In behalf of Sir Walter's soothing plant let us look into the case of
They were constructing the Speedway along the west bank of the Harlem
River. The grub-boat of Dennis Corrigan, sub-contractor, was moored to a
tree on the bank. Twenty-two men belonging to the little green island
toiled there at the sinew-cracking labour. One among them, who wrought in
the kitchen of the grub-boat was of the race of the Goths. Over them all
stood the exorbitant Corrigan, harrying them like the captain of a galley
crew. He paid them so little that most of the gang, work as they might, e
arned little more than food and tobacco; many of them were in debt to
him. Corrigan boarded them all in the grub-boat, and gave them good grub,
for he got it back in work.
Martin Burney was furthest behind of all. He was a little man, all
muscles and hands and feet, with a gray-red, stubbly beard. He was too
light for the work, which would have glutted the capacity of a steam
The work was hard. Besides that, the banks of the river were humming with
mosquitoes. As a child in a dark room fixes his regard on the pale light
of a comforting window, these toilers watched the sun that brought around
the one hour of the day that tasted less bitter. After the sundown supper
they would huddle together on the river bank, and send the mosquitoes
whining and eddying back from the malignant puffs of twenty-three reeking
pipes. Thus socially banded against the foe, they wrenched out of the
hour a few well-smoked drops from the cup of joy.
Each week Burney grew deeper in debt. Corrigan kept a small stock of
goods on the boat, which he sold to the men at prices that brought him no
loss. Burney was a good customer at the tobacco counter. One sack when
he went to work in the morning and one when he came in at night, so much
was his account swelled daily. Burney was something of a smoker. Yet it
was not true that he ate his meals with a pipe in his mouth, which had
been said of him. The little man was not discontented. He had plenty to
eat, plenty of tobacco, and a tyrant to curse; so why should not he, an
Irishman, be well satisfied?
One morning as he was starting with the others for work he stopped at the
pine counter for his usual sack of tobacco.
"There's no more for ye," said Corrigan. "Your account's closed. Ye are
a losing investment. No, not even tobaccy, my son. No more tobaccy on
account. If ye want to work on and eat, do so, but the smoke of ye has
all ascended. 'Tis my advice that ye hunt a new job."
"I have no tobaccy to smoke in my pipe this day, Mr. Corrigan," said
Burney, not quite understanding that such a thing could happen to him.
"Earn it," said Corrigan, "and then buy it."
Burney stayed on. He knew of no other job. At first he did not realize
that tobacco had got to be his father and mother, his confessor and
sweetheart, and wife and child.
For three days he managed to fill his pipe from the other men's sacks, and
then they shut him off, one and all. They told him, rough but friendly,
that of all things in the world tobacco must be quickest forthcoming to a
fellow-man desiring it, but that beyond the immediate temporary need
requisition upon the store of a comrade is pressed with great danger to
Then the blackness of the pit arose and filled the heart of Burney.
Sucking the corpse of his deceased dudheen, he staggered through his
duties with his barrowful of stones and dirt, feeling for the first time
that the curse of Adam was upon him. Other men bereft of a pleasure might
have recourse to other delights, but Burney had only two comforts in
life. One was his pipe, the other was an ecstatic hope that there would
be no Speedways to build on the other side of Jordan.
At meal times he would let the other men go first into the grub-boat, and
then he would go down on his hands and knees, grovelling fiercely upon the
ground where they had been sitting, trying to find some stray crumbs of
tobacco. Once he sneaked down the river bank and filled his pipe with
dead willow leaves. At the first whiff of the smoke he spat in the
direction of the boat and put the finest curse he knew on Corrigan -- one
that began with the first Corrigans born on earth and ended with the
Corrigans that shall hear the trumpet of Gabriel blow. He began to hate
Corrigan with all his shaking nerves and soul. Even murder occurred to
him in a vague sort of way. Five days he went without the taste of
tobacco -- he who had smoked all day and thought the night misspent in
which he had not awakened for a pipeful or two under the bedclothes.
One day a man stopped at the boat to say that there was work to be had in
the Bronx Park, where a large number of labourers were required in making
After dinner Burney walked thirty yards down the river bank away from the
maddening smell of the others' pipes. He sat down upon a stone. He was
thinking he would set out for the Bronx. At least he could earn tobacco
there. What if the books did say he owed Corrigan? Any man's work was
worth his keep. But then he hated to go without getting even with the
hard-hearted screw who had put his pipe out. Was there any way to do it?
Softly stepping among the clods came Tony, he of the race of Goths, who
worked in the kitchen. He grinned at Burney's elbow, and that unhappy
man, full of race animosity and holding urbanity in contempt, growled at
him: "What d'ye want, ye -- Dago?"
Tony also contained a grievance -- and a plot. He, too, was a Corrigan
hater, and had been primed to see it in others.
"How you like-a Mr. Corrigan?" he asked. "You think-a him a nice-a man?"
"To hell with 'm," he said. "May his liver turn to water, and the bones
of him crack in the cold of his heart. May dog fennel grow upon his
ancestors' graves, and the grandsons of his children be born without
eyes. May whiskey turn to clabber in his mouth, and every time he sneezes
may he blister the soles of his feet. And the smoke of his pipe -- may it
make his eyes water, and the drops fall on the grass that his cows eat and
poison the butter that he spreads on his bread."
Though Tony remained a stranger to the beauties of this imagery, he
gathered from it the conviction that it was sufficiently anti-Corrigan in
its tendency. So, with the confidence of a fellow-conspirator, he sat by
Burney upon the stone and unfolded his plot.
It was very simple in design. Every day after dinner it was Corrigan's
habit to sleep for an hour in his bunk. At such times it was the duty of
the cook and his helper, Tony, to leave the boat so that no noise might
disturb the autocrat. The cook always spent this hour in walking
exercise. Tony's plan was this: After Corrigan should be asleep he (Tony)
and Burney would cut the mooring ropes that held the boat to the shore.
Tony lacked the nerve to do the deed alone. Then the awkward boat would
swing out into a swift current and surely overturn against a rock there
"Come on and do it," said Burney. "If the back of ye aches from the lick
he gave ye as the pit of me stomach does for the taste of a bit of smoke,
we can't cut the ropes too quick."
"All a-right," said Tony. "But better wait 'bout-a ten minute more.
Give-a Corrigan plenty time get good-a sleep."
They waited, sitting upon the stone. The rest of the men were at work out
of sight around a bend in the road. Everything would have gone well --
except, perhaps, with Corrigan, had not Tony been moved to decorate the
plot with its conventional accompaniment. He was of dramatic blood, and
perhaps he intuitively divined the appendage to villainous machinations as
prescribed by the stage. He pulled from his shirt bosom a long, black,
beautiful, venomous cigar, and handed it to Burney.
"You like-a smoke while we wait?" he asked.
Burney clutched it and snapped off the end as a terrier bites at a rat.
He laid it to his lips like a long-lost sweetheart. When the smoke began
to draw he gave a long, deep sigh, and the bristles of his gray-red
moustache curled down over the cigar like the talons of an eagle. Slowly
the red faded from the whites of his eyes. He fixed his gaze dreamily
upon the hills across the river. The minutes came and went.
"'Bout time to go now," said Tony. "That damn-a Corrigan he be in the
reever very quick."
Burney started out of his trance with a grunt. He turned his head and
gazed with a surprised and pained severity at his accomplice. He took the
cigar partly from his mouth, but sucked it back again immediately, chewed
it lovingly once or twice, and spoke, in virulent puffs, from the corner
of his mouth:
"What is it, ye yaller haythen? Would ye lay contrivances against the
enlightened races of the earth, ye instigator of illegal crimes? Would ye
seek to persuade Martin Burney into the dirty tricks of an indecent Dago?
Would ye be for murderin' your benefactor, the good man that gives ye food
and work? Take that, ye punkin-coloured assassin!"
The torrent of Burney's indignation carried with it bodily assault. The
toe of his shoe sent the would-be cutter of ropes tumbling from his seat.
Tony arose and fled. His vendetta he again relegated to the files of
things that might have been. Beyond the boat he fled and away-away; he
was afraid to remain.
Burney, with expanded chest, watched his late coplotter disappear. Then
he, too, departed, setting his face in the direction of the Bronx.
In his wake was a rank and pernicious trail of noisome smoke that brought
peace to his heart and drove the birds from the roadside into the deepest