At the Barber's

I

HALFWAY down Noggin Street, at the slum end of the town, above the quay where the tramp steamers put in, lived Martin Taafe the barber.

Like all self-respecting barbers of fiction and song, — said my friend Lukey Mangan, rolling the phrases round his mouth, — Martin kept several cheerful canaries, a very dirty shop, an open house, and a generous heart. He was a smallish, thin, wiry, indeterminate sort of man: you could n’t put an age to him, not within twenty years. His head was narrow below the brows and wide above, his eyes were puckered up, and he was bald on top. What hair he had was never attended to; he never seemed to shave or wash; and he was never completely dressed.

At any time, day or night, Martin’s door was on the latch. It was a spring door with a loud cracked bell, and to reach it you climbed three stone steps, well worn down in the middle. The spring was stiff, and the bell let such a jangle that strangers were known to lose their nerve and turn away. But one soon got used to the bell, and, having sounded it, one entered and was met by a wall of warm and musty air, and a tremendous burst of enthusiasm from the canaries. Even in the nighttime the bell would set them chirping faintly under their covers.

There were but two barber’s chairs in the room, the floor of which was covered with a mixture of cigarette ends, hairs, torn betting dockets, and a thin subsoil of tea leaves and sawdust. The walls were decorated with oleographs of Bob Fitzsimmons, James J. Corbett, Peter Jackson, and local exponents such as Jem Roche and P. O. Curran, representing the Noble Art; and with ancient newspaper portraits of Gladstone, Parnell, Biggar, and the Park murderers, as representative of a dead political faith. There was also Robert Emmet with attendant headsman and a foggy, amorphous crowd in the foreground of St. Catherine’s Church, Thomas Street, Dublin, the one picture in a frame. On a flyblown mirror over the fireplace were stuck yellowed visiting cards, too dim for scrutiny, and come by God alone knows how.

Martin’s customers were his friends, and friends his customers. By an easy system of barter and exchange, one obtained a shave, a haircut, or the price of a pint if such was in the till. The customers were of great variety, but the humbler sort of seagoing man predominated, with a fair leavening of carmen, bookmakers’ assistants, and casual inebriates. The shop was a club, a meeting place, a home from home, a nucleus of chat and knowledge. You could get reliable horsy information there, you could reach the inside of many a local mystery, you could follow with startled understanding the real reason for the Mail Boat’s late arrival, and know at last exactly how it was Mr. Neligan’s horse and cab fell into Dunleary Old Harbor.

For Martin did more for us than snip our locks and lather our chins. Like the lad in the opera, he was the factotum of our small city, and his shop was more a species of Refugium Peccatorum than the shaky chirurgeon’s pole outside it indicated. A man of education, Martin wrote the great part of his clients’ letters. These were most often excuses for nonattendance at various occupations, affectionate letters to women in distant ports, begging letters, and reminders to successful and forgetful sons and daughters, heartbreaking sometimes in their plain simplicity.

You could get a can of lug bait at the barber’s; you could wangle a free and nervous passage to Holyhead at the barber’s; you could find out where your dog was even though it had been a month missing; you could scrounge admission gratis to most of the town shows, from cockfights to cinemas, at the barber’s. We have started a subscription for a consumptive sailor there; we have arranged for the transfer of an unpopular policeman there; we have looked after, and looked after uncommon well, the three young children of York Street Maggie, when that local Thais was in St. Michael’s Hospital, the expectant mother of a fourth by some father unknown, unkept, unsung, and quite unhonored.

You could, you often did, sleep all night at the barber’s. He let you cook a meal in his little filthy kitchen. He let you wash. He would lend or give you a collar, a tie, a pair of boots (of sorts), and, in desperate cases, a pair of breeches. He was more than liked; he was loved. As poor as his customers, he had more of the Nazarene in him than many a parish priest. He was an Institution, and his shop a sanctuary. It was not considered the thing, nor was it ever done, for the local police to enter the shop officially. They have waited patiently outside, in Full view of the customers, to allow some embarrassed fireman or insolvent jarvey to retire over the back wall.

II

If Martin was an institution, there was one other figure that was as much a fixture in the shop as the owner, the two chairs, and the picture of Robert Emmet. Of all the lame ducks the barber ever took under his wing, of all the sufferers he befriended, of all the drunks he harbored in compassion, the most pathetic was Dennis Darcy.

This helpless, hopeless, harassed, and irreclaimable creature haunted the shop for twenty years for the many comforts and advantages it offered. A well-educated, gently spoken, thriftless, witless wastrel of a man, with his fluttering clothes, his broken boots, his gray sockless feet, his pale blue frightened eyes that flickered when you spoke to him, and the rest of the time stared hypnotically at nothing, he could at all hours of the day and night be seen, twitching on his bench like a shot bird, or trying ineffectually to be of use with a dirty cloth or a moulted broom. Nine tenths of the time he was drunk. Nothing but drink could control the twitching or thaw the glacial misery in his eyes. Without drink, he jerked so that he could hardly sit or lie, and his joints shot away from him till you’d think he must come to pieces.

‘For God’s sake,’ someone would cry, unable to bear it any longer, and bring out the money to get poor Dennis a dram; and Dennis would subside gradually, a fluttering bundle of rags, and we could forget him and have peace for drink and talk.

To this articulated piece of human wreckage Martin was father, mother, and brother. He fed him as best he could. He allowed him to sleep in the shop on one of the padded benches. In return, Dennis was faithful as a dog, and far more useless. He essayed to clean the shop, as I said, and he looked after it during brief intervals when the barber refreshed himself in the pub next door or investigated the starters for the threethirty at Kelly’s, the bookmaker’s opposite.

We all knew his story — at least, a part of it. The rest did not come out till afterwards. He was, as his speech and the shape of his hands and feet showed, a man of good connections. By what process of weakness, calamity, or wrongdoing he had degenerated to his present state remained a mystery; but the fact was there. There were several families of Darcy to whom he might have belonged, but, when we cross-questioned him, he grew at first vague and then hysterically resentful.

It was easy enough to see: the poor creature had still some pride, and did not want to disgrace his people. Dennis was all we ever called him. The other name we hid, though most of us knew it. And yet, for all his wish to save his family from the shame of owning him, the poor devil was at pains often to remind us that he was well connected and had expectations. He had to recall this, for it was the only way by which he might conceivably repay Martin for so many years of shelter, food, and kindness.

‘There’s money to come to me,’ he would babble, time and again. ‘Money laid up in the bank, and accumulating at compound interest. Ah, Martin, listen here to me. I ’ll be a rich man some day, and then I’ll make you rich. I’ll give it all over to you, Martin, every penny.’

‘Ah, sure, Dennis, I would n’t want it.’

‘You could n’t refuse it, Martin, you could n’t refuse it, and you keeping me here all these years. Sure, what use would the money be to me? No, no. You’ll be a rich man, Martin, and you’ll never have to work again.’

‘I don’t know would I like that, Dennis,’ Martin would say, humoring him. ‘I’d miss my little shop and my company.’

‘Well, then, you should keep it, or have a fine big shop in the city of Dublin.’

‘I don’t know would I like that either. I’d be lost in Grafton Street, or in Dame Street.’

‘ Ah, Martin, don’t be talking. There’s nothing I won’t do for you, when my money comes. You shall have your heart’s desire, Martin. Your heart’s desire.’

And the poor fellow would become tearful, and catch Martin’s hand, and kiss it. Martin would say a few comforting words to him, and pull his hand away gently, and come back to the rest of us with the same smile and raise of his eyebrows, while the drunken bundle of rags sobbed and twitched itself off to sleep. Not one of us, the barber included, but understood the whole story was the poor devil’s wish and dream, more than there was any chance of the promise having the slightest foundation in fact.

III

So the years rolled on, and so the hungry, forgotten man became more and more helplessly dependent on the barber, assuring him oftener and oftener that the time was coming nearer when he would make his protector a happy, comfortable man who would never need to wield scissor or razor again.

Then — it was a wonder it had n’t happened sooner — the years of want, neglect, and exposure took their toll. Our Ishmael fell a victim to consumption, with all its dreadful manifestations of coughing, blood, and exhaustion.

After the first hæmorrhage, Martin could not very well let him lie any longer on the padded bench. We got some old sacks and rags and a rug and a coat or two, and made Dennis a bed under the bench, where he used to lie of nights, and soon for most of the day as well.

Less and less did he ply his ineffectual mop and broom; less and less did we hear of the riches to come, for speech brought coughing, and coughing brought blood. He would lie there, his eyes following Martin like a dog’s, helpless and full of adoration; and Martin would reward him now and then with a smile, and go over every hour or so to bend down and speak to him, or give him something, a glass of milk or anything else he could take, as gentle as any woman.

At last came the morning when the anxious barber could not rouse his friend. As the day advanced and the clients gathered, it became manifest and of urgency that the scarecrow be removed to Loughlinstown Workhouse Hospital. The hat went round, he was steadied with as much whiskey as he could stand, and Mr. Neligan evoked his horse and cab for the four-mile journey.

Dennis was heartbroken. He cried like a baby, and clung to Martin’s hand.

‘Don’t send me away, Martin,’ he pleaded. ‘Don’t send me away.’

‘Sure it’s only for the time, Dennis,’ says the barber. ‘It’s only to make you well. When you’re better, you shall come back here again. I’ll fetch you myself, in this same cab. Won’t we, Mr. Neligan?’ says he, turning to the old cabby, who was standing near the door, his fists on his hips, looking over at Dennis.

‘We will surely,’ says he.

Dennis shakes his head.

‘I’ll never be well,’ he says. ‘If I leave here, it’s for the last time.’

‘That’s no way to talk. Where’s your courage, man?’ The barber patted his shoulder. ‘Where’s your courage? You must make up your mind to get well, and get full benefit of the good treatment in the hospital. We can’t give you the right treatment here,’ he says.

‘Indeed,’ blubbers Dennis, ‘an angel in Heaven could n’t treat me better than you treated me all these years.’

‘It’s little we could do, but, sure —’

The poor wretch beat the back of his hand against his forehead.

‘God forgive me for a selfish brute,’ he cries out. ‘I’m a burden to you, a millstone round your neck. Yes, it’s true. I’ll go, Martin. I’ll go.’

‘Be easy, now,’ says Neligan, in his thick rattly voice. ‘Be easy, and don’t agitate yourself for the journey.’

Dennis fixed his eyes on us, as we stood looking down at him. He had been propped up sitting on the bench.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘Do one last thing for me; sure, you will?’

‘Anything, Dennis. Anything we can.’

‘Let me lie down in my corner for a few minutes. It’s the last time.’

Martin looked inquiringly at Neligan, who signified with a nod he was in no hurry. So Dennis’s wish was granted, and hands laid him down tenderly on the bed of rags. From that awful spot where he had dreamed and tossed he again assured us all, and called us to witness, that now at last, in a week or so anyway, the money long due to him would come, and then he’d do what he always promised and the barber would never want again. He shook us all by the hand, he put both his wasted arms about Martin’s neck, and they wept together.

Then, asseverating, coughing, twisting and turning, his eyes steady in pain as Mr. Neligan and the assembled friends begged him to pull himself together, he suffered us to lift him to his feet, and, with one arm about Martin’s neck and another about the jarvey’s, he was led from the room. But, begod, as soon as he reached the pavement, just as I was stooping to put one of his feet on the step of the cab, he gave a convulsive heave, sagged horribly, and passed out in a cascade of blood you’d never have believed was in him.

The body was hurriedly brought across to St. Michael’s Hospital a few perches away. A silly inquest was held, at which I myself officiated as foreman of an inarticulate jury. He was buried in Loughlinstown Paupers’ Plot, and once more the hat went round for the few petty trappings, including a Mass.

IV

And now comes what you’ll hardly believe. The burial was on a Thursday, a cold, wet, dismal autumn day. On the Saturday morning, a letter was delivered at the barber’s by a top-hatted emissary of the National Bank, who was haughty and disliked his surroundings. It so happened Martin was out, interviewing the shop’s bookie. The one or two clients in the shop questioned the tophatted man, but the messenger scorned to answer questions, and would n’t wait while they sent for Martin.

We were all summoned, for the poor and ill-educated fear letters. The missive was addressed to Dennis Darcy, Esq. Martin held it for a long time, and fingered his chin.

‘Open it,’ we urged him. ‘He can’t read it.’

‘Maybe it’s his money at last,’ says one, putting into words what we had n’t dared. ‘Open it, Martin.’

Martin smiles, and shakes his head, but he opens the letter. And, by the gonies, do you know, it was the money.

It was from the manager of the bank, a memorandum to the effect that the residue of the Darcy Estate of seventyfive hundred pounds, fourteen shillings, and sevenpence was now at Mr. Darcy’s disposal, free of all entail and encumbrance, and would Mr. Darcy sign the necessary documents.

It would be good to be able to tell you that Martin got the money. But he did n’t. No survivors could be found, poor Dennis had made no will, his oftrepeated intentions were valueless in law, the money went to the state, and the barber got what he had always expected — nothing at all.

We were most of us with him when the news came. We did our best to commiserate with him, saying what a shame it was.

‘If ever a man deserved the money, and earned it,’ says one, ‘it was yourself.’

But Martin did not seem disappointed. He looked over to the corner where Dennis used to lie.

‘I miss him, do ye know,’ was all he said.