The Avenger of Her Sex: 1890

 straphangers

THE AVENGER OF HER SEX.

It was a day of perspiration. Heat and humidity had joined forces early in the morning, and before noon humanity was routed, and waved the wilted handkerchief of capitulation.

A young man entered a down-town elevated station as though he owned it. No one who watched him would have been surprised had he displayed a night-key to the ticket-peddler’s booth; but he did not. He haughtily cast down the half-dime of passage and joined the limp and draggled wayfarers without.

Had he not been so aggressive in his bearing, he would have been insignificant. He was very slight; he was short; he was narrow-chested. His shoulders were drooping continuations of his arms. Sparse light hair tanned his upper lip, which was bracketed by a supercilious smile. Through gold-rimmed glasses his little eyes squinted inquisitively. His light summer coat floated unbuttoned in the breeze, as if enlarging his presence. His waist was girded by a broad, black sash.

Arthur Chumpney was his name—Mr. Chumpney, of New York City, as he often proudly proclaimed it. Time had been, and not four years since, when Artie Chumpney, Deacon Chumpney’s lad, at Chumpney’s Four Corners, Delaware County, had sufficiently individualized him.

But a maternal uncle had wrought a wondrous change. He had transplanted this rural squash, and behold! a city pickle had come forth. A real estate agent’s clerk has to be spry; and ere the warts had faded from his hands Arthur thought that he “knew it all.” No one could “do” him; he was playing ball every time!

Yet at the “Corners” he had been deemed “a pore-sperited coot that never could do nuthin’ an’ never would.” “He’s afeard of his own shadder; an’ if you speak up peart or suddent to him, he blushes awful, he’s so ashamed of hisself.”

Strange, that environment should so affect one’s nature. And yet, in the menagerie trade, a leopard is a leopard the world over, and must be sold for spot cash.

Arthur entered a car and took the only unoccupied seat. It was beside a woman who was nearer to caps than to frizzes, and who knew it. There was no artificial girlishness about her. She was gaunt and dark and sharp-featured. Her nose was long and piercing, like a double-barreled probe; her eyes asked a question, and then answered it definitely; her arms were anthropoid in length and articulation; her hands, which mittens caressed, made one crawl to look at them. In one of them she bore a reticule. Her brow was bound by a green veil. She alone seemed unconscious of the weather. Heat and humidity, when they had encountered her, had shrugged their shoulders dubiously, and had passed by on the other side.

She gave Arthur one penetrating glance, which her nose seemed to say was quite sufficient. “Humph!” she ejaculated, and it wrinkled contemptuously.

So, too, he had looked but once to be satisfied. “A curious old jay,” he muttered to himself, as he twirled the sparse hairs into skeleton shape. He lolled as comfortably and as indolently as the sticky seat would permit, his back half turned against her, his legs outstretched into the aisle, his open coat flapping upon either side. He adjusted his glasses, and taking a newspaper from his pocket began to assimilate the gossip of the day.

The train rolled, it rattled, it squeaked, it stopped. There was an influx of femininity; heated, wearied, glowing femininity, clad in the calico of labor and bearing the basket of economy. They swayed and jolted through the aisle; they hung on the straps, like so many Mrs. Surratts, as the squeaking ceased and the rolling and rattling recommenced. Here and there men, keen and alert in expression, yet whose eyes said that business and kindliness were not antagonistic, sprang to their feet with natural chivalry. But Arthur did not move. One glance he cast, to see if he might detect the bonnet of luxury. One glance sufficed. He stretched himself yet more arrogantly and continued his educational process.

“Mind your eyes!” he angrily squealed at a wan woman, with a shawl and a baby mutually involved, who had stumbled over his feet. “Do you think that patent-leathers grow on trees?”

The wan woman clung more closely to the indeterminate bundle, but answered not a word. She was used to unkind speech; it reminded her of home and husband.

But she of the gaunt elbow upon his left flushed and bustled as though heat and humidity had regained courage, and had actually attacked her. She prolonged a finger; she tapped Arthur on the shoulder.

“Young man,” she cried in buzz-saw tones, “aren’t you going to give this poor woman your seat?”

He stared in amazement over his glasses.

“I never do,” he drawled; “not if I know myself. What do you take me for? Stand yourself, if you want to; you ought to know how by this time. Ah, no; I’ve cut my eye-teeth, old lady.”

He lolled more extendedly than before; his coat flapped more widely. His eyes and nose and chin were eagerly engaged with the details of a fashionable wedding. He saw, he heard nothing.

The indignant female gave a snort of defiance, it may be of warning. “He never does!” she muttered. “I couldn’t find a better subject if I went to Harlem.”

One deft, rapid motion did that spatulated hand make from the reticule to the side-pocket of the flapping coat of the unconscious Arthur, who was mentally personating the best man. Then she sprang to her feet and gave her seat to the wan woman, the shawl, and the baby.

More jostlings, more scramblings, more rollings. Heat and humidity returned from the pursuit and ravaged the bodies of the vanquished. Arthur still stretched himself and read. The keen, alert business men swayed easily with the motion; the wearied women exhibited the centrifugal force of each curve. The gaunt and angular female, with one hand upraised grasping the strap, stood as rigid as the Goddess of Liberty enlightening the world.

But as the rolling intermittently slackened and the squeaking increased, she suddenly released her hold and fumbled through her reticule; then she uttered a series of shrill screams, which startled the alert business men, the baby in the shawl, the gyrating women, and the locomotive, which hitherto had deemed itself proficient in that line. It recalled Arthur from the wedding breakfast, where he had been doing the elegant to an American duchess.

“Oh, I’m robbed, I’m robbed!” she cried. “And by that bold, bad man.” And she pointed full the doubly-articulated finger of accusation at the agitated Mr. Chumpney.

Immediately there was a confused din which drowned the squeaking of a stopping at a station. The alert business men, the guards, the station-men pressed forward. The debilitated women screamed surprisingly, and dropped their baskets. The beshawled baby doubled its fists, grew red in the face, like the sun, and yelled. The angular female still vociferated in tin-horn tones, “It’s him! Don’t let him escape! Catch him, kill him, the rascal, the thief! Oh, my precious earnings!”

“What have you lost, madam?” inquired one of the aforesaid representatives of commercial activity.

“My all! My pocket-book! Oh, don’t let him escape!” she incessantly piped, like a siren in a fog.

“Come out of this!” shouted the guard, laying a heavy hand on Arthur’s shoulder.

“Oh, the rascal,” “the blackguard.” “the thievish jude!” “Search him!” “Oh, he’s a slick article!” resounded upon all sides.

Despite heat and humidity the excited crowd surged through the aisles and out upon the platform, following the important guard, the trembling Arthur, the spare, swarthy, and sibilant female, and unanimously crying, “Search him! Search him!”

The guard plunged his grimy hand into the pocket of the widely-flapping coat and drew forth a purse. He held it above the pressing throng.

“That’s mine; my all!” the virgin accuser cried, reaching her simian finger an amazing distance toward it.

“Excuse me , madam,” interposed the guard. “That must go with this ’ere bloke to court, and you with him. There will be a perlice along presently. I seed one come out of the saloon beyant.” And sure enough, a blue-coated refugee from English tyranny now forced his vigorous shoulders through the crowd.

“Phat’s this? Thavin’, is it? I know yez well,” he ejaculated, grasping the collar of the widely-flapping coat. “Come along wid me!”

He took the purse in his other hand, which flourished the club of authority. He dragged his victim through the jeering throng, down the stairs, followed by the angular female, who stalked after them like one of the Fates released temporarily from the thread factory.

The squeaking increased and dwindled, the rolling began. Attended by heat and humidity, the alert business men, the wan woman, the baby and the shawl hastened away, as if dreading the vengeance of a score of irate trains, which had been thus delayed by crime and its punishment.

In the meantime, what had become of the arrogance which had so completely enveloped Arthur upon his entrance into the train? At the first word of accusation it had faded away like a tissue-paper suit in a tropical storm. The four years rolled back. Again he was a barefooted boy at the corners, afraid of his own shadow, blushing for very shame of his own existence. He could not speak; his teeth chattered from trembling; his face flamed as though these fork-like fingers had raked it; the horns of his immaculate collar drooped, starchless like his backbone. His broad, black sash seemed an emblem of mourning for his own demise. He shrank in terror from the crowd. Would they kill him? Welcome the Tombs, the Island, Sing Sing, electrocution, if he might only escape from those horrible, threatening faces.

But though he was thus passive, Policeman X, who had him in charge, did not choose that he should appear so. No! He had a record to make before the pull of his “coozin, th’ alderman,” could be effective; and here was his opportunity. So once and again he gave him a forward thrust, and then—ejaculating. “Ye wud, wud yez?”—a mighty drag back again, to the admiration of the passers-by, who afterward astonished dinner-tables by accounts of a terrific struggle which they had witnessed between a burly ruffian and one of our city’s defenders.

The grim and gaunt female stalked behind this tableau of justice for several blocks; then she slackened her pace, and finally she stopped short. But her desertion was unnoticed. She watched the pair as they struggled forward into the distance. A sardonic smile revealed the artificiality of her teeth as she did so.

“A good morning’s work!” she exclaimed. “I must go and report progress.”

She hailed a convenient cab. She gave instructions, in which possibly the word “Sorosis” might have been distinguished. She was rapidly driven away.

Arthur and his exultant captor, unsuspicious that this “ dea ex machina ” had thus eloped, reached the court-house. A roundsman stood upon the stoop.

“What hev ye there, Mike?” he familiarly asked the officer.

“A snake teef. Wan of the wust of ’em. I’ve been on to him this twelve-mont’.”

“He looks it,” was the consoling comment.

They went before the committing magistrate. He was a red-faced, squatty man, seated behind a yellow-grained desk, and enveloped as to the neck with a smudgy handkerchief. Upon the desk, beside his feet, were an ink-stand and a sticky book.

“What is it, officer?” he queried, unwinding the handkerchief.

“A case of larceny from the pusson, sor.”

“Kiss the book.”

“I wull, sor;” and he added a little more stickiness to it.

“Are you the complainant?”

“Oi am, sor.”

“Then you were present at the commission of this offense?”

“Divil a bit, yer ahnor, no more thin yerself. How cud I be? ’Twas on the illevated train, yer ahnor, above me bate. Shure, I’m no thrack-walker.”

“Silence, sir! Where is the person from whom the property was taken?”

“Oh, shure, a long, lane famale in black, for all the wurruld like the Witch of Endy, was following us but a moment sence. ’Twas she it was from whom he tuk it.”

“I must discharge this man. There is no evidence on which to hold him.”

“Phat, yer ahnor! Whin he sazed her by the two wrists and wrastled it from her like the thavin’ blaggard that he is, shure!”

“Did you see him do it?”

“Av coorse, yer ahnor, I was not there, but I’ll swear to it just the same.”

“Young man,” said the magistrate, turning to the stricken Arthur; “what have you got to say for yourself?”

“If you please, sir, if you please,” he faltered, with trembling lips, “I want to go home. Do let me. I know nothing about anything. I was sitting quietly in my seat on the train when a crazy woman yelled at me, and then they all rushed for me, and some one pulled a purse from my pocket, and then this officer threw me about the street as if I were a sponge on a string. Look at my new clothes, sir! And I’m sore all over.”

“’Tis a loy, sor. He was thryin’ to escape. I mak’ the charge agin’ him, sor.”

“Let me see that purse.”

Policeman X handed this corpus delicti to the magistrate. He opened it.

“Why, there’s nothing in it!” he exclaimed, in disappointed tones.

But hold! In the innermost compartment he found a roll of paper. He unfolded it, and read aloud as follows:

“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:—This young man is not a thief, he’s a hog. He did not take the purse, he took a seat and kept it. He was thus guilty of rudeness and lack of consideration toward frail womankind. I have punished him for it as I shall punish others. Hereafter I trust that this experience will teach him that to a true man every woman is a lady, and entitled to his chivalric service. Place aux dames!

“(Signed)

THE AVENGER OF HER SEX.”

“You are discharged, sir,” said the magistrate to Arthur. “But let this be a warning to you.” And his feet resumed their extra-judicial position upon the desk.

From that day Arthur Chumpney was a changed man. He was scrupulously polite to wan women with babies and shawls; he was obsequious to females of gaunt visage and long hands. He seldom rides on elevated trains. When he does, like a traveled trunk, he uses a strap. As he says to himself, standing is good enough for him every time.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, 15 November 1890

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Like so many Mrs Surratts,” refers, heartlessly, to the alleged co-conspirator in President Lincoln’s assassination, who was executed by hanging. The cryptic word “Sorosis” is the name of the first all-female club in New York. It was founded in 1868 by Jane Cunningham Croly, or “Jennie June,” her journalistic pseudonym. She also founded the Women’s Press Club of New York. While she supported the rights of women, she held the position that financial independence, job competency, and economic equality were more important than gaining the right to vote.  She was herself married, and, unusually, continued to work after producing three children. She credited her husband with the advancement of her career, which progressed after he hired her at the New York World. “Place aux dames!” means “[Make] room for the ladies.”

Mrs Daffodil is aware that the transcription of a comic “stage-Irish” dialect was practically de rigueur when writing about an Irish police-officer named “Mike.” Nevertheless, like the rest of the dialect stories of the past, its vogue has long since passed and the fastidious reader of to-day may wince while reading it.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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