An Outcast/Chapter IV
Disappointed, and not a little chagrined, at the failure of his mission, the young man muses over the next best course to pursue. He has the inebriate's welfare at heart; he knows there is no state of degradation so low that the victim cannot, under proper care, be reclaimed from it; and he feels duty calling loudly to him not to stand trembling on the brink, but to enter the abode of the victim, and struggle to make clean the polluted. Vice, he says to himself, is not entailed in the heart; and if you would modify and correct the feelings inclined to evil, you must first feed the body, then stimulate the ambition; and when you have got the ambition right, seek a knowledge of the heart, and apply to it those mild and judicious remedies which soften its action, and give life to new thoughts and a higher state of existence. Once create the vine of moral rectitude, and its branches will soon get where they can take care of themselves. But to give the vine creation in poor soil, your watching must exhibit forbearance, and your care a delicate hand. The stubbornly-inclined nature, when coupled with ignorance, is that in which vice takes deepest root, as it is, when educated, that against which vice is least effectual. To think of changing the natural inclination of such natures with punishment, or harsh correctives, is as useless as would be an attempt to stop the ebbing and flowing of the tide. You must nurture the feelings, he thought, create a susceptibility, get the heart right, by holding out the value of a better state of things, and make the head to feel that you are sincere in your work of love; and, above all, you must not forget the stomach, for if that go empty crime will surely creep into the head. You cannot correct moral infirmity by confining the victim of it among criminals, for no greater punishment can be inflicted on the feelings of man; and punishment destroys rather than encourages the latent susceptibility of our better nature. In nine cases out of ten, improper punishment makes the hardened criminals with which your prisons are filled, destroying forever that spark of ambition which might have been fostered into a means to higher ends.
And as the young man thus muses, there recurs to his mind the picture of old Absalom McArthur, a curious old man, but excessively kind, and always ready to do "a bit of a good turn for one in need," as he would say when a needy friend sought his assistance. McArthur is a dealer in curiosities, is a venerable curiosity himself, and has always something on hand to meet the wants of a community much given to antiquity and broken reputations.
The young theologian will seek this good old man. He feels that time will work a favorable revolution in the feelings of Tom's mother; and to be prepared for that happy event he will plead a shelter for him under McArthur's roof.
And now, generous reader, we will, with your permission, permit him to go on his errand of mercy, while we go back and see how Tom prospers at the old prison. You, we well know, have not much love of prisons. But unless we do now and then enter them, our conceptions of how much misery man can inflict upon man will be small indeed.
The man of sailor-like deportment, and whom the prisoners salute with the sobriquet of "Old Spunyarn," entered, you will please remember, the cell, as the young theologian left in search of Mrs. Swiggs, "I thought I'd just haul my tacks aboard, run up a bit, and see what sort of weather you were making, Tom," says he, touching clumsily his small-brimmed, plait hat, as he recognizes the young man, whom he salutes in that style so frank and characteristic of the craft. "He's a bit better, sir—isn't he?" inquires Spunyarn, his broad, honest face, well browned and whiskered, warming with a glow of satisfaction.
Receiving an answer in the affirmative, he replies he is right glad of it, not liking to see a shipmate in a drift. And he gives his quid a lurch aside, throws his hat carelessly upon the floor, shrugs his shoulders, and as he styles it, nimbly brings himself to a mooring, at Tom's side. "It's a hard comforter, this state. I don't begrudge your mother the satisfaction she gets of sending you here. In her eyes, ye see, yeer fit only to make fees out on, for them ar lawyer chaps. They'd keep puttin' a body in an' out here during his natural life, just for the sake of gettin', the fees. They don't care for such things as you and I. We hain't no rights; and if we had, why we hain't no power. This carry in' too much head sail, Tom, won't do—'twon't!" Spunyarn shakes his head reprovingly, fusses over Tom, turns him over on his wales, as he has it, and finally gets him on his beam's ends, a besotted wreck unable to carry his canvas. "Lost yeer reckoning eh, Tom?" he continues as that bewildered individual stares vacantly at him. The inebriate contorts painfully his face, presses and presses his hands to his burning forehead, and says they are firing a salute in his head, using his brains for ammunition.
"Well, now Tom, seein' as how I'm a friend of yourn—"
"Friend of mine?" interrupts Tom, shaking his head, and peering through his fingers mistrustfully.
"And this is a hard lee shore you've beached upon; I'll lend ye a hand to get in the head sail, and get the craft trimmed up a little. A dash of the same brine will help keep the ballast right, then a skysail-yard breakfast must be carefully stowed away, in order to give a firmness to the timbers, and on the strength of these two blocks for shoring up the hull, you must begin little by little, and keep on brightening up until you have got the craft all right again. And when you have got her right you must keep her right. I say, Tom!—it won't do. You must reef down, or the devil'll seize the helm in one of these blows, and run you into a port too warm for pea-jackets." For a moment, Spunyarn seems half inclined to grasp Tom by his collarless coat and shake the hydrophobia, as he calls it, out of him; then, as if incited by a second thought, he draws from his shirt-bosom a large, wooden comb, and humming a tune commences combing and fussing over Tom's hair, which stands erect over his head like marlinspikes. At length he gets a craft-like set upon his foretop, and turning his head first to the right, then to the left, as a child does a doll, he views him with an air of exultation. "I tell you what it is, Tom," he continues, relieving him of the old coat, "the bright begins to come! There's three points of weather made already."
"God bless you, Spunyarn," replies Tom, evidently touched by the frankness and generosity of the old sailor. Indeed there was something so whole-hearted about old Spunyarn, that he was held in universal esteem by every one in jail, with the single exception of Milman Mingle, the vote-cribber.
"Just think of yourself, Tom—don't mind me," pursues the sailor as Tom squeezes firmly his hand. "You've had a hard enough time of it—" Tom interrupts by saying, as he lays his hands upon his sides, he is sore from head to foot.
"Don't wonder," returns the sailor. "It's a great State, this South Carolina. It seems swarming with poor and powerless folks. Everybody has power to put everybody in jail, where the State gives a body two dog's-hair and rope-yarn blankets to lay upon, and grants the sheriff, Mr. Hardscrable, full license to starve us, and put the thirty cents a day it provides for our living into his breeches pockets. Say what you will about it, old fellow, it's a brief way of doing a little profit in the business of starvation. I don't say this with any ill-will to the State that regards its powerless and destitute with such criminal contempt—I don't." And he brings water, gets Tom upon his feet, forces him into a clean shirt, and regards him in the light of a child whose reformation he is determined on perfecting. He sees that in the fallen man which implies a hope of ultimate usefulness, notwithstanding the sullen silence, the gloomy frown on his knitted brow, and the general air of despair that pervades the external man.
"There!" he exclaims, having improved the personal of the inebriate, and folding his arms as he steps back apace to have a better view of his pupil—"now, don't think of being triced up in this dreary vault. Be cheerful, brace up your resolution—never let the devil think you know he is trying to put the last seal on your fate—never!" Having slipped the black kerchief from his own neck, he secures it about Tom's, adjusts the shark's bone at the throat, and mounts the braid hat upon his head with a hearty blow on the crown. "Look at yourself! They'd mistake you for a captain of the foretop," he pursues, and good-naturedly he lays his broad, browned hands upon Tom's shoulders, and forces him up to a triangular bit of glass secured with three tacks to the wall.
Tom's hands wander down his sides as he contemplates himself in the glass, saying: "I look a shade up, I reckon! And I feel—I have to thank you for it, Spunyarn—something different all over me. God bless you! I won't forget you. But I'm hungry; that's all that ails me now.
"I may thank my mother—"
"Thank yourself, Tom," interposes the sailor.
"For all this. She has driven me to this; yes, she has made my soul dead with despair!" And he bursts into a wild, fierce laugh. A moment's pause, and he says, in a subdued voice, "I'm a slave, a fool, a wanderer in search of his own distress."
The kind-hearted sailor seats his pupil upon a board bench, and proceeds down stairs, where, with the bribe of a glass of whiskey, he induces the negro cook to prepare for Tom a bowl of coffee and a biscuit. In truth, we must confess, that Spunyarn was so exceedingly liberal of his friendship that he would at times appropriate to himself the personal effects of his neighbors. But we must do him justice by saying that this was only when a friend in need claimed his attention. And this generous propensity he the more frequently exercised upon the effects—whiskey, cold ham, crackers and cheese—of the vote-cribber, whom he regards as a sort of cold-hearted land-lubber, whose political friends outside were not what they should be. If the vote-cribber's aristocratic friends (and South Carolina politicians were much given to dignity and bad whiskey) sent him luxuries that tantalized the appetites of poverty-oppressed debtors, and poor prisoners starving on a pound of bread a-day, Spunyarn held this a legitimate plea for holding in utter contempt the right to such gifts. And what was more singular of this man was, that he always knew the latitude and longitude of the vote-cribber's bottle, and what amount of water was necessary to keep up the gauge he had reduced in supplying his flask.
And now that Tom's almost hopeless condition presents a warrantable excuse, (the vote-cribber has this moment passed into the cell to take a cursory glance at Tom,) Spunyarn slips nimbly into the vote-cribber's cell, withdraws a brick from the old chimney, and seizing the black neck of a blacker bottle, drags it forth, holds it in the shadow of the doorway, squints exultingly at the contents, shrugs his stalwart shoulders, and empties a third of the liquid, which he replaces with water from a bucket near by, into his tin-topped flask. This done, he ingeniously replaces the bottle, slides the flask suspiciously into his bosom, saying, "It'll taste just as strong to a vote-cribber," and seeks that greasy potentate, the prison cook. This dignitary has always laid something aside for Spunyarn; he knows Spunyarn has something laid aside for him, which makes the condition mutual.
"A new loafer let loose on the world!" says the vote-cribber, entering the domain of the inebriate with a look of fierce scorn. "The State is pestered to death with such things as you. What do they send you here for?—disturbing the quiet and respectability of the prison! You're only fit to enrich the bone-yard—hardly that; perhaps only for lawyers to get fees of. The State'll starve you, old Hardscrabble'll make a few dollars out of your feed—but what of that? We don't want you here." There was something so sullen and mysterious in the coarse features of this stalwart man—something so revolting in his profession, though it was esteemed necessary to the elevation of men seeking political popularity—something so at variance with common sense in the punishment meted out to him who followed it, as to create a deep interest in his history, notwithstanding his coldness towards the inebriate. And yet you sought in vain for one congenial or redeeming trait in the character of this man.
"I always find you here; you're a fixture, I take it—"
The vote-cribber interrupts the inebriate—"Better have said a patriot!"
"Well," returns the inebriate, "a patriot then; have it as you like it. I'm not over-sensitive of the distinction." The fallen man drops his head into his hands, stabbed with remorse, while the vote-cribber folds his brawny arms leisurely, paces to and fro before him, and scans him with his keen, gray eyes, after the manner of one mutely contemplating an imprisoned animal.
"You need not give yourself so much concern about me—"
"I was only thinking over in my head what a good subject to crib, a week or two before fall election, you'd be. You've a vote?"
Tom good-naturedly says he has. He always throws it for the "old Charleston" party, being sure of a release, as are some dozen caged birds, just before election.
"I have declared eternal hatred against that party; never pays its cribbers!" Mingle scornfully retorts; and having lighted his pipe, continues his pacing. "As for this jail," he mutters to himself, "I've no great respect for it; but there is a wide difference between a man who they put in here for sinning against himself, and one who only violates a law of the State, passed in opposition to popular opinion. However, you seem brightened up a few pegs, and, only let whiskey alone, you may be something yet. Keep up an acquaintance with the pump, and be civil to respectable prisoners, that's all."
This admonition of the vote-cribber had a deeper effect on the feelings of the inebriate than was indicated by his outward manner. He had committed no crime, and yet he found himself among criminals of every kind; and what was worse, they affected to look down upon him. Had he reached a state of degradation so low that even the felon loathed his presence? Was he an outcast, stripped of every means of reform—of making himself a man? Oh no! The knife of the destroyer had plunged deep—disappointment had tortured his brain—he was drawn deeper into the pool of misery by the fatal fascinations of the house of Madame Flamingo, where, shunned by society, he had sought relief—but there was yet one spark of pride lingering in his heart. That spark the vote-cribber had touched; and with that spark Tom resolved to kindle for himself a new existence. He had pledged his honor to the young theologian; he would not violate it.
The old sailor, with elated feelings, and bearing in his hands a bowl of coffee and two slices of toasted bread, is accosted by several suspicious-looking prisoners, who have assembled in the corridor for the purpose of scenting fresh air, with sundry questions concerning the state of his pupil's health.
"He has had a rough night," the sailor answers, "but is now a bit calm. In truth, he only wants a bit of good steering to get him into smooth weather again." Thus satisfying the inquirers, he hurries up stairs as the vote-cribber hurries down, and setting his offering on the window-sill, draws from his bosom the concealed flask. "There, Tom!" he says, with childlike satisfaction, holding the flask before him—"only two pulls. To-morrow reef down to one; and the day after swear a dissolution of copartnership, for this chap (he points to the whiskey) is too mighty for you."
Tom hesitates, as if questioning the quality of the drug he is about to administer.
"Only two!" interrupts the sailor. "It will reduce the ground-swell a bit." The outcast places the flask to his lips, and having drank with contorted face passes it back with a sigh, and extends his right hand. "My honor is nothing to the world, Spunyarn, but it is yet something to me; and by it I swear (here he grasps tighter the hand of the old sailor, as a tear moistens his suffused cheeks) never to touch the poison again. It has grappled me like a fierce animal I could not shake off; it has made me the scoffed of felons—I will cease to be its victim; and having gained the victory, be hereafter a friend to myself."
"God bless you—may you never want a friend, Tom—and may He give you strength to keep the resolution. That's my wish." And the old sailor shook Tom's hand fervently, in pledge of his sincerity.