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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Fortunes of War

By Flora Haines Loughead (1855–1943)

[Born in Milwaukee, Wis., 1855. Died, 1943. The Argonaut. 1887.]

BRIDGET CALLAHAN and Norah O’Grady met at a fish-stall in the Sixteenth Street Market, and, as luck would have it, each fixed her fancy upon a particularly large and handsome flounder which lay upon the slimy marble slab. The two women had come up to the stall at about the same moment. It was not Bridget Callahan’s fault that the dealer, a dark-skinned Italian with sleepy black eyes, happened to see her first, but the O’Grady chose to think so and abused her roundly, while the Italian rolled up the fish in a piece of coarse brown paper, counted out his customer’s change, and bowed his thanks.

The tide of ineffectual wrath which issued from Mrs. O’Grady’s lips surprised no one accustomed to the place. It seemed rather to delight its object. Norah O’Grady was a small woman, stout and firm-set as an ale-bottle, with a rather long neck and a small head, which was on this occasion crowned with a sailor-hat belonging to her little daughter, presumably snatched up by mistake in her haste to get out for her daily marketing. Mrs. Callahan, on the other hand, was of generous proportions, with a large fat face and serene blue eyes that could be savage enough upon occasion. And she was gorgeously arrayed, wearing a brilliant Paisley shawl with a fiery red centre, a vaunt of social superiority which she had waved before Mrs. O’Grady for years.

They met again at the door of the market, and assailed each other with a storm of invective, for which the fish acted as an excuse.

Both knew that there would be no “making up” or “taking back.” The day for reconciliation was long gone by. Just when this crisis had passed it would be difficult to say. Whether it occurred on the day, some ten years gone by, that the two families first took up their abode in cottages side by side, and Mrs. Callahan’s Tim threw a dead cat at Mrs. O’Grady, and Mrs. O’Grady retaliated by crashing a pane of glass in the Callahan domicile, in her efforts to punish the culprit, and Mrs. Callahan appeared upon the scene, hot, and red, and covered with dust from beating carpets, and essayed to take the carpet-stick to Mrs. O’Grady, to her own discomfiture; whether these small beginnings, which were liable to occur in any families of the Callahan and O’Grady circle, formed the animus and incentive to after-hostilities, who can say? Certain it is that the war had been kept up with unabated vigor ever since. There is a certain convenience in quarrelling over a back fence, which people who have had to nurse their wrath at a distance will readily appreciate. Anger has no chance to cool, as when time and distance intervene. Over the cook-stove, at the wash-tub, ironing, sweeping, scrubbing, rocking their babies, the voice of each could penetrate the other’s domicile. It is needless to say that they made free use of their opportunities. If there was an opprobrious epithet in the vocabulary of billingsgate practised in Goats’ Hollow—that choice quarter of San Francisco where both had the honor to claim a residence—which they had not at some time flung at each other during their intercourse, both would have thanked you to make it known, that they might at once atone for the deficiency. They had resorted to every expedient to prove their genuine neighborly feeling. When Mrs. Callahan hung her washing over the back fence, Mrs. O’Grady sprinkled it liberally with dish-water. The soil in both back yards was generally mulched with broken crockery, old bottles, bustles, corset steels, battered tin cans, and other neighborly courtesies which had been exchanged over this convenient back fence.

In some ways, this feud had been of great benefit to both families. It had served as a sort of safety-valve for the conflicting emotions which often disturb the peace of a household. How much bodily fatigue and parental irritation the two mothers had worked off upon each other will never be positively known. With the youngsters, a proximate estimate of the exact amount of viciousness spared their own flesh and blood might easily be made. When Tim Callahan was spanked by his mother, he immediately cuffed a young O’Grady. When Annie O’Grady was denied a new frock, she made faces at Tim Callahan. The little Callahans and O’Gradys sparred and scratched and bit and stoned each other with promiscuous zeal.

For a time the heads of the two families abstained from any active participation in the general scrimmage, looking with dignified indulgence upon the clashings of the two weaker vessels. Little by little they were drawn into the conflict. Some depredations of more than usual atrocity had fired O’Grady’s blood. Callahan had been wrought to a frenzy by the combined effects of an insulting taunt and an unusually generous evening dram, the two men had forthwith indulged in a knock-down fight, and having once aired their grievances within the arena of the police court, regularly contributed to swell its annals.

At the time of which I write, an interesting bit of litigation was pending between the two families. The O’Gradys kept poultry, and a sorry lot of fowls they were, maimed and crippled by the persecution of the Callahans. Nevertheless a feeble tribe of ducks, and geese, and hens wandered about the back yard, or scoured the odorous precincts of Goats’ Hollow, contriving to pick up a precarious living. Sometimes they ventured on the premises of neighbors, and were driven away with many a loud “shoo,” shower of dirt, or waving of dish-towels. Now, the Callahans had a flower-garden which was at once their glory and their pride, being gorgeous with showy geraniums, prickly with cactus, and redolent with herbs. The O’Grady fowls, sharing the family animosity, spied out this humble paradise, and besieged it with a persistence that was positively ghoulish. By day and by night, through chink and crevice and gates left carelessly ajar, they invaded the Callahan garden and uprooted the choicest plants. When the Callahans walled them out, they burrowed under; when they laid a coping of rocks around the entire lot, they still contrived to make periodical marauds. It was privately whispered that the O’Gradys used to set up a step-ladder in their yard to assist the fowls in their depredations. Be this as it may, the Callahans at length got a dog, a fierce, yellow, whiskered canine, with a stub tail and an evil eye, warranted to be death on fowls. Thereafter, when a chicken, or duck, or goose stole into the Callahan grounds, its mangled body was promptly flung back over the fence. The O’Gradys could not stand this long. One day Mr. O’Grady paid a visit to a neighboring druggist, and the next morning the Callahan dog was stiff and stark. That day at noon Mr. Callahan swore out a warrant for the arrest of Mr. O’Grady, and the trial of the latter was set for a week from the day on which our story begins. Both families were to be out in force, and the suit promised to be the occasion for airing a long list of grievances on both sides.

As the feminine heads of these two warring factions continued their homeward walk, it must not be imagined that they took opposite sides of the street. Had they belonged to a different grade of society they would doubtless have contented themselves with icy stares when they met, and gone their way swelling with horrible things they would have liked to say. Being the women they were, they had the comfort of giving full vent to their feelings, and walked along side by side, in a neighborly fashion, punctuating each step with angry words, tart ejaculations, and venomous sneers. When they had progressed a block or so, a slight distraction, of a not entirely disagreeable nature, occurred. A youthful Callahan was discovered in the act of belaboring a young O’Grady with a five-gallon oil-can, while a bloody nose and a scratch on the assailant’s face attested the ability of the O’Grady to give as good as the Callahan sent.

The two mothers watched the battle with pride in the prowess of their offspring. Neither attempted to interfere. This was a consistent result of years of industrious training, a valiant rally to the support of family traditions. It was more than that, it was salve for a secret grievance that each nourished in her heart. For upwards of a year their two eldest had suspended hostilities. Nay, more; Tim and Annie exchanged shy glances of sympathy and affection whenever they met. They had been seen walking together across the Hollow at night. Annie, a pretty, blue-eyed little creature, who was really modest and lady-like, and altogether a very exceptional product of a public-school education working upon raw Hibernian material, had lifted up her voice in defence of the Callahans, in her mother’s house. Tim, a sturdy young fellow, who had spent the best days of his youth dodging the police authorities and the Industrial School, but had turned out a very decent machinist after all, had left the paternal mansion the night before, slamming the door behind him, in resentment of some slighting allusion to the O’Gradys. The neighbors were beginning to say that it was a pity such a likely young couple should be kept apart by family differences; but the parents preserved an uncompromising front.

So absorbed were both women in watching the outcome of the combat that they did not at first observe a crowd that had gathered farther down the street, nor the people running thither from all quarters. Evidently something of interest was occurring; possibly a fire. The Callahans and the O’Gradys, young and old, never missed a fire if they could help it. With one accord the two women started for the scene of excitement, and as Mrs. O’Grady’s short limbs were somewhat more agile than Mrs. Callahan’s longer ones, they kept well abreast, and never paused until they had reached the outskirts of the ever-increasing crowd. Then Mrs. Callahan stopped with prophetic instinct, one hand pressed closely to her panting breast.

“It’s the sewer. Something’s happened in the sewer; an’ my Bill a-goin’ to work here the mornin’.”

Norah O’Grady gave an exclamation of disgust. The idea of one of the Callahan crowd being singled out for any special disaster was so absurd on the face of it that the very suggestion awoke in her a sense of impatience.

“An’ what’s happened?” she said, in a debative tone, accenting the second word, addressing a man who stood at her elbow.

“Bank caved in. Men under it.”

“No, some men fell into an old cesspool that they uncovered.”

Bridget Callahan did not wait to hear more, but pushed her way through the crowd. Norah O’Grady, without waiting to think, or reason that it was none of her concern, followed in her enemy’s wake. In spite of oaths, and resistance, and angry words, they threaded their way to the margin of a narrow circle, where banks of loosely heaped earth surrounded a yawning black hole. There they learned the details of what had happened. In extending the system of sewerage along the street, an old cesspool had been uncovered and three men had been sent down to examine it; two of them had beaten a quick retreat, but the third had succumbed to the foul gases generated there. Two successive attempts had been made by other workmen to rescue him, but neither of the men who went down after him had returned. Three men lay dead or dying at the foot of the ladder, and no workman could be found foolhardy enough to venture down.

“An’ who were the men that wint down?” asked Bridget Callahan.

“Walsh and Williams was the men that went last. Bill Callahan was the first.”

“Me husband an’ the father of seven children. A man that is honest as the day is long; that niver lost a day’s worrk in his life. May the Lord an’ all the holy saints have pity on me!” wailed Bridget Callahan.

Even in her first wild cry of grief she managed to sting the woman who stood silently by her side, and Norah O’Grady felt the thrust and winced under it. No one had ever accused Patrick O’Grady of being honest, and as for doing a day’s work—since the day, some eight or ten years ago, when O’Grady had abandoned the calling of a hostler and taken up the profession of a ward politician, he had never condescended to soil his hands with a day’s manual labor. Yet, strangely enough, Norah O’Grady felt no inclination to triumph over her enemy, but a new and tender feeling crept into her heart.

Meantime Bridget Callahan filled the air with the sound of her lamentation, now sobbing, now pleading, now railing at those about her.

“An’ are ye men, an’ stand there idle, with three poor fellows perishin’ so near, an’ not a hand that lifts to save him! Shame on ye for weak-hearted cowards! For the love of heaven, boys! Oh, ye lazy vagabones! Let a woman show ye your duty!” And quick as a flash, before any one could anticipate her movement, in spite of her corpulent and clumsy figure, she had swung herself over upon the ladder, and was preparing to go down.

In the first excitement of their appearance upon the scene, neither of the women had noticed a big, muscular fellow, wearing a flashy checked suit with an air of awkward rakishness, who stood on the bank of fresh earth but a few paces away, smoking a short pipe and gazing speculatively into the black pit below. As the woman’s shrill cry of denunciation reached his ears, he might have been seen to remove the pipe from his lips for a moment and smile grimly to himself, like one who hears a compliment intended for him, and hastened to acknowledge it. But Mrs. Callahan had no sooner set foot on the ladder than a heavy hand fell on her shoulder, and a gruff voice sounded in her ears.


She looked up and recognized him, and her face grew red as a lobster with contending emotions.

“Oh, it’s you, Patrick O’Grady, is it!” she cried out, in a shrill voice. “Let go of me. Oh, you worthless loafer! You good-for-nothing, do-nothing, dog-poisoning r-rascal! Let me go to save my man. My man, whose little finger is worth more than your whole lazy body. Oh, Bill, Bill!” And she broke out into a fresh storm of sobs; but she suffered herself to be led back without further protest.

Meanwhile, the man whom she had so bitterly denounced, but to whom she had nevertheless yielded an unwilling obedience, felt a light touch upon his shoulder, and turned to face his wife. His eyes asked a question, and her eyes answered.

“All right, if you say so, my girl.”

In an instant his attitude had changed. New life seemed infused into him. His huge, brawny frame, but the moment before a torpid, inert mass, became the embodiment of activity and force. The sluggish blood bounded through his veins. Recollections of old times, when he had been a miner on the Comstock and had fought the miner’s battle with foul air and fire-damp, came back to him. He flung off his coat and unbuttoned his collar, baring his huge, muscular throat.

“Some rope!” he shouted.

A coil of rope fell at his feet. He caught up a hose, banging over a bed of mortar close by, and turned a spray of water into the dark pit, at the same time saturating his handkerchief with the water and binding it tightly about his mouth and nostrils. Then, with the rope knotted around him, a direction to the men who were to pay it out, and a parting word to his wife, he stepped upon the ladder and commenced the descent.

Norah O’Grady, her heart wrung with terror, stood on the brink and saw him go—to his death, she thought—and tried to frame some prayer for him, but her white lips refused to move. Standing there, on the threshold of what she felt must be the tragedy of her life, she became suddenly aware of the curious eyes bent upon her, and of the absurd spectacle she presented in her calico wrapper and with the child’s hat on her head. She knew that she had sent her husband to his doom, and she must not leave the place where she could see his dead body when the men pulled it up; but she tried to settle the jaunty hat into some expression of propriety, and, fumbling with her belt, strove to arrange the folds of her wrapper.

In the midst of her awkward struggle a mantle seemed to descend upon her from the heavens. Gazing in astonishment over one shoulder, she found herself arrayed in all the glory of the Paisley shawl. Looking up, she saw her enemy awed into silence by the strange turn events had taken, looking down upon her with quite a new expression, and she realized that it was no chance impulse that had prompted her to divest herself of the garment, but tender womanly consideration.

“I don’t need it,” whispered Mrs. Callahan. Then she quite broke down. “Oh, Norah O’Grady!” Catching the latter’s little nervous hand between her large, strong ones, she sobbed over her in penitence and compassion.

There was a cry from those who stood about the ladder.

“Here he comes!”

An instant later, O’Grady’s herculean figure appeared, bearing in his arms a slender young fellow who tried to stand, and would have fallen had not strong arms come to his aid.

A shout went up:

“It’s Williams!”

A gray-haired woman came forward, and half-led, half-supported her son away.

The next time O’Grady appeared, he stumbled and fell, as he was relieved of his inanimate burden. A whisper ran around:

“It’s Walsh.”

They laid him on the ground.

A girl stole timidly out from the crowd, and wept over her dead lover. All eyes turned questioningly upon O’Grady, who was leaning up against a box, pale and shaky, making a weak gesture of protest as the swaying of the curious crowd threatened to shut off the air from him. Then he arose, and faltered toward the mortar-box where the hose was playing. He had loosed the handkerchief from his mouth and nose, and now untied it with trembling hands.

“He’s going to give it up,” some one said.

O’Grady heard the words, and was reminded that he had already done all that could be expected of any man; that if he stopped now, he would still be a hero in the eyes of those who were looking on; that neither duty nor reason demanded his return to the poisonous den from which he had escaped, but he looked toward the quarter from which the words had come, and replied with a savage sneer:

“Not much!”

He stopped just long enough to take a cool, invigorating draught from the nozzle of the hose and to saturate the handkerchief again, before binding it across his face. He called for another length of rope, and, as he instructed the men to haul up at a given signal, they knew that his strength was giving out. Then he leaped upon the ladder and descended, hand-over-hand, with the swiftness of one who is about to take a desperate risk. No one in the pure, wholesome air above could guess what it was to plunge into this noisome hole, the reeking repository of filth and corruption, from which poisonous gases exhaled, blotting out the light of day that essayed to creep through the narrow opening above, making it impossible for so much as the flame of a candle to survive. Nor did O’Grady find any comfort in the reflection that he was doing a magnanimous and gallant deed, risking his life to save his enemy. To him, Callahan had from the first lost personality and identity. He was simply a fellow-being, suffering, failing, dying.

As O’Grady readied the lower rung of the ladder and stooped to the foul ooze below, the horrible vapors seemed to rise like spectral forms, clutching at him, gripping his throat, crushing his chest in a vise-like embrace. His eyes were blinded, something roared in his ears like the thunder of incoming breakers. Sightless, deafened, choking, he groped about him, and found what he sought.

The men above felt a faint pull on the rope O’Grady had carried in his hands, and hauled it in with a will. A moment later, Callahan, unconscious, but with his chest heaving in slow, convulsive movements, lay stretched upon the ground beside them. Everybody looked to see O’Grady’s resolute face and broad shoulders appear at the opening. Cheers were on their lips, praise in their hearts. Somebody pulled gently upon the rope he had tied about his waist when he first went down. Heavy, inanimate weight was the only response. Two of the workmen swung themselves down the ladder until only their heads and shoulders were visible, and, gripping the rope, brought the heavy burden into position to be raised.

“Now, boys!”

Slowly and more carefully than before they pulled upon the rope. When Norah O’Grady saw the lifeless form, she sprang forward with a little cry.


A week later two convalescents sat up in bed and demanded to be dressed. Bridget Callahan hastened to obey her husband’s behest with a willing heart and trembling hands. Norah O’Grady scolded and expostulated, but to no effect. O’Grady stormed and swore, and went angrily off without his breakfast, putting in his appearance at the police court a full ten minutes before his antagonist.

He had actually got in a savage plea of “Guilty, an’ it plaze your honor!” when the plaintiff appeared on the scene. The two men met for the first time since the day when Callahan had been drawn back from the jaws of a frightful death by his enemy. O’Grady would not look toward him now, but repeated his plea, rather more loudly and decidedly than before:

“Guilty, your honor.”

Callahan held a hasty consultation with an official of the court.

“Nolle prosequi,” announced the latter, in a careless tone.

“Case dismissed. Call the next,” said the Judge.

O’Grady had to be twice informed before he comprehended the turn affairs had taken. Then he left reluctantly, unhappy and dissatisfied. The fact that he had laid his enemy under the heaviest possible obligations to himself had only served to whet his zest in the role of injured innocence, which he had been ready to enact. He had been making ready his powers of oratory all the way down town, rehearsing the pedigree of the game-cocks Callahan’s dog had slain, counting his decimated flock of ducks, raking up a score of old injuries which he meant to rehearse if an opportunity was presented. He went out of court crestfallen. Somebody awaited him outside the door.

“O’Grady!” said Callahan, in a voice at once conciliatory, pleading, argumentative, holding out his hand at the same time.

If O’Grady had been the man who had lain at the bottom of the cesspool, and Callahan the man who had saved him, he would have struck aside the proffered hand. But all at once it came to him that one who confers a favor has obligations far more binding than those of the recipient. The man who has once done a noble and unselfish act has a character to maintain. It is the old principle of noblesse oblige, among high and low, rich and poor, the world over.

They walked down the stairs together and out into the street. For a long time they did not speak. Then Callahan, timidly:

“They do say as our Tim be coortin’ av your Annie.”

O’Grady smoked his pipe for some seconds without replying. Then he took it deliberately from his mouth.

“Tim’s a loikely lad,” he said.

That evening Tim Callahan walked up to the front door of the O’Grady cottage. Annie O’Grady, her face a genuine April of smiles and tears, was there to receive him.