An Outcast/Chapter II
The mansion of Madame Flamingo stands stately in Berresford street. An air of mystery hangs over it by day, and it is there young Charleston holds high carnival at night. It is a very distinguished house, and Madame Flamingo assures us she is a very distinguished lady, who means to make her peace with heaven before she dies, and bestow largely on the priests, who have promised to make her comfortable while on the road through purgatory. The house is in high favor with young Charleston, and old Charleston looks in now and then. Our city fathers have great sympathy for it, and protect it with their presence. Verily it is a great gate on the road to ruin, and thousands pass heedlessly through its decorated walks, quickly reaching the dark end.
It is evening, and thin fleecy clouds flit along the heavens. The gas sheds a pale light over the streets, and shadowy figures pass and repass us as we turn into the narrow street leading to the house of the old hostess. We have reached the great arched door, and stand in the shadow of a gas-light, playing over its trap, its network of iron, and its bright, silver plate. We pause and contemplate the massive walls, as the thought flashes upon us—How mighty is vice, that it has got such a mansion dedicated to its uses! Even stranger thoughts than these flit through the mind as we hesitate, and touch the bell timidly. Now, we have excited your curiosity, and shall not turn until we have shown you what there is within.
We hear the bell faintly tinkle—now voices in loud conversation break upon the ear—then all is silent. Our anxiety increases, and keeps increasing, until a heavy footstep is heard advancing up the hall. Now there is a whispering within—then a spring clicks, and a small square panel opens and is filled with a broad fat face, with deep blue eyes and a profusion of small brown curls, all framed in a frosty cap-border. It is the old hostess, done up in her best book muslin, and so well preserved.
"Gentlemen, or ain't ye gentlemen?" inquires the old hostess, in a low voice. "This is a respectable house, I'd have you remember. Gentlemen what ain't gentlemen don't git no show in this house—no they don't." She looks curiously at us, and pauses for a reply. The display of a kid glove and a few assuring words gain us admittance into the great hall, where a scene of barbaric splendor excites curious emotions. "There ain't nothin' but gentlemen gets into this house—they don't! and when they are in they behaves like gentlemen," says the hostess, bowing gracefully, and closing the door after us.
The time prints of sixty summers have furrowed the old hostess' brow, and yet she seems not more than forty—is short of figure, and weighs two hundred. Soft Persian carpets cover the floor, lounges, in carved walnut and satin, stand along the sides; marble busts on pedestals, and full-length figures of statesmen and warriors are interspersed at short intervals; and the ceiling is frescoed in uncouth and fierce-looking figures. Flowers hang from niches in the cornice; a marble group, representing St. George and the dragon, stands at the foot of a broad circular stairs; tall mirrors reflect and magnify each object, and over all the gas from three chandeliers sheds a bewitching light. Such is the gaudy scene that excites the fancy, but leaves our admiration unmoved.
"This is a castle, and a commonwealth, gentlemen. Cost me a deal of money; might get ruined if gentlemen forgot how to conduct themselves. Ladies like me don't get much credit for the good they do. Gentlemen will be introduced into the parlor when they are ready," says the old hostess, stepping briskly round us, and watching our every movement; we are new-comers, and her gaudy tabernacle is novel to us.
"Have educated a dozen young men to the law, and made gentlemen of a dozen more, excellent young men—fit for any society. Don't square my accounts with the world, as the world squares its account with me," she continues, with that air which vice affects while pleading its own cause. She cannot shield the war of conscience that is waging in her heart; but, unlike most of those engaged in her unnatural trade, there is nothing in her face to indicate a heart naturally inclined to evil. It is indeed bright with smiles, and you see only the picture of a being sailing calmly down the smooth sea of peace and contentment. Her dress is of black glossy satin, a cape of fine point lace covers her broad shoulders, and bright blue cap-ribbons stream down her back.
"Listen," says the old hostess—"there's a full house to-night. Both parlors are full. All people of good society!" she continues, patronizingly. "Them what likes dancin' dances in the left-hand parlor. Them what prefers to sit and converse, converses in the right-hand parlor. Some converses about religion, some converses about politics—(by way of lettin' you know my position, I may say that I go for secession, out and out)—some converses about law, some converses about beauty. There isn't a lady in this house as can't converse on anything." Madame places her ear to the door, and thrusts her fat jewelled fingers under her embroidered apron.
"This is my best parlor, gentlemen," she resumes; "only gentlemen of deportment are admitted—I might add, them what takes wine, and, if they does get a little in liquor, never loses their dignity." Madame bows, and the door of her best parlor swings open, discovering a scene of still greater splendor.
"Gentlemen as can't enjoy themselves in my house, don't know how to enjoy anything. Them is all gentlemen you see, and them is all ladies you see," says the hostess, as we advance timidly into the room, the air of which is sickly of perfumes. The foot falls upon the softest of carpets; quaint shadows, from stained-glass windows are flitting and dancing on the frescoed ceiling; curtains of finest brocade, enveloped in lace, fall cloud-like down the windows. The borderings are of amber-colored satin, and heavy cornices, over which eagles in gilt are perched, surmount the whole. Pictures no artist need be ashamed of decorate the walls, groups in bronze and Parian, stand on pedestals between the windows, and there is a regal air about the furniture, which is of the most elaborate workmanship. But the living figures moving to and fro, some in uncouth dresses and some scarce dressed at all, and all reflected in the great mirrors, excite the deepest interest. Truly it is here that vice has arrayed itself in fascinating splendors, and the young and the old have met to pay it tribute. The reckless youth meets the man high in power here. The grave exchange salutations with the gay. Here the merchant too often meets his clerk, and the father his son. And before this promiscuous throng women in bright but scanty drapery, and wan faces, flaunt their charms.
Sitting on a sofa, is the fair young girl we saw at the cemetery. By her side is a man of venerable presence, endeavoring to engage her in conversation. Her face is shadowed in a pensive smile;—she listens to what falls from the lips of her companion, shakes her head negatively, and watches the movements of a slender, fair-haired young man, who saunters alone on the opposite side of the room. He has a deep interest in the fair girl, and at every turn casts a look of hate and scorn at her companion, who is no less a person than Judge Sleepyhorn, of this history.
"Hain't no better wine nowhere, than's got in this house," ejaculates the old hostess, calling our attention to a massive side-board, covered with cut-glass of various kinds. "A gentleman what's a gentleman may get a little tipsy, providin' he do it on wine as is kept in this house, and carry himself square." Madame motions patronizingly with her hand, bows condescendingly, and says, "Two bottles I think you ordered, gentlemen—what gentlemen generally call for."
Having bowed assent, and glad to get off so cheaply, Manfredo, a slave in bright livery, is directed to bring it in.
Mr. Snivel enters, to the great delight of the old hostess and various friends of the house. "Mr. Snivel is the spirit of this house," resumes the old hostess, by way of introduction; "a gentleman of distinction in the law." She turns to Mr. Snivel inquiringly. "You sent that ruffin, Tom Swiggs, up for me to-day?"
"Lord bless you, yes—gave him two months for contemplation. Get well starved at fifteen cents a day——"
"Sorry for the fellow," interrupts the old hostess, sympathizingly. "That's what comes a drinkin' bad liquor. Tom used to be a first-rate friend of this house—spent heaps of money, and we all liked him so. Tried hard to make a man of Tom. Couldn't do it." Madame shakes her head in sadness. "Devil got into him, somehow. Ran down, as young men will when they gets in the way. I does my part to save them, God knows." A tear almost steals into Madame's eyes. "When Tom used to come here, looking so down, I'd give him a few dollars, and get him to go somewhere else. Had to keep up the dignity of the house, you know. A man as takes his liquor as Tom does ain't fit company for my house."
Mr. Snivel says: "As good advice, which I am bound to give his mother, I shall say she'd better give him steady lodgings in jail." He turns and recognizes his friend, the judge, and advances towards him. As he does so, Anna rises quickly to her feet, and with a look of contempt, addressing the judge, says, "Never, never. You deceived me once, you never shall again. You ask me to separate myself from him. No, never, never." And as she turns to walk away the judge seizes her by the hand, and retains her. "You must not go yet," he says.
"She shall go!" exclaims the fair young man, who has been watching their movements. "Do you know me? I am the George Mulholland you are plotting to send to the whipping-post,—to accomplish your vile purposes. No, sir, I am not the man you took me for, as I would show you were it not for your grey hairs." He releases her from the judge's grasp, and stands menacing that high old functionary with his finger. "I care not for your power. Take this girl from me, and you pay the penalty with your life. We are equals here. Release poor Langdon from prison, and go pay penance over the grave of his poor wife. It's the least you can do. You ruined her—you can't deny it." Concluding, he clasps the girl in his arms, to the surprise of all present, and rushes with her out of the house.
The house of Madame Flamingo is in a very distinguished state of commotion. Men sensitive of their reputations, and fearing the presence of the police, have mysteriously disappeared. Madame is in a fainting condition, and several of her heroic damsels have gone screaming out of the parlor, and have not been seen since.
Matters have quieted down now. Mr. Snivel consoles the judge for the loss of dignity he has suffered, Madame did not quite faint, and there is peace in the house.
Manfredo, his countenance sullen, brings in the wine. Manfredo is in bad temper to-night. He uncorks the bottles and lets the wine foam over the table, the sight of which sends Madame into a state of distress.
"This is all I gets for putting such good livery on you!" she says, pushing him aside with great force. "That's thirty-nine for you in the morning, well-laid on. You may prepare for it. Might have known better (Madame modifies her voice) than buy a nigger of a clergyman!" She commences filling the glasses herself, again addressing Manfredo, the slave: "Don't do no good to indulge you. This is the way you pay me for lettin' you go to church of a Sunday. Can't give a nigger religion without his gettin' a big devil in him at the same time."
Manfredo passes the wine to her guests, in sullen silence, and they drink to the prosperity of the house.
And now it is past midnight; the music in the next parlor has ceased, St. Michael's clock has struck the hour of one, and business is at an end in the house of the old hostess. A few languid-looking guests still remain, the old hostess is weary with the fatigues of the night, and even the gas seems to burn dimmer. The judge and Mr. Snivel are the last to take their departure, and bid the hostess good-night. "I could not call the fellow out," says the judge, as they wend their way into King street. "I can only effect my purpose by getting him into my power. To do that you must give me your assistance."
"Remain silent on that point," returns the other. "You have only to leave its management to me. Nothing is easier than to get such a fellow into the power of the law."
On turning into King street they encounter a small, youthful looking man, hatless and coatless, his figure clearly defined in the shadows of the gas-light, engaged in a desperate combat with the lamp-post. "Now, Sir, defend yourself, and do it like a man, for you have the reputation of being a craven coward," says the man, cutting and thrusting furiously at the lamp-post; Snivel and Sleepyhorn pause, and look on astonished. "Truly the poor man's mad," says Sleepyhorn, touching his companion on the arm—"uncommonly mad for the season."
Mr. Snivel whispers, "Not so mad. Only courageously tight." "Gentlemen!" says the man, reproachfully, "I am neither mad nor drunk." Here he strikes an attitude of defence, cutting one, two, and three with his small sword. "I am Mister Midshipman Button—no madman, not a bit of it. As brave a man as South Carolina ever sent into the world. A man of pluck, Sir, and genuine, at that." Again he turns and makes several thrusts at the lamp-post, demanding that it surrender and get down on its knees, in abject obedience to superior prowess.
"Button, Button, my dear fellow, is it you? What strange freak is this?" inquires Mr. Snivel, extending his hand, which the little energetic man refuses to take.
"Mister Midshipman Button, if you please, gentlemen," replies the man, with an air of offended dignity. "I'm a gentleman, a man of honor, and what's more, a Carolinian bred and born, or born and bred—cut it as you like it." He makes several powerful blows at the lamp-post, and succeeds only in breaking his sword.
"Poor man," says the judge, kindly, "he is in need of friends to take care of him, and advise him properly. He has not far to travel before he gets into the mad-house."
The man overhears his remarks, and with a vehement gesture and flourish of his broken sword, says, "Do you not see, gentlemen, what work I have made of this Northern aggressor, this huge enemy bringing oppression to our very doors?" He turns and addresses the lamp-post in a tone of superiority. "Surrender like a man, and confess yourself vanquished, Northern aggressor that you are! You see, gentlemen, I have gained a victory—let all his bowels out. Honor all belongs to my native state—I shall resign it all to her." Here the man begins to talk in so wild a strain, and to make so many demands of his imaginary enemy, that they called a passing guardsman, who, seeing his strange condition, replaced his hat, and assisted them in getting him to a place of safety for the night, when sleep and time would restore him to a sound state of mind.