Somebody’s Mother by William Dean Howells
The figure of a woman sat crouched forward on one of the lowermost steps of the brownstone dwelling which was keeping a domestic tradition in a street mostly gone to shops and small restaurants and local express-offices. The house was black behind its closed shutters, and the woman remained sitting there because no one could have come out of its door for a year past to hunt her away. The neighborhood policeman faltered in going by, and then he kept on. The three people who came out of the large, old-fashioned hotel, half a block off, on their way for dinner to a French _table d’hote_ which they had heard of, stopped and looked at the woman. They were a father and his son and daughter, and it was something like a family instinct that controlled them, in their pause before the woman crouching on the steps.
It was the early dusk of a December day, and the day was very chilly. “She seems to be sick or something,” the father vaguely surmised. “Or asleep.”
The three looked at the woman, but they did nothing for a moment. They would rather have gone on, but they waited to see if anything would happen to release them from the spell that they seemed to have laid upon themselves. They were conditional New-Yorkers of long sojourn, and it was from no apparent motive that the son wore evening dress, which his unbuttoned overcoat discovered, and an opera-hat. He would not have dressed so for that problematical French _table d’hote_; probably he was going on later to some society affair. He now put in effect the father’s impulse to go closer and look at the woman.
“She seems to be asleep,” he reported.
“Shouldn’t you think she would take cold? She will get her death there. Oughtn’t we to do something?” the daughter asked, but she left it to the father, and he said:
“Probably somebody will come by.”
“That we could leave her to?” the daughter pursued.
“We could do that without waiting,” the son commented.
“Well, yes,” the father assented; but they did not go on. They waited, helplessly, and then somebody came by. It was a young girl, not very definite in the dusk, except that she was unmistakably of the working class; she was simply dressed, though with the New York instinct for clothes. Their having stopped there seemed to stay her involuntarily, and after a glance in the direction of their gaze she asked the daughter:
“Is she sick, do you think?”
“We don’t know what’s the matter. But she oughtn’t to stay there.”
Something velvety in the girl’s voice had made its racial quality sensible to the ear; as she went up to the crouching woman and bent forward over her and then turned to them, a street lamp threw its light on her face, and they saw that she was a light shade of colored girl.
“She seems to be sleeping.”
“Perhaps,” the son began, “she’s not quite–” But he did not go on.
The girl looked round at the others and suggested, “She must be somebody’s mother!”
The others all felt abashed in their several sorts and degrees, but in their several sorts and degrees they all decided that there was something romantic, sentimental, theatrical in the girl’s words, like something out of some cheap story-paper story.
The father wondered if that kind of thing was current among that kind of people. He had a sort of esthetic pleasure in the character and condition expressed by the words.
“Well, yes,” he said, “if she has children, or has had.” The girl looked at him uncertainly, and then he added, “But, of course–”
The son went up to the woman again, and asked: “Aren’t you well? Can we do anything for you? It won’t do to stay here, you know.” The woman only made a low murmur, and he said to his sister, “Suppose we get her up.”
His sister did not come forward promptly, and the colored girl said, “I’ll help you.”
She took one arm of the woman and the son took the other, and they lifted her, without her connivance, to her feet and kept her on them. Then they walked her down the steps. On the level below she showed taller than either of them; she was bundled up in different incoherent wraps; her head was muffled, and she wore a battered bonnet at an involuntary slant.
“I don’t know exactly what we shall do with her,” the son said.
“We ought to get her home somehow,” the daughter said.
The father proposed nothing, but the colored girl said, “If we keep walking her along, we’ll come to a policeman and we can–”
A hoarse rumble of protest came from the muffled head of the woman, and the girl put her ear closer. “Want to go home? Well, the policeman will take you. We don’t know where you live, and we haven’t the time.”
The woman seemed to have nothing to say further, and they began walking her westward; the colored girl supported her on one hand, and the son, in his evening dress and opera-hat, on the other.
The daughter followed in a vague anxiety, but the father went along, enjoying the anomaly, and happy in his relish of that phrase, “She must be somebody’s mother.” It now sounded to him like a catch from one of those New York songs, popular in the order of life where the mother represents what is best and holiest. He recalled a vaudeville ballad with the refrain of “A Boy’s Best Friend is his Mother,” which, when he heard it in a vaudeville theater, threatened the gallery floor under the applauding feet of the frenzied audience. Probably this colored girl belonged to that order of life; he wished he could know her social circumstance and what her outlook on the greater world might be. She seemed a kind creature, poor thing, and he respected her. “Somebody’s mother”–he liked that.
They all walked westward, aimlessly, except that the _table d’hote_ where they had meant to dine was in that direction; they had heard of it as an amusingly harmless French place, and they were fond of such mild adventures.
The old woman contributed nothing to the definition of their progress. She stumbled and mumbled along, but between Seventh Avenue and Eighth she stubbornly arrested her guardians. “She says”–the colored girl translated some obscure avowal across her back–“she says she wants to go home, and she lives up in Harlem.”
“Oh, well, that’s good,” the father said, with an optimistic amiability. “We’d better help walk her across to Ninth Avenue and put her on a car, and tell the conductor where to let her off.”
He was not helping walk her himself, but he enjoyed his son’s doing it in evening dress and opera-hat, with that kind colored girl on the other side of the mother; the composition was agreeably droll. The daughter did not like it, and she cherished the ideal of a passing policeman to take the old woman in charge.
No policeman passed, though great numbers of other people met them without apparently finding anything noticeable in the spectacle which their group presented. Among the crowds going and coming on the avenues which they crossed scarcely any turned to look at them, or was moved by the sense of anything odd in them.
The old woman herself did nothing to attract public notice till they were midway between Seventh and Eighth avenues. She mumbled something from time to time which the colored girl interpreted to the rest as her continued wish to go home. She was now clearer about her street and number. The girl, as if after question of her own generous spirit, said she did not see how _she_ could go with her; she was expected at home herself.
“Oh, you won’t have to go with her; we’ll just put her aboard the Ninth Avenue car,” the father encouraged her. He would have encouraged any one; he was enjoying the whole affair.
At a certain moment, for no apparent reason, the mother decided to sit down on a door-step. It proved to be the door-step of a house where from time to time colored people–sometimes of one sex, sometimes of another–went in or came out. The door seemed to open directly into a large room where dancing and dining were going on concurrently. At a long table colored people sat eating, and behind their chairs on both sides of the room and at the ends of the table colored couples were waltzing.
The effect was the more curious because, except for some almost inaudible music, the scene passed in silence. Those who were eating were not visibly incommoded by those revolving at their backs; the waltzers turned softly around and around, untempted by the table now before them, now behind them. When some of the diners or dancers came out, they stumbled over the old woman on the door-step without minding or stopping to inquire. Those outside, when they went in, fell over her with like equanimity and joined the strange company within.
The father murmured to himself the lines,
“‘Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody–‘”
with a remote trouble of mind because the words were at once so graphic and yet so imperfectly applicable. The son and daughter exchanged a silent wonder as long as they could bear it; then the daughter asked the colored girl:
“What is it?”
“It’s a boarding-house,” the girl answered, simply.
“Oh,” the daughter said.
Sounds of more decided character than before now came from the figure on the door-step.
“She seems to be saying something,” the daughter suggested in general terms. “What is she saying?” she asked the colored girl.
The girl stooped over and listened. Then she answered, “She’s swearing.”
“Swearing? What about? Whom is she swearing at?”
“At me, I reckon. She says, why don’t I take her home.”
“Well, why doesn’t she get up, then?”
“She says she won’t.”
“We can’t carry her to the car,” the daughter noted.
“Oh, why not?” the father merrily demanded.
The daughter turned to her brother. They were both very respectful to their father, but the son agreed with his sister when she said: “Papa would joke about anything. But this has passed a joke. We must get this old thing up and start her off.”
Upon experiment they could not get the old thing up, even with the help of the kind colored girl. They had to let her be, and the colored girl reported, after stooping over her again, “She says she can’t walk.”
“She walked here well enough,” the daughter said.
“Not _very_ well,” the father amended.
His daughter did not notice him. She said to her brother: “Well, now you must go and find a policeman. It’s strange none has gone by.”
It was also strange that still their group remained without attracting the notice of the passers. Nobody stopped to speak or even stare; perhaps the phenomena of that boarding-house had ceased to have surprises for the public of the neighborhood, and they in their momentary relation to it would naturally be without interest.
The brother went away, leaving his sister with their father and that kind colored creature in charge of the old woman, now more and more quiescent on the door-step; she had ceased to swear, or even to speak. The brother came back after a time that seemed long, and said that he could not find a policeman anywhere, and at the same moment, as if the officer had been following at his heels, a policeman crossed the street from just behind him.
The daughter ran after him, and asked if he would not come and look at the old woman who had so steadfastly remained in their charge, and she rapidly explained.
“Sure, lady,” the policeman said, and he turned from crossing the street and went up to the old woman. He laid his hand on her shoulder, and his touch seemed magical. “What’s the matter? Can’t you stand up?” She stood up as if at something familiar in the voice of authority. “Where do you live?” She gave an address altogether different from that she had given before–a place on the next avenue, within a block or two. “You’d better go home. You can walk, can’t you?”
“I can walk well enough,” she answered in a tone of vexation, and she made her word good by walking quite actively away in the direction she had given.
The kind colored girl became a part of the prevalent dark after refusing the thanks of the others. The daughter then fervently offered them to the policeman.
“That’s all right, lady,” he said, and the incident had closed except for her emotion at seeing him enter a police-station precisely across the street, where they could have got a dozen policemen in a moment.
“Well,” the father said, “we might as well go to our French _table d’hote_ now.”
“Oh,” the son said, as if that reminded him, “the place seems to be shut.”
“Well, then, we might as well go back to the hotel,” the father decided. “I dare say we shall do quite as well there.”
On the way the young people laughed over the affair and their escape from it, especially at the strange appearance and disappearance of the kind colored girl, with her tag of sentiment, and at the instant compliance of the old woman with the suggestion of the policeman.
The father followed, turning the matter over in his mind. Did mere motherhood hallow that old thing to the colored girl and her sort and condition? Was there a superstition of motherhood among such people which would endear this disreputable old thing to their affection and reverence? Did such people hold mothers in tenderer regard than people of larger means? Would a mother in distress or merely embarrassment instantly appeal to their better nature as a case of want or sickness in the neighborhood always appealed to their compassion? Would her family now welcome the old thing home from her aberration more fondly than the friends of one who had arrived in a carriage among them in a good street? But, after all, how little one knew of other people! How little one knew of one self, for that matter! How next to nothing one knew of Somebody’s Mother! It did not necessarily follow from anything they knew of her that she was a mother at all. Her motherhood might be the mere figment of that kind colored girl’s emotional fancy. She might be Nobody’s Mother.
When it came to this the father laughed, too. Why, anyhow, were mothers more sacred than fathers? If they had found an old man in that old woman’s condition on those steps, would that kind colored girl have appealed to them in his behalf as Somebody’s Father?