By Chas. W. Chesnutt, Author of "Uncle Peter's House" and "A Tight Boot."
Copyrighted 1886 by S. S. McClure.
My wife has perhaps more good qualities than any woman I am acquainted with. I shall not attempt to enumerate them, but will merely say for the purposes of this story, that she has only one fault. In accordance, however, with the universal law of compensation, she possesses that one fault in such measure as to counter balance a great many of her virtues--she is the most suspicious of women.
Nature has given her a fairly symmetrical figure and a very pleasant face. Her features are not cast exactly in the ancient Greek mold, but are above the average in these degenerate days and on the whole she is a very good looking woman. She does not wear the best fabrics, but always dresses in good taste. Yet whenever she sees anyone looking at her intently, she at once becomes indignant because she imagines that her appearance is being criticised- that her dress does not fit smoothly or her hat is awry. She has a mortal terror of dogs, and canine beauty and fidelity have no existence for her, for in every dog she sees either an actual or a probable case of hydrophobia. The pleasure of rapid motion, which Dr. Johnson so long ago stamped with his approval, she never enjoys, for if the horse gets out of a walk, she thinks he is running away. Beggars and peddlers never come to our house but once, for in every one of them she sees a tramp or a sneak-thief. She has had a wicket put in the kitchen door, through which she can look at any one knocking, and transact any business she may have with strangers. She has even had iron bars put on the lower windows, and nearly badkrupted me once by putting burglar alarms and a telephone into the house- a rented house at that. In vain have I assured her that there is nothing in our humble establishment for the sake of which even an amateur burglar would risk his life or his liberty. She cannot be convinced that my silver watch, the plated teaspoons and the silver ice pitcher, which was the most valuable of her wedding presents, are not a standing temptation to thieves. We once, during the temporary illness attendant upon the birth of our first child, hired a girl to help with the housework but my wife kept such a close surveillance over Biddy, that that high spirited scion of Hibernian royalty left in a huff, forgetting to pay back the two week’s wages I had advanced her to buy a new bonnet.
On one occasion my venerable uncle, who lives in the country, and whom my wife had never met came to pay us a visit. He modestly went round to the back door, and knocked. My wife opened the wicket, gave him a hasty glance, jumped at the conclusion that he was dirty in my homeward meanderings, to convince her that a burglar had secreted himself under the lounge, with the intention of robbing the house when all the inmates were asleep.
Most women, under like circumstances, would have screamed or fainted, or in some way exhibited their emotions. But my wife, as I have said, was no ordinary woman, but possessed a firmness and strength of character which is by no means common, even among the sterner sex, and rarely met with in women. She did not scream or faint, but went quietly out of the room, ran up stairs to the library, closing the doors behind her softly, so as to prevent the noise from being heard below, and telephoned to the nearest police station, stating that a burglar was concealed in the home, and asking that a policeman be sent to arrest him. Then she got my revolver out of a bureau drawer, went down stairs, and sat down by the work table, within ten feet of the supposed burglar. I question whether one woman in a thousand would have been capable of as much.
In about five minutes a knocking was heard at the door, and m wife admitted two guardians of the peace- an Irishman and a negro.
“Whar is de bugglar, ma’m?” whispered the colored police man.
“Under the sofa in the next room,” she said, pointing to the open door of the sitting room.
“Go in front,” suggested the Irishman to the colored man, “and Oi’ll have the nippers ready whin ye’ve grabbed the spalpeen.”
They entered the room, and my wife’s nerves not being equal to any further tension; she fainted. When she came to the Irishman was holding a glass of water to her lips, and as she opened her eyes he said:
“Faith, mum, an’ we arrested ‘im. The spalpeen attempted to resist the officers of the law, and we clubbed him over the head a bit. It’ll make him slape the sounder tonight.”
My wife’s sister came in a few minutes later, and the two women sat and waited for me far into the night. My sister-in-law first went to bed, and my wife followed shortly after, but not to sleep, as she was alarmed at my nonappearance, and tormented with fears for my safety.
In the cold gray dawn I awoke from a troubled sleep. I was not at first sure that I was awake. My head felt queer, and as I discovered by passing my hand over it, was covered with contusions of various degrees of magnitude and tenderness. My clothes were torn and muddy, and taking me altogether, I looked as though I had been tossed by an angry bull or run over by a fire engine. I found myself in a small apartment with a narrow grated window and an iron door in the stone wall. It required no second glance to show me that I was in prison. I was, in fact, immured in a cell of the Central police station.
I endeavored to recall the events of the previous evening. I remembered, somewhat vaguely, all that took place up to the time when I went to sleep under the lounge. What happened afterwards I could recall only as a dream, in which, like a lost spirit, I had been tormented by devils, who clubbed me with telegraph poles and prodded me with redhot pitchforks.
But why was I here? Had I imbibed too freely of Spratt’s Kentucky whisky, and in a fit of alcoholic mania murdered my wife or one of the children, or the whole family? I pictured to myself the bloody corpses of my children, slain by a father’s ruthless hand. Had I gone out in my sleep and unwittingly committed arson or burglary, or some other heinous offense? or had I merely been run in for disorderly conduct? I gave it up, but my reflections were not pleasant while I waited for enlightenment.
About 8 o’ clock a turnkey put in an appearance with a plate of coarse food and a brown mug of what purported to be coffee, and shoved them through a wicket in the door of my cell.
“I say,” I anxiously inquired, “where am I, anyway?”
“You’re in a very fine place, compared with where you will be before long,” was the gruff response. “You’re in the Central station now, but the chances are that you will be in jail about two hours.”
This information was not very reassuring, “But what am I in for?” I asked.
“Burglary and resisting the officers. You know what you’re in for; the old thing, no doubt. Hurry up and eat your breakfast if you want any, for the court will open in half an hour, and your case is the first or second on the docket.”
I was horror-struck, crushed, almost annihilated. What a position. A life which so far had been at least honest; a reputation without a flaw, to be blasted in a single night by the well-meant but ill-timed hospitalily of Spratt. I am afraid that in the excitement of the moment I referred to Spratt in language which would not bear repetition.
But the all important question was, how to get out of the scrape, if possible. Of course a lawyer was the first thing needed, and, after some solicitations, I induced the turnkey, who was naturally inclined to consider me rather a desperate and irresponsible character, to send for an attorney of my acquaintance, on whose skill and secrecy I could rely.
I had hardly time to give my attorney a hasty and somewhat incoherent account of such events of the preceding evening as I could recollect, when the presiding genius of the institution reappeared, and called out in a sing-song tone:
“Number three, burglary and resisting officers,” and I was hurried up a flight of stone steps, through a long corridor and into a dingy court-room, where sat a somewhat austere looking judge with hair and whiskers slightly streaked with gray, and a mustache clipped straight across the upper lip. As the day was wet and disagreeable, the number of spectators was small, for which I was devoutly thankful.
“What is your name?” asked the court.
“John Smith,” whispered my legal adviser, and I unblushingly gave the time-honored response.
“You are charged with two offenses. The first charge against you is burglary. Are you guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty,” I answered, at the instance of my attorney.
“Mr. Bailiff, call Patrolman Sullivan.”
Patrolman Michael Sullivan, being first duly sworn, testified that on the evening before he had been on duty at the Forest street police station that at 11 o’ clock he had been detailed by Sergeant Donnelly, in response to a telephone call, to go with Patrolman Caesar Johnson to No. 375 Birch street and arrest a burglar who was concealed on the premises; that they had been admitted to the house by the front door, and had found the prisoner concealed or partly concealed under a lounge in the sitting room; that he was evidently under the influence of liquor at that time.
When I heard the number of the house I began to understand the situation, and the subsequent disclosure made it all clear to me. I remembered rolling under the lounge, and knowing my wife’s peculiar temperament, I saw that I had been the innocent victim of circumstances. I hurriedly whispered to my lawyer, and I told him how things were, a broad grin slowly diffused itself over his face. Interrupting the witness he exclaimed:
“May it please the court, this whole affair is a most ridiculous mistake, as I can convince your honor in two minutes private conversation, if your honor will grant me that.”
Our police court is not very ceremonious, and the coveted two minutes was granted, and in the adjacent witness room the court was soon informed that I had been arrested in my own house, on the complaint of my own wife. The judge was a little incredulous at first, but on the assurance of my attorney the cases against me were dismissed. The court gave me a few words of advice, which I received in a spirit of proper humility, and I was once more a free man.
I begged my attorney to call a hack for me, as an appearance on the street in my condition at that time would have occasioned some remark to say the least, even if some zealous policeman had not rearrested me on general principles. Even the hackman was suspicious and demanded his fare in advance. I paid it and was soon driven home
I slighted from the vehicle and ran up the steps as quickly as possible to avoid the eyes of inquisitive neighbors. A jerk on the doorbell brought my wife, who uttered a shriek of joy and literally threw herself upon me. In my weakened physical condition I was obliged to brace myself up against the wall in order to sustain the shock.
‘O Paul, Paul, my dear husband! where have you been? O my poor husband, hysterically how did you escape?’- and so on, kissing me while.
I calmly endured these demonstrations of joy for a few moments, and then putting her from me I said sternly:
Madam, behold the consequences of your folly. You have accomplished your work, In me you see a nervous wreck, a blasted reputation, blighted prospects and a ruined life. Unhand me, madam and I stalked as majestically as was possible under the circumstances, into the house.
I glanced hastily into the first mirror I came to, to see if my hair had not turned gray in a single night; and I cannot yet tell whether it was a relief or a disappointment to find that it had not. I shall always hereafter be a little skeptical about that time-honored literary expedient; for according to all the canons of fiction, my sufferings certainly out to have had that result.
While I was dressing my wounds and changing my clothes, my wife and I were mutually enlightened as to the events of the night. Of course I heaped reproaches on her head, and with such a pointed illustration at hand, I was not slow in pointing out to her the absurdity of that suspiciousness which was her one fault. In her mortification at my arrest and the possible social and financial consequences, she did not, as I feared she would, make any allusion to my inebriated condition at the time I came home, which was, I am reluctantly forced to admit, the primary cause of this most unfortunate affair. I need not here stop to say that she has mentioned it several times since then.
But this was not the end. Some sharp nosed reporter had learned of the arrest of a supposed burglar at No. 375 Birch street, the night before, and had the whole disgusting details dished up in the Morning Swill Barrel together with several circumstances which seemed to connect me with a notorious band of criminals. This brought the scavengers of the evening papers around to learn more about the matter, and in the course of their inquiries they learned that I had not been seen since leaving the hotel the night before. This fact was duly chronicled in the evening papers under the conspicuous title of a , “A Mysterious Disappearance;” and the theory was put forward that I had been put out of the way by the burglar before reaching home, in order to facilitate the commission of the burglary. When I hurried down to the office about three o’clock, I found the proprietor and the assistant bookkeeper deeply immersed in the accounts, and I knew from the look of relief that came into the proprietor’s face that my reappearance had lifted a load from his mind.
I remained closeted with him for half an hour. I made a clean breast of the matter, for I did not want to have him hear a garbled edition of it from some other source. He was a fair man, no too good to sympathize with the weakness of others, and the matter was overlooked. I took a week’s vacation while my wounds were healing and while a tailor was making me a new suit.
I am happy to state that the story never got out. My lawyer was discreet, and the wretched creature who had appeared in the police court would never have been recognized as the elegant Paul- My disappearance was accounted for to inquisitive acquaintances by a sudden summons to a neighboring town to attend the dying bed of my aged great grandfather.
As I remarked at the beginning of this story, which I publish as a warning to young married people, the most important result of the affair- and one which consoles me for all the annoyance and expense in the way of doctors, lawyers and tailor’s bills, has been a gradual change for the better in my wife’s disposition. At the present rate of improvement, I hope soon to see her one vice thoroughly eradicated, when I shall be able to present to the world that rarest of creatures--
To warn, to comfort and command”