’ll have one dyin’! An’ it’s to ye I’m speakin’, Katie Donohoe!’
Father Waters, who had stood, his feet fastened to the pavement by the intensity of her passion, laid a firm hand on her arm.
‘Be still! Have you no shame at all to be speaking so to the dead?’
At the touch of his hand she wheeled, her stick raised, but somehow the sternness of his voice had forced the meaning of his words upon her.
‘Dead, is it? Katie Donohoe dead!’ She crossed herself and peered at him, and as she did so two things impressed themselves upon the blurred kaleidoscope of her consciousness: one was that this was the new priest, and as such her enemy; the other, that he was ‘a gran’-lookin’ young man,’ and as such must be her friend. Pointing her curiously translucent forefinger at him, she spoke reassuringly.
‘If it’s dead she is, then ’t is better off she is than livin’ at Gavins’, the poor creature. Sure, ’t is far better to be dead an’ lyin’ in a coffin that’s yere own than to be alive an’ lyin’ in a house that’s another woman’s, be that woman who she may! ’
The dogs had returned; Father Waters could feel them sniffing about his knees, but he found it difficult to take his eyes from Bridgy’s forefinger.
Suddenly she sighed deeply and her hand dropped. She would have liked nothing better than to remain talking to this lovely young man, who through some caprice of chance had signed up with her enemy the Church, but the mist was closing in on her, blotting him out along with poor Katie Donohoe.
‘I’ll be leavin’ ye, Father, an’ gettin’ on home.’
He watched her disappear through the dark gateway which led to Apple Alley, her back like a grenadier’s, carrying her years and her drink with a sort of disreputable dignity.
Suddenly he found he was shivering with the cold and damp, and an almost overpowering longing seized him to be back in the warm familiarity of the Rectory. As he turned into South Pinick Street a voice behind him said, ‘If ye come to see Bridgy Boyle, her number is forty-nine. Ye’ll not forget.’ He looked back, but all he could see was one of the underfed dogs which was following him.
The day after Mrs. Donohoe’s funeral, Father Waters saw Mrs. Gavin, her daughter, coming out of Ryan’s Market. He thought she looked white and troubled, so he crossed the street to say a word of comfort.
‘You must take great satisfaction, Mrs. Gavin, in the thought that you were always a good daughter and gave your mother loving care and a good home up to the end.’
‘That’s not worryin’ me at all, Father.’ She shifted the string bag of groceries to her left hand. ‘It’s thinkin’ how my poor mother, God be good to her, was so disturbed her last night on earth.’
‘ Mrs. Gavin, you know very well the peaceful end she had.’
’I’m not referrin’ to her death, Father, but to what happened after, an’ if you have n’t already heard, you have a right to know, for it’s a disgrace to the neighborhood and the parish!’ Her good round face quivered with emotion. ‘The night when the wake was at its height, Bridgy Boyle, who lives in the alley behind our house, stood out in the street makin’ a hillabaloo the like of which you never heard, an’ drawin’ to herself the attention which was the right of the deceased.’ She began to cry. ‘She ought to be sent up, an’ if I had my way she would be, her an’ her dirty whinin’ dogs, an’ her boys.’
‘I did n’t know she had a family,’ said Father Waters.
‘Family! Not her! They’re no family at all — neither hers or anybody else’s, for the matter of that, but two dirty bums, savin’ your presence. One’s that Petie Kearny, who has n’t drawed a sober breath since they fired him from the Spanish War; the other’s Deefy, that little deef an’ dumb fellar who stays at O’Hara’s. Nobody knows where he comes from, but some says he’s a Methodist. He ain’t quite right in his head, an’ he’s all the time writin’ about religion on little scraps of paper. The three of ’em’s always together, an’ mostly at Bridgy’s. An’ such goin’son! Why, my l.ttle fellar has n’t had a good night’s sleep since we moved into Shimry Lane. They ain’t human bein’s at all! An’ I say it who know, bein’ backyard neighbor to Bridgy!’
Father Waters felt that Bridgy should be made to suffer for causing kind, easy-going Mrs. Gavin so much unhappiness; he agreed that she was a public nuisance and should be sent away. ‘I have a good mind to tell her so, though I suppose it would do about as much good as if I were to talk to that bit of waste paper blowing about the street.’
‘If you was to tell her you’d stop the grocery order the Church gives her each week if she don’t repent her ways, it might put the fear of God in her soul — if the old sinner has a soul, which I doubt.’
But, whatever doubt Father Waters may have felt, he remembered that there is more joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth than over the ninety and nine just daughters like Mrs. Gavin, who have no need of repentance. If he could be the means of bringing this shabby, straying soul back to the comfort and consolation of the Church, he would have proved himself a worthy priest of that Church and caused the angels of God to rejoice.
All the day Bridgy was in his thoughts. ‘If I tell her the groceries will cease if she does n’t behave, it will have some effect, for to-night at least, and Mrs. Gavin and the little fellow will get some sleep.’ But it was not for the sake of Mary Gavin and her boy that Father Waters decided to go to Apple Alley, but because he longed to be the means of bringing a wayward ancient child back to her Father, and by so doing prove himself worthy of the noblest of all callings. ‘But first I’ll have to be the means of bringing decent comfort to her poor old body,’ he thought as he turned into the alley.
In front of the first house three colored children greeted him with gentle solemnity. In front of the second house a golden-haired little girl with a smutty face was eating a large piece of jammy bread.
‘Do you know where Bridgy Boyle lives?’ he asked the child, who dropped her eyes coyly and hid behind the bread.
‘Yas, suh! Yas, Preacher,’ said all three little Negroes in unison. ‘Hit’s de las’ house. Hit’s fo’ty-nine. You’ll see hit when you gits to hit. It’s writ plain over de do’.’
Number forty-nine had been built originally as a shed-kitchen to number seven, and was in an even more desperately dilapidated state than the other houses in the row, but his little black guides had spoken truly — 49 was painted in large white numerals over the low door. Inside a man was singing; through the thin walls the words of the song came distinctly: —
Wit’ the spirit of their race,
An’ they went wit’ souls undaunted
To their doom.’
Father Waters knocked on the door. Dogs barked, and the song continued:
Or on battlefield we die . . .’
Father Waters knocked again and the singing ceased.
‘Who’s there an’ what do ye want?’ said a voice he recognized as Bridgy’s.
‘It’s Father Waters — it’s the priest, come to see you, Bridgy.’
The dingy cloth covering the window to the left of the door moved and Bridgy’s face appeared.
‘It’s the truth he’s tellin’! It’s the new priest himself.’
Father Waters could hear excited voices and low growls. Then came a shriek from Bridgy: ‘Git! Git, every one of ye! I want a word alone with the young priest.’
There was a scurry and scuffling of feet, human and canine, as ‘the boys’ and the dogs went out through the yard door. Then came the sound of three bolts sliding back; the door, in front of which Father Waters stood, opened, and Bridgy and he faced each other. She had been drinking, her hair hung down, no shoes were on her feet, and she seemed older and smaller than he had remembered.
‘Come in, Father, come in an’ welcome. The boys just now dropped in for a bit of a song. Petie has a beautiful voice. The other fellar’s Deefy. He’s deef an’ dumb, the poor boy, an’ can’t hear a thing, but he’s a great one for writin’ things on paper.’
She shoved a large tortoise-shell cat out of a stiff wooden chair in a fever of hospitality and dusted off the seat with a man’s cap which lay on the table, thereby revealing a hastily hidden bottle. Her knowing eyes sought the priest’s. ‘Would ye care for a small drink, Father?’
Father Waters thanked her and declined.
‘Ye do right, Father, ye do right. There’s nothin’ so bad as a drunken priest. Poor boy, I suppose when ye signed up with the Church ye voluntarily deprived ye’self of the pleasure of drunkenness.’
Father Waters looked about the small damp room, which contained a stove, an unpleasant bed, and a wooden table on which lay a half-pint bottle. Close to the bottle was a torn piece of paper on which was written in a large, childish scrawl, ‘Do all Protestants go to Hell?’ Through the crack of the yard door came a sound which might have been the yelp of a dog or the laugh of a man. Father Waters laughed a little nervously himself; then, remembering why he had come, he turned to Bridgy.
‘I came here to-day, Bridgy, because I wanted a little talk with you.’
‘Sure, Father, a little talk’s a pleasant thing if it’s a pleasant little talk.’
‘I should like to be able to help you,’ he said sternly.
She looked at him shrewdly. ‘That’s very kind, now. I never was one to say a word against charity. The blessed Lord thought highly of it, an’ I do meself. No one can say Bridgy Boyle was one to refuse charity — givin’ or takin’.’
Something scratched against the yard door; Bridgy crossed rapidly, thornstick in hand. ‘Git!’ she shrieked. ‘Git, the both of ye, ye dirty . . .’ She beat with her stick against the door. ‘ Did n’t I tell ye I wanted a word alone with the priest ? ’ She put her ear to the crack and listened. Apparently she was satisfied, for she came back and stood looking at Father Waters.
When she had sent ‘the boys’ out she had known only one thing: that she wanted to look at the ‘beautiful young man ’ alone and undisturbed. Now that she was looking at him she felt she must tell him something of moment, something of vital concern. She crossed again to the yard door and drew the bolt, then she came back to Father Waters and took hold of his coat; peering into his face, she began: ‘There’s nothin’ walkin’ the earth can scare Bridgy Boyle. Sure, I ’d give God or the Devil, either one, a whack wit’ me stick if they was to come snoopin’ aroun’ me premises, or Mayor McMillen either,’ she added, ‘for they’d have no right at all to tell me I ’ll have to leave me home. No right at all, have they, now?’
‘Who?’ asked Father Waters, uncertain which of the three just named had offended.
’She was here to-day.’
‘Who was here?’
‘Whisht!’ said Bridgy, looking toward the yard door. ‘I would n’t want the boys to hear, or the dogs either. They’re terrible worrisome.’
It seemed to Father Waters that when he had bowed his head and crossed the threshold he had left reality behind and entered upon an ill-smelling nightmare which he was sharing with a half-mad, half-drunken old woman.
‘She come here,’ continued Bridgy, ‘tellin’ me, Bridgy Boyle, to leave me home an’ go to Sunnysides. Tellin’ me that’s had a number of me own all these years to give it up an’ go to that place! ’ She spat.
‘Have you never thought,’ said Father Waters gently, ‘have you never thought that perhaps you might be more comfortable . . .
But she interrupted him. ‘Ah, Father, ye’re too young, dear; ye would n’t understand. An’, havin’ signed away yere privacy when ye signed up wit’ the Church, it may be ye’ll never know. But what is comfort if it ain’t your own? Moreover, I’m entirely comfortable in me own home with the few little things Mr. Ryan at the market kindly gives me each week.’
‘Perhaps the woman wanted to help you . . .’
‘Perhaps she did,’ said Bridgy, and smiled pityingly into his serious eyes.
‘So I would n’t worry any more,’ he continued, moving toward the door.
‘ I won’t,’ said Bridgy, her eyes on his face. ‘But,’ she added, ‘if she comes round again I’ll leave me dogs loose on her. They’ll have the flesh tore from her throat, Public Welfare an’ all!’
Father Waters smiled at her kindly as he crossed the threshold. ‘You can say she’s mad or you can say she’s drunk,’ he said to himself, ‘ but it is n’t as easy as that. Not after you’ve looked into her eyes.’ He sighed deeply as he walked down the alley. It was not always easy to be a priest of God.
Bridgy stared after him till his tall figure disappeared through the alley gateway. ‘He ain’t like a priest at all,’ she said to herself, ‘ but he’s a beautiful young man. I should n’t wonder at all,’ she added thoughtfully as she bolted her door three times, ’I should n’t wonder at all, if I’d had a son of me own, he’d have been somethin’ like that.’
Father Waters saw Bridgy twice in the week which followed, but neither time was it to his satisfaction. The first time she was rolling a large, empty barrel, evidently a gift of Mr. Ryan, down the street. When she spied him she left the barrel to roll unguided and crossed hastily to him. She smiled up at him, muttered something unintelligible but friendly, and ran to recover the barrel, which had dropped into an areaway.
The second time he saw her she was nearer home. He happened to be passing Apple Alley when he heard angry, excited voices and the loud barking of dogs. He stepped into the alley and saw that a crowd of people, black and white, had gathered at the far end. Father Waters was not a curious man, but he had become deeply concerned with all that affected Bridgy. As he drew near he saw her, her back to her door, bareheaded and barefooted, her blackthorn stick in her right hand and a shivering white terrier close beside her.
‘Vacate, is it!’ she was screaming at a middle-aged man in a well-made gray suit, who stood in front of her. ‘Be turned into the street, is it! I’ll see yere dirty black soul rot in Hell before I ’ll move a inch from a home that’s me own.’
‘It’s not your own,’ said the man. ‘You pay no rent.’
‘Don’t argue with Bridgy, mister,’ warned a woman in the crowd, but the man continued rashly: —
‘I tell you the city has condemned it as unsafe and unsanitary, and it will be torn down.’
‘Say that again,’ shrieked Bridgy, ‘say it once again an’ I ’ll have me dogs on ye!’ She put her hand on the knob of her door, through which came sounds of angry barking. The crowd stepped back. Someone saw the priest and a murmur went round. ‘It’s the priest has come. Hush, Bridgy, it’s the young priest himself.’
But she could not stop. Words poured from her mouth such as Father Waters, used as he was to oath and epithet, had never heard. Even the seasoned neighbors seemed embarrassed.
‘Git!’ she screamed, waving the blackthorn stick. ‘Git, every last one of ye!’
The crowd dispersed. The city Building Inspector turned tail and fled. Bridgy looked down the alley and at Father Waters with unseeing eyes. Then she went into her house, followed by the trembling white terrier, and three bolts slid across her front door.
The reports about Bridgy which reached Father Waters’s ears during the next few weeks were even less satisfactory. The neighbors, whose philosophy was of the ‘live and let live’ variety, and who for many years had accepted Bridgy, along with other conditions over which they had no control, and even taken a sort of pride in her as a public character, had at last become annoyed. She was drunk continually; her dogs frightened the children; twice she had been found asleep under the railroad bridge, and once on the river embankment. Formerly she had troubled them only between midnight and morning; now she haunted the streets at all hours, her dogs with her. They could not understand what had caused her to change the habits of years.
Father Waters was distressed to hear these reports, but he was so occupied with the duties of the Church and the parish that he could not do what he would have liked for her. It never occurred to him that he was in any way responsible, or that it was her hope of seeing ‘the beautiful young man’ which caused her to be out while the sun shone and the children played in the streets.
One Friday evening in Lent, when St. Aloysius’s was crowded and Father Waters was ‘saying the Stations,’ he became conscious of a commotion in the rear of the church and saw Willie Toomey, the sexton, trying to bar the centre aisle. The next instant Willie’s arm flew up, struck by a blackthorn stick, and Bridgy walked down the aisle, followed by her three dogs. She was wearing a trailing skirt of some heavy black material which swept the tiles as she walked; her coat was a short green jacket embroidered in jet beads, and what had once been a feather boa was around her neck. An old sailor hat of stiff black straw sat high on her head, and the blackthorn stick was in her right hand.
There was great amusement among the members of the congregation, many giggles and many ‘For shames,’ but Bridgy, her eyes straight ahead of her, was conscious of only one thing: the young priest was not at the altar where her ragged memory told her a priest was supposed to be.
Suddenly she spied him by one of the Stations of the Cross, and with a cry of delight she ran toward him, the dogs at her heels. Just as she reached him two men, who did not know her, seized her by the arms and dragged her out of the church, but not before the dogs had bitten one and badly torn the other; and, what was far worse, the statue of the Little Flower had been knocked from its pedestal and broken.
That settled it! A self-appointed committee of righteous and excited members in good standing was waiting for Father Waters at the Rectory. Complaints and abuses were poured on Bridgy’s absent head. The Holy Church had been desecrated!
‘It’s for her own good,’ said kindly Mrs. Flavin, ‘that we’d be sendin’ her away. She’ll be found dead and stiff in her house one of these days, an’ nobody knowin’ it for weeks. Moreover, they’ve pulled down all but her house an’ the one next, an’ they’re comin’ down the first of the week. Use your influence, Father. You can persuade her to do anything.’
Of this Father Waters had grave doubts; nevertheless he said he would do what he could. He did not know that it was his influence which had brought Bridgy back to the Church of her fathers.
The following morning Father Waters called the Department of Public Welfare and talked to several people, all of whom seemed to know Bridgy Boyle. He made all the arrangements; the ambulance was to be at Apple Alley early Monday morning to take her to the General Hospital, from whence she would be committed to Sunnysides. All that remained was to persuade her to go.
As he walked reluctantly up the alley on Sunday evening he saw that Mrs. Flavin had told the truth; all the houses except number seven, to which Bridgy’s was attached, had been razed to the ground. His knock on the door was answered by growls, and he had to knock a second and a third time before Bridgy appeared at the window. When she saw him she gave an exclamation of pleasure and he heard the bolts draw back.
‘So ye come, Father. I thought ye would. — Shut your mouth or I ’ll knock yere damn head off!’ she cried unexpectedly, laying her hand on the shabby head of a big black dog. ‘He’s gentle as a lamb, but he’s a gran’ watchdog.’
The interior of number forty-nine was even worse than Father Waters had remembered it. It was damp and dirty and offended every sense. He sat down on the wooden chair after removing the cat, then he braced himself for the business which had brought him.
‘I see they’ve pulled down all the houses in the row but this one. . . .’
‘I’d like to see him dead! I’d like to see him stiff in his coffin!’ said Bridgy, and he knew she was referring to the building inspector in the gray suit.
He decided to come straight to the point, to tell her she was a public nuisance, and, worse, that she had desecrated the Church of God, but he could n’t do it. ‘Bridgy,’ he began, ‘when this house comes down you’ll have to go.’
‘Where would I go to?’
‘To Sunnysides. It’s a fine, cheerful place, Bridgy; you’ll think you’re in Heaven.’
‘Heaven, is it?’ said Bridgy.
‘Clean, warm, and sunny; three good meals a day and a cup of tea in between, I should n’t wonder. Pretty nice, eh?’ He went on rapidly, fearing to stop. ‘It will be such a comfort to me, Bridgy, to know you’re safe and comfortable. I’ve been awfully worried about you.’
‘Have ye now?’ She had never taken her eyes from his face.
‘What do you say, Bridgy? Think it over.’
‘I’ll do whatever ye say, Father.’
His surprise was such that for a moment he could not speak, then he patted her shoulder. ‘That’s fine, Bridgy, just fine, and I’ll come out and have a cup of tea with you very soon.’ The thought of ‘the boys’ and the dogs disturbed him, but his relief was so great that nothing else seemed to matter. ‘The ambulance will be here for you in the morning, Bridgy. Now that does n’t mean you’re sick. It’s just a matter of form.’
‘I’d rather it was the chaser,’ was the only criticism she made of his arrangements.
At the door he patted her shoulder again. ‘You’ll be glad you were so sensible when you see how comfortable and happy you’ll be. Why, you won’t know yourself.’ It had been simpler than he could have dreamed; she had not even asked what was to become of the dogs. He was very happy himself, as he stepped into the alley, to feel the power of his influence.
‘The lovely young man,’ thought Bridgy tenderly, ‘the lovely, kind young man. I suppose if I’d had a son of me own,’ she added reflectively, ‘he’d have been just as much of a fool.’
Somewhere between midnight and dawn, Bridgy opened the door of her house and stepped out into the alley. She stood for a few minutes sniffing the night smells, and then, accompanied by her three dogs, she set off toward the river, her long skirts brushing the cobbles.
She loved the streets, deserted except for the furtive night things with which she felt a fellowship she could never feel for the inhabitants of the little brick houses. She loved the damp night breeze and the odors it brought with it from the drains and from the fertilizer plant on the far side of the river. When a night freight shrieked like a banshee she clapped her hands and laughed aloud in atavistic delight.
As she passed the Settlement House she noticed that pretty growing things were in the window boxes, and she stood on tiptoe and stretched to reach them, but they were far over her head. Once or twice she thought of ‘the boys,’ but the thoughts quickly passed.
In the park, where she went to see the ‘bit of a brass goat’ which always gave her such delight, she found little green things coming out of the earth. She got down on her hands and knees and reached over the wickets and tried to pull some of the ‘sweet things,’ and then looked quickly round to see if anyone had seen her, but the only people in the park were a young man and a girl. The girl was clinging to the young man’s arm and crying. Bridgy went close and peered into her pretty, frightened face.
‘Don’t be scared, darlin’. God Himself can’t bother ye if ye’ve got spirit.’
The man laughed, but the girl gave a little scream and crossed herself.
Bridgy moved on. She felt so happy and free she wanted to sing, so she sang ‘God Save Ireland,’ which was the only song she knew: —
Still their courage proudly rose.
‘Them’s gran’ words,’ said Bridgy, ‘gran’, beautiful words.’
The clock in the tower of St. Aloysius’s struck the hour, and a heaviness settled on her spirit so that she crossed herself and cursed softly. Then she looked up and pointed her long forefinger at the darkness above her.
‘Ye think Ye’ve got me, don’t Ye! Ye an’ the City Inspector an’ the Public Welfare, the whole three of yous. Ye think Ye can drive me out of me home an’ make me give up me number I’ve had for years, an’ Ye’ve got the kind, innocent young priest to help Ye. But Ye don’t know Bridgy Boyle! None o’ the lot o’ Ye know Bridgy Boyle!’ And she laughed aloud and shook her blackthorn stick at the sky.
Father Waters was roused by the ringing of the Rectory doorbell and a child’s voice calling ‘Father! Oh, Father!’ He went to the window. Dawn was in the sky, and even in the city the air was sweet with the promise of spring. Little Willie Gavin was looking up at him, white and quivering in the light from the street lamp.
‘What is it now, son?’
‘Come quick, Father! It’s Bridgy!’
When Father Waters reached the street, Willie was waiting, and they hurried off, side by side.
‘Tell me, son,’ said the priest.
‘I was woke up by the dogs barkin’ and barkin’, an’ I says to meself, “Them’s Bridgy’s dogs.” An’ I got up an’ run to the window, an’ smoke was comin’ out of her house everywhere, an’ the dogs was howlin’. An’ I calls me pop. “ Bridgy’s on fire,” I says, an’ me pop smelled it, for it was comin’ in the window, an’ he says, “Get on your shoes an’ call Pete Mullins an’ Frank Feely while I get me pants on,” an’ I did. An’ we all run into the alley, but you could n’t do nothin’, for the door was locked hard an’ the window was nailed. An’ me pop tells Frankie Feely to get a axe, an’ he tells me to ring the alarm up to the corner, an’ I done it, an’ then I come for you.’
Father Waters began to run. There was a fire engine with a hose attached to a hydrant at the corner of South Pinick Street and Shimry Lane, and the hose was stretched around the corner into Apple Alley. Heads were sticking out of every window in South Pinick Street and Shimry Lane, — Connellys, Doughertys, and Sullivans, all Father Waters’s parishioners, — but they all seemed unimportant. What did seem important was an absurd little man in a flapping overcoat who came running down the alley carrying an empty tin bucket. Terror and tears were on his purple, battered face. It was one of ‘the boys.’
He set down the bucket when he saw Father Waters and saluted. ‘It’s no good,’ he said. ‘She’s gone — her an" her house an’ the dogs.’
‘Could nothing be done?’ asked the priest.
‘It could not. They done their best. Somebody give the door a blow with a axe, an’ down it come, an’ out come the smoke. The fellars started in, but them dogs would n’t let ’em by. They’d have had ’em by the throat. When the door come down the flames started. She always said they was gran’ watchdogs.’
Later, as Father Waters was wearily climbing the church steps, a man who had been waiting in the doorway stepped forward and plucked at his sleeve. The priest started and found he was looking into the foolish, pinched face of a little man who held out a torn piece of paper on which was written in an uncertain, childish hand: ‘Will Bridgy go to Hell?’ Father Waters looked into Deefy’s troubled face and shook his head with an attempt at reassurance. There was another tug at his sleeve. Something else had been written on the paper.
Reluctantly Father Waters read it. The look on Deefy’s face was that of an anxious little dog. ‘Where will Bridgy go to?’
The priest hesitated; then he took the paper, held it against the church door, and in a firm hand wrote, ‘Heaven.’
Deefy laughed, but tears were running down his silly, pallid face.
‘God forgive me,’ said Father Waters aloud, his own face crimson, ‘but it’s easier to write “Heaven” and please a fool than to be the means of making the angels of God rejoice.’