An Outcast/Chapter III
Tom has passed a restless night in jail. He has dreamed of bottled snakes, with eyes wickedly glaring at him; of fiery-tailed serpents coiling all over him; of devils in shapes he has no language to describe; of the waltz of death, in which he danced at the mansion of Madame Flamingo; and of his mother, (a name ever dear in his thoughts,) who banished him to this region of vice, for what she esteemed a moral infirmity. Further on in his dream he saw a vision, a horrible vision, which was no less than a dispute for his person between Madame Flamingo, a bishop, and the devil. But Madame Flamingo and the devil, who seemed to enjoy each other's company exceedingly, got the better of the bishop, who was scrupulous of his dignity, and not a little anxious about being seen in such society. And from the horrors of this dream he wakes, surprised to find himself watched over by a kind friend—a young, comely-featured man, in whom he recognizes the earnest theologian, as he is plumed by the prisoners, whom he daily visits in his mission of good. There was something so frank and gentle in this young man's demeanor—something so manly and radiant in his countenance—something so disinterested and holy in his mission of love—something so opposite to the coldness of the great world without—something so serene and elevated in his youth, that even the most inveterate criminal awaited his coming with emotions of joy, and gave a ready ear to his kindly advice. Indeed, the prisoners called him their child; and he seemed not dainty of their approach, but took them each by the hand, sat at their side, addressed them as should one brother address another;—yea, he made them to feel that what was their interest it was his joy to promote.
The young theologian took him a seat close by the side of the dreaming inebriate; and as he woke convulsively, and turned towards him his distorted face, viewing with wild stare each object that met his sight, the young man met his recognition with a smile and a warm grasp of the hand. "I am sorry you find me here again—yes, I am."
"Better men, perhaps, have been here—"
"I am ashamed of it, though; it isn't as it should be, you see," interrupts Tom.
"Never mind—(the young man checks himself)—I was going to say there is a chance for you yet; and there is a chance; and you must struggle; and I will help you to struggle; and your friends—"
Tom interrupts by saying, "I've no friends."
"I will help you to struggle, and to overcome the destroyer. Never think you are friendless, for then you are a certain victim in the hands of the ruthless enemy—"
"Well, well," pauses Tom, casting a half-suspicious look at the young man, "I forgot. There's you, and him they call old Spunyarn, are friends, after all. You'll excuse me, but I didn't think of that;" and a feeling of satisfaction seemed to have come over him. "How grateful to have friends when a body's in a place of this kind," he mutters incoherently, as the tears gush from his distended eyes, and childlike he grasps the hand of the young man.
"Be comforted with the knowledge that you have friends, Tom. One all-important thing is wanted, and you are a man again."
"As to that!" interrupts Tom, doubtingly, and laying his begrimed hand on his burning forehead, while he alternately frets and frisks his fingers through his matted hair.
"Have no doubts, Tom—doubts are dangerous."
"Well, say what it is, and I'll try what I can do. But you won't think I'm so bad as I seem, and'll forgive me? I know what you think of me, and that's what mortifies me; you think I'm an overdone specimen of our chivalry—you do!"
"You must banish from your mind these despairing thoughts," replies the young man, laying his right hand approvingly on Tom's head. "First, Tom," he pursues, "be to yourself a friend; second, forget the error of your mother, and forgive her sending you here; and third, cut the house of Madame Flamingo, in which our chivalry are sure to get a shattering. To be honest in temptation, Tom, is one of the noblest attributes of our nature; and to be capable of forming and maintaining a resolution to shake off the thraldom of vice, and to place oneself in the serener atmosphere of good society, is equally worthy of the highest commendation."
Tom received this in silence, and seemed hesitating between what he conceived an imperative demand and the natural inclination of his passions.
"Give me your hand, and with it your honor—I know you yet retain the latent spark—and promise me you will lock up the cup—"
"You'll give a body a furlough, by the way of blowing off the fuddle he has on hand?"
"I do not withhold from you any discretionary indulgence that may bring relief—"
Tom interrupts by saying, "My mother, you know!"
"I will see her, and plead with her on your behalf; and if she have a mother's feelings I can overcome her prejudice."
Tom says, despondingly, he has no home to go to. It's no use seeing his mother; she's all dignity, and won't let it up an inch. "If I could only persuade her—" Tom pauses here and shakes his head.
"Pledge me your honor you'll from this day form a resolution to reform, Tom; and if I do not draw from your mother a reconciliation, I will seek a home for you elsewhere."
"Well, there can't be much harm in an effort, at all events; and here's my hand, in sincerity. But it won't do to shut down until I get over this bit of a fog I'm now in." With childlike simplicity, Tom gives his hand to the young man, who, as old Spunyarn enters the cell to, as he says, get the latitude of his friend's nerves, departs in search of Mrs. Swiggs.
Mrs. Swiggs is the stately old member of a crispy old family, that, like numerous other families in the State, seem to have outlived two chivalrous generations, fed upon aristocracy, and are dying out contemplating their own greatness. Indeed, the Swiggs family, while it lived and enjoyed the glory of its name, was very like the Barnwell family of this day, who, one by one, die off with the very pardonable and very harmless belief that the world never can get along without the aid of South Carolina, it being the parthenon from which the outside world gets all its greatness. Her leading and very warlike newspapers, (the people of these United States ought to know, if they do not already,) it was true, were editorialized, as it was politely called in the little State-militant, by a species of unreputationized Jew and Yankee; but this you should know—if you do not already, gentle reader—that it is only because such employments are regarded by the lofty-minded chivalry as of too vulgar a nature to claim a place in their attention.
The clock of old Saint Michaels, a clock so tenacious of its dignity as to go only when it pleases, and so aristocratic in its habits as not to go at all in rainy weather;—a clock held in great esteem by the "very first families," has just struck eleven. The young, pale-faced missionary inquiringly hesitates before a small, two-story building of wood, located on the upper side of Church street, and so crabbed in appearance that you might, without endangering your reputation, have sworn it had incorporated in its framework a portion of that chronic disease for which the State has gained for itself an unenviable reputation. Jutting out of the black, moss-vegetating roof, is an old-maidish looking window, with a dowdy white curtain spitefully tucked up at the side. The mischievous young negroes have pecked half the bricks out of the foundation, and with them made curious grottoes on the pavement. Disordered and unpainted clapboards spread over the dingy front, which is set off with two upper and two lower windows, all blockaded with infirm, green shutters. Then there is a snuffy door, high and narrow (like the State's notions), and reached by six venerable steps and a stoop, carefully guarded with a pine hand-rail, fashionably painted in blue, and looking as dainty as the State's white glove. This, reader, is the abode of the testy but extremely dignified Mrs. Swiggs. If you would know how much dignity can be crowded into the smallest space, you have only to look in here and be told (she closely patterns after the State in all things!) that fifty-five summers of her crispy life have been spent here, reading Milton's Paradise Lost and contemplating the greatness of her departed family.
The old steps creak and complain as the young man ascends them, holding nervously on at the blue hand-rail, and reaching in due time the stoop, the strength of which he successively tests with his right foot, and stands contemplating the snuffy door. A knocker painted in villanous green—a lion-headed knocker, of grave deportment, looking as savage as lion can well do in this chivalrous atmosphere, looks admonitiously at him. "Well!" he sighs as he raises it, "there's no knowing what sort of a reception I may get." He has raised the monster's head and given three gentle taps. Suddenly a frisking and whispering, shutting of doors and tripping of feet, is heard within; and after a lapse of several minutes the door swings carefully open, and the dilapidated figure of an old negro woman, lean, shrunken, and black as Egyptian darkness—with serious face and hanging lip, the picture of piety and starvation, gruffly asks who he is and what he wants?
Having requested an interview with her mistress, this decrepit specimen of human infirmity half closes the door against him and doddles back. A slight whispering, and Mrs. Swiggs is heard to say—"show him into the best parlor." And into the best parlor, and into the august presence of Mrs. Swiggs is he ushered. The best parlor is a little, dingy room, low of ceiling, and skirted with a sombre-colored surbase, above which is papering, the original color of which it would be difficult to discover. A listen carpet, much faded and patched, spreads over the floor, the walls are hung with several small engravings, much valued for their age and associations, but so crooked as to give one the idea of the house having withstood a storm at sea; and the furniture is made up of a few venerable mahogany chairs, a small side-table, on which stands, much disordered, several well-worn books and papers, two patch-covered foot-stools, a straight-backed rocking-chair, in which the august woman rocks her straighter self, and a great tin cage, from between the bars of which an intelligent parrot chatters—"my lady, my lady, my lady!" There is a cavernous air about the place, which gives out a sickly odor, exciting the suggestion that it might at some time have served as a receptacle for those second-hand coffins the State buries its poor in.
"Well! who are you? And what do you want? You have brought letters, I s'pose?" a sharp, squeaking voice, speaks rapidly.
The young man, without waiting for an invitation to sit down, takes nervously a seat at the side-table, saying he has come on a mission of love.
"Love! love! eh? Young man—know that you have got into the wrong house!" Mrs. Swiggs shakes her head, squeaking out with great animation.
There she sits, Milton's "Paradise Lost" in her witch-like fingers, herself lean enough for the leanest of witches, and seeming to have either shrunk away from the faded black silk dress in which she is clad, or passed through half a century of starvation merely to bolster up her dignity. A sharp, hatchet-face, sallow and corrugated; two wicked gray eyes, set deep in bony sockets; a long, irregular nose, midway of which is adjusted a pair of broad, brass-framed spectacles; a sunken, purse-drawn mouth, with two discolored teeth protruding from her upper lip; a high, narrow forehead, resembling somewhat crumpled parchment; a dash of dry, brown hair relieving the ponderous border of her steeple-crowned cap, which she seems to have thrown on her head in a hurry; a moth-eaten, red shawl thrown spitefully over her shoulders, disclosing a sinewy and sassafras-colored neck above, and the small end of a gold chain in front, and, reader, you have the august Mrs. Swiggs, looking as if she diets on chivalry and sour krout. She is indeed a nice embodiment of several of those qualities which the State clings tenaciously to, and calls its own, for she lives on the labor of eleven aged negroes, five of whom are cripples.
The young man smiles, as Mrs. Swiggs increases the velocity of her rocking, lays her right hand on the table, rests her left on her Milton, and continues to reiterate that he has got into the wrong house.
"I have no letter, Madam—"
"I never receive people without letters—never!" again she interrupts, testily.
"But you see, Madam—"
"No I don't. I don't see anything about it!" again she interposes, adjusting her spectacles, and scanning him anxiously from head to foot. "Ah, yes (she twitches her head), I see what you are—"
"I was going to say, if you please, Madam, that my mission may serve as a passport—"
"I'm of a good family, you must know, young man. You could have learned that of anybody before seeking this sort of an introduction. Any of our first families could have told you about me. You must go your way, young man!" And she twitches her head, and pulls closer about her lean shoulders the old red shawl.
"I (if you will permit me, Madam) am not ignorant of the very high standing of your famous family—" Madam interposes by saying, every muscle of her frigid face unmoved the while, she is glad he knows something, "having read of them in a celebrated work by one of our more celebrated genealogists—"
"But you should have brought a letter from the Bishop! and upon that based your claims to a favorable reception. Then you have read of Sir Sunderland Swiggs, my ancestor? Ah! he was such a Baron, and owned such estates in the days of Elizabeth. But you should have brought a letter, young man." Mrs. Swiggs replies rapidly, alternately raising and lowering her squeaking voice, twitching her head, and grasping tighter her Milton.
"Those are his arms and crest." She points with her Milton to a singular hieroglyphic, in a wiry black frame, resting on the marble-painted mantelpiece. "He was very distinguished in his time; and such an excellent Christian." She shakes her head and wipes the tears from her spectacles, as her face, which had before seemed carved in wormwood, slightly relaxes the hardness of its muscles.
"I remember having seen favorable mention of Sir Sunderland's name in the book I refer to—"
She again interposes. The young man watches her emotions with a penetrating eye, conscious that he has touched a chord in which all the milk of kindness is not dried up.
"It's a true copy of the family arms. Everybody has got to having arms now-a-days. (She points to the indescribable scrawl over the mantelpiece.) It was got through Herald King, of London, who they say keeps her Majesty's slippers and the great seal of State. We were very exact, you see. Yes, sir—we were very exact. Our vulgar people, you see—I mean such as have got up by trade, and that sort of thing—went to a vast expense in sending to England a man of great learning and much aforethought, to ransack heraldry court and trace out their families. Well, he went, lived very expensively, spent several years abroad, and being very clever in his way, returned, bringing them all pedigrees of the very best kind. With only two exceptions, he traced them all down into noble blood. These two, the cunning fellow had it, came of martyrs. And to have come of the blood of martyrs, when all the others, as was shown, came of noble blood, so displeased—the most ingenious (the old lady shakes her head regrettingly) can't please everybody—the living members of these families, that they refused to pay the poor man for his researches, so he was forced to resort to a suit at law. And to this day (I don't say it disparagingly of them!) both families stubbornly refuse to accept the pedigree. They are both rich grocers, you see! and on this account we were very particular about ours."
The young man thought it well not to interrupt the old woman's display of weakness, inasmuch as it might produce a favorable change in her feelings.
"And now, young man, what mission have you besides love?" she inquires, adding an encouraging look through her spectacles.
"I am come to intercede—"
"You needn't talk of interceding with me; no you needn't! I've nothing to intercede about"—she twitches her head spitefully.
"In behalf of your son."
"There—there! I knew there was some mischief. You're a Catholic! I knew it. Never saw one of your black-coated flock about that there wasn't mischief brewing—never! I can't read my Milton in peace for you—"
"But your son is in prison, Madam, among criminals, and subject to the influence of their habits—"
"Precisely where I put him—where he won't disgrace the family; yes, where he ought to be, and where he shall rot, for all me. Now, go your way, young man; and read your Bible at home, and keep out of prisons; and don't be trying to make Jesuits of hardened scamps like that Tom of mine."
"I am a Christian: I would like to extend a Christian's hand to your son. I may replace him on the holy pedestal he has fallen from—"
"You are very aggravating, young man. Do you live in South Carolina?"
The young man says he does. He is proud of the State that can boast so many excellent families.
"I am glad of that," she says, looking querulously over her spectacles, as she twitches her chin, and increases the velocity of her rocking. "I wonder how folks can live out of it."
"As to that, Madam, permit me to say, I am happy to see and appreciate your patriotism; but if you will grant me an order of release—"
"I won't hear a word now! You're very aggravating, young man—very! He has disgraced the family; I have put him where he is seven times; he shall rot were he is! He never shall disgrace the family again. Think of Sir Sunderland Swiggs, and then think of him, and see what a pretty level the family has come to! That's the place for him, I have told him a dozen times how I wished him gone. The quicker he is out of the way, the better for the name of the family."
The young man waits the end of this colloquy with a smile on his countenance. "I have no doubt I can work your son's reform—perhaps make him an honor to the family—"
"He honor the family!" she interrupts, twitches the shawl about her shoulders, and permits herself to get into a state of general excitement. "I should like to see one who has disgraced the family as much as he has think of honoring it—"
"Through kindness and forbearance, Madam, a great deal may be done," the young man replies.
"Now, you are very provoking, young man—very. Let other people alone; go your way home, and study your Bible." And with this the old lady calls Rebecca, the decrepit slave who opened the door, and directs her to show the young man out. "There now!" she says testily, turning to the marked page of her Milton.
The young man contemplates her for a few moments, but, having no alternative, leaves reluctantly.
On reaching the stoop he encounters the tall, handsome figure of a man, whose face is radiant with smiles, and his features ornamented with neatly-combed Saxon hair and beard, and who taps the old negress under the chin playfully, as she says, "Missus will be right glad to see you, Mr. Snivel—that she will." And he bustles his way laughing into the presence of the old lady, as if he had news of great importance for her.