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The Wars Of The Rileys
by [?]

It was the night before Washington’s Birthday that Mr. Riley broke loose. They will speak of it long in the Windy City as “the night of the big storm,” and with good right–it was “that suddint and fierce,” just like Mr. Riley himself in his berserker moods. Mr. Riley was one of the enlivening problems of “the Bureau” in the region back of the stock-yards that kept it from being dulled by the routine of looking after the poor. He was more: he rose to the dignity of a “cause” at uncertain intervals when the cost of living, underpay and overtime, sickness and death, overpopulation, and all the other well-worn props of poverty retired to the wings and left the stage to Mr. Riley rampant, sufficient for the time and as informing as a whole course at the School of Philanthropy. In between, Mr. Riley was a capable meat-cutter earning good wages, who wouldn’t have done a neighbor out of a cent that was his due, a robust citizen with more than his share of good looks, a devoted husband and a doting father, inseparable when at home from little Mike, whose baby trick of squaring off and offering to “bust his father’s face” was the pride of the block.

“Will yez look at de kid? Ain’t he a foine one?” shouted Mr. Riley, with peals of laughter; and the men smoking their pipes at the fence set the youngster on with admiring taunts. Mike was just turned three. His great stunt, when his father was not at hand, was to fall off everything in sight. Daily alarms brought from the relief party of hurrying mothers the unvarying cry, “Who’s got hurted? Is it Mike?” But only Mike’s feelings were hurt. Doleful howls, as he hove in sight, convoyed and comforted by Kate, aged seven, gave abundant proof that in wind and limb he was all that could be desired.

This was Mr. Riley in his hours of ease and domesticity. Mr. Riley rampant was a very different person. His arrival was invariably heralded by the smashing of the top of the kitchen stove, followed by the summary ejection of the once beloved family, helter-skelter, from the tenement. Three times the Bureau had been at the expense of having the stove top mended to keep the little Rileys from starving and freezing at once, and it was looking forward with concern to the meat-cutter’s next encounter with his grievance. For there was a psychological reason for the manner of his outbreaks. The Rileys had once had a boarder, when Kate was a baby. He happened to be Mrs. Riley’s brother, and he left, presuming on the kinship, without paying his board. As long as the meat-cutter was sober he remembered only the pleasant comradeship with his brother-in-law, and extended the hospitality of a neighborly fireside to his wife’s relations. But no sooner had he taken a drink or two than the old grievance loomed large, and grew, as he went on, into a capital injury, to be avenged upon all and everything that in any way recalled the monstrous wrong of his life. That the cooking-stove should come first was natural, from his point of view. Upon it had been prepared the felonious meals, by it he had smoked the pipe of peace with the false friend. The crash in the kitchen had become the unvarying signal for the hasty exit of the rest of the family and the organizing of Kate into a scouting party to keep Mrs. Riley and the Bureau informed about the progress of events in the house where the meat-cutter raged alone.

Mrs. Riley was a loyal, if not always a patient, woman–who can blame her?–and accepted the situation as part of the marital compact, clearly comprehended, perhaps foreshadowed, in her vow to cling to her husband “for better for worse,” and therefore not to be questioned. In times of peace she remembered not the days of storm and stress. Once indeed, when her best gingham had been sacrificed to the furies of war, she had considered whether the indefinite multiplication of the tribe of Riley were in the long run desirable, and had put it to the young woman from the Bureau, who was superintending the repair of the stove top, this way: “I am thinking, Miss Kane, if I will live with Mr. Riley any longer; would you?”–to the blushing confusion of that representative of the social order. However, that crisis passed. Mr. Riley took the pledge for the fourth or fifth time, and the next day appeared at the office, volunteering to assign himself and his earnings to the Bureau for the benefit of his wife and his creditors, reserving only enough for luncheons and tobacco, but nothing for drinks. The Bureau took an hour off to recover from the shock. If it had misgivings, it refused to listen to them. The world had turned a corner in the city by the lake and was on the home-stretch: Mr. Riley had reformed.