Tony’s Wife by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
“Gimme fi’ cents worth o’ candy, please.” It was the little Jew girl who spoke, and Tony’s wife roused herself from her knitting to rise and count out the multi-hued candy which should go in exchange for the dingy nickel grasped in warm, damp fingers. Three long sticks, carefully wrapped in crispest brown paper, and a half dozen or more of pink candy fish for lagniappe, and the little Jew girl sped away in blissful contentment. Tony’s wife resumed her knitting with a stifled sigh until the next customer should come.
A low growl caused her to look up apprehensively. Tony himself stood beetle-browed and huge in the small doorway.
“Get up from there,” he muttered, “and open two dozen oysters right away; the Eliots want ’em.” His English was unaccented. It was long since he had seen Italy.
She moved meekly behind the counter, and began work on the thick shells. Tony stretched his long neck up the street.
“Mr. Tony, mama wants some charcoal.” The very small voice at his feet must have pleased him, for his black brows relaxed into a smile, and he poked the little one’s chin with a hard, dirty finger, as he emptied the ridiculously small bucket of charcoal into the child’s bucket, and gave a banana for lagniappe.
The crackling of shells went on behind, and a stifled sob arose as a bit of sharp edge cut into the thin, worn fingers that clasped the knife.
“Hurry up there, will you?” growled the black brows; “the Eliots are sending for the oysters.”
She deftly strained and counted them, and, after wiping her fingers, resumed her seat, and took up the endless crochet work, with her usual stifled sigh.
Tony and his wife had always been in this same little queer old shop on Prytania Street, at least to the memory of the oldest inhabitant in the neighbourhood. When or how they came, or how they stayed, no one knew; it was enough that they were there, like a sort of ancestral fixture to the street. The neighbourhood was fine enough to look down upon these two tumble-down shops at the corner, kept by Tony and Mrs. Murphy, the grocer. It was a semi-fashionable locality, far up-town, away from the old-time French quarter. It was the sort of neighbourhood where millionaires live before their fortunes are made and fashionable, high-priced private schools flourish, where the small cottages are occupied by aspiring school-teachers and choir-singers. Such was this locality, and you must admit that it was indeed a condescension to tolerate Tony and Mrs. Murphy.
He was a great, black-bearded, hoarse-voiced, six-foot specimen of Italian humanity, who looked in his little shop and on the prosaic pavement of Prytania Street somewhat as Hercules might seem in a modern drawing-room. You instinctively thought of wild mountain-passes, and the gleaming dirks of bandit contadini in looking at him. What his last name was, no one knew. Someone had maintained once that he had been christened Antonio Malatesta, but that was unauthentic, and as little to be believed as that other wild theory that her name was Mary.
She was meek, pale, little, ugly, and German. Altogether part of his arms and legs would have very decently made another larger than she. Her hair was pale and drawn in sleek, thin tightness away from a pinched, pitiful face, whose dull cold eyes hurt you, because you knew they were trying to mirror sorrow, and could not because of their expressionless quality. No matter what the weather or what her other toilet, she always wore a thin little shawl of dingy brick-dust hue about her shoulders. No matter what the occasion or what the day, she always carried her knitting with her, and seldom ceased the incessant twist, twist of the shining steel among the white cotton meshes. She might put down the needles and lace into the spool-box long enough to open oysters, or wrap up fruit and candy, or count out wood and coal into infinitesimal portions, or do her housework; but the knitting was snatched with avidity at the first spare moment, and the worn, white, blue-marked fingers, half enclosed in kid-glove stalls for protection, would writhe and twist in and out again. Little girls just learning to crochet borrowed their patterns from Tony’s wife, and it was considered quite a mark of advancement to have her inspect a bit of lace done by eager, chubby fingers. The ladies in larger houses, whose husbands would be millionaires some day, bought her lace, and gave it to their servants for Christmas presents.
As for Tony, when she was slow in opening his oysters or in cooking his red beans and spaghetti, he roared at her, and prefixed picturesque adjectives to her lace, which made her hide it under her apron with a fearsome look in her dull eyes.
He hated her in a lusty, roaring fashion, as a healthy beefy boy hates a sick cat and torments it to madness. When she displeased him, he beat her, and knocked her frail form on the floor. The children could tell when this had happened. Her eyes would be red, and there would be blue marks on her face and neck. “Poor Mrs. Tony,” they would say, and nestle close to her. Tony did not roar at her for petting them, perhaps, because they spent money on the multi-hued candy in glass jars on the shelves.
Her mother appeared upon the scene once, and stayed a short time; but Tony got drunk one day and beat her because she ate too much, and she disappeared soon after. Whence she came and where she departed, no one could tell, not even Mrs. Murphy, the Pauline Pry and Gazette of the block.
Tony had gout, and suffered for many days in roaring helplessness, the while his foot, bound and swathed in many folds of red flannel, lay on the chair before him. In proportion as his gout increased and he bawled from pure physical discomfort, she became light-hearted, and moved about the shop with real, brisk cheeriness. He could not hit her then without such pain that after one or two trials he gave up in disgust.
So the dull years had passed, and life had gone on pretty much the same for Tony and the German wife and the shop. The children came on Sunday evenings to buy the stick candy, and on week-days for coal and wood. The servants came to buy oysters for the larger houses, and to gossip over the counter about their employers. The little dry woman knitted, and the big man moved lazily in and out in his red flannel shirt, exchanged politics with the tailor next door through the window, or lounged into Mrs. Murphy’s bar and drank fiercely. Some of the children grew up and moved away, and other little girls came to buy candy and eat pink lagniappe fishes, and the shop still thrived.
One day Tony was ill, more than the mummied foot of gout, or the wheeze of asthma; he must keep his bed and send for the doctor.
She clutched his arm when he came, and pulled him into the tiny room.
“Is it–is it anything much, doctor?” she gasped.
Aesculapius shook his head as wisely as the occasion would permit. She followed him out of the room into the shop.
“Do you–will he get well, doctor?”
Aesculapius buttoned up his frock coat, smoothed his shining hat, cleared his throat, then replied oracularly,
“Madam, he is completely burned out inside. Empty as a shell, madam, empty as a shell. He cannot live, for he has nothing to live on.”
As the cobblestones rattled under the doctor’s equipage rolling leisurely up Prytania Street, Tony’s wife sat in her chair and laughed,–laughed with a hearty joyousness that lifted the film from the dull eyes and disclosed a sparkle beneath.
The drear days went by, and Tony lay like a veritable Samson shorn of his strength, for his voice was sunken to a hoarse, sibilant whisper, and his black eyes gazed fiercely from the shock of hair and beard about a white face. Life went on pretty much as before in the shop; the children paused to ask how Mr. Tony was, and even hushed the jingles on their bell hoops as they passed the door. Red-headed Jimmie, Mrs. Murphy’s nephew, did the hard jobs, such as splitting wood and lifting coal from the bin; and in the intervals between tending the fallen giant and waiting on the customers, Tony’s wife sat in her accustomed chair, knitting fiercely, with an inscrutable smile about her purple compressed mouth.
Then John came, introducing himself, serpent-wise, into the Eden of her bosom.
John was Tony’s brother, huge and bluff too, but fair and blond, with the beauty of Northern Italy. With the same lack of race pride which Tony had displayed in selecting his German spouse, John had taken unto himself Betty, a daughter of Erin, aggressive, powerful, and cross-eyed. He turned up now, having heard of this illness, and assumed an air of remarkable authority at once.
A hunted look stole into the dull eyes, and after John had departed with blustering directions as to Tony’s welfare, she crept to his bedside timidly.
“Tony,” she said,–“Tony, you are very sick.”
An inarticulate growl was the only response.
“Tony, you ought to see the priest; you mustn’t go any longer without taking the sacrament.”
The growl deepened into words.
“Don’t want any priest; you ‘re always after some snivelling old woman’s fuss. You and Mrs. Murphy go on with your church; it won’t make YOU any better.”
She shivered under this parting shot, and crept back into the shop. Still the priest came next day.
She followed him in to the bedside and knelt timidly.
“Tony,” she whispered, “here’s Father Leblanc.”
Tony was too languid to curse out loud; he only expressed his hate in a toss of the black beard and shaggy mane.
“Tony,” she said nervously, “won’t you do it now? It won’t take long, and it will be better for you when you go–Oh, Tony, don’t–don’t laugh. Please, Tony, here’s the priest.”
But the Titan roared aloud: “No; get out. Think I’m a-going to give you a chance to grab my money now? Let me die and go to hell in peace.”
Father Leblanc knelt meekly and prayed, and the woman’s weak pleadings continued,–
“Tony, I’ve been true and good and faithful to you. Don’t die and leave me no better than before. Tony, I do want to be a good woman once, a real-for-true married woman. Tony, here’s the priest; say yes.” And she wrung her ringless hands.
“You want my money,” said Tony, slowly, “and you sha’n’t have it, not a cent; John shall have it.”
Father Leblanc shrank away like a fading spectre. He came next day and next day, only to see re-enacted the same piteous scene,–the woman pleading to be made a wife ere death hushed Tony’s blasphemies, the man chuckling in pain-racked glee at the prospect of her bereaved misery. Not all the prayers of Father Leblanc nor the wailings of Mrs. Murphy could alter the determination of the will beneath the shock of hair; he gloated in his physical weakness at the tenacious grasp on his mentality.
“Tony,” she wailed on the last day, her voice rising to a shriek in its eagerness, “tell them I’m your wife; it’ll be the same. Only say it, Tony, before you die!”
He raised his head, and turned stiff eyes and gibbering mouth on her; then, with one chill finger pointing at John, fell back dully and heavily.
They buried him with many honours by the Society of Italia’s Sons. John took possession of the shop when they returned home, and found the money hidden in the chimney corner.
As for Tony’s wife, since she was not his wife after all, they sent her forth in the world penniless, her worn fingers clutching her bundle of clothes in nervous agitation, as though they regretted the time lost from knitting.