An Outcast/Chapter V
Reader! have you ever witnessed how cleverly one of our mob-politicians can, through the all-soothing medium of a mint-julep, transpose himself from a mass of passion and bad English into a child of perfect equanimity? If not, perhaps you have witnessed in our halls of Congress the sudden transition through which some of our Carolina members pass from a state of stupidity to a state of pugnacity? (We refer only to those members who do their own "stumping," and as a natural consequence, get into Congress through abuse of the North, bad whiskey, and a profusion of promises to dissolve the Union.) And if you have, you may form some idea of the suddenness with which Lady Swiggs, as she delights in having her friends call her, transposes herself from the incarnation of a viper into a creature of gentleness, on hearing announced the name of Mr. Soloman Snivel.
"What!—my old friend! I wish I had words to say how glad I am to see you, Lady Swiggs!" exclaims a tall, well-proportioned and handsome-limbed man, to whose figure a fashionable claret-colored frock coat, white vest, neatly-fitting dark-brown trowsers, highly-polished boots, a cluster of diamonds set in an avalanche of corded shirt-bosom, and carelessly-tied green cravat, lend a respectability better imagined than described. A certain reckless dash about him, not common to a refined gentleman, forces us to set him down as one of those individuals who hold an uncertain position in society; and though they may now and then mingle with men of refinement, have their more legitimate sphere in a fashionable world of doubtful character.
"Why!—Mr. Snivel. Is it you?" responds the old woman, reciprocating his warm shake of the hand, and getting her hard face into a smile.
"I am so glad—But (Mr. Snivel interrupts himself) never mind that!"
"You have some important news?" hastily inquires Mrs. Swiggs, laying a bit of muslin carefully between the pages of her Milton, and returning it to the table, saying she has just been grievously provoked by one of that black-coated flock who go about the city in search of lambs. They always remind her of light-houses pointing the road to the dominions of the gentleman in black.
"Something very important!" parenthesises Soloman—"very." And he shakes his head, touches her significantly on the arm with his orange-colored glove,—he smiles insidiously.
"Pray be seated, Mr. Snivel. Rebecca!—bring Mr. Snivel the rocking-chair."
"You see, my good Madam, there's such a rumor about town this morning! (Soloman again taps her on the arm with his glove.) The cat has got out of the bag—it's all up with the St. Cecilia!—"
"Do, Rebecca, make haste with the rocking-chair!" eagerly interrupts the old woman, addressing herself to the negress, who fusses her way into the room with a great old-fashioned rocking-chair. "I am so sensitive of the character of that society," she continues with a sigh, and wipes and rubs her spectacles, gets up and views herself in the glass, frills over her cap border, and becomes very generally anxious. Mrs. Swiggs is herself again. She nervously adjusts the venerable red shawl about her shoulders, draws the newly-introduced arm-chair near her own, ("I'm not so old, but am getting a little deaf," she says), and begs her visitor will be seated.
Mr. Soloman, having paced twice or thrice up and down the little room, contemplating himself in the glass at each turn, now touching his neatly-trimmed Saxon mustache and whiskers, then frisking his fingers through his candy-colored hair, brings his dignity into the chair.
"I said it was all up with the St. Cecilia—"
"Yes!" interrupts Mrs. Swiggs, her eyes glistening like balls of fire, her lower jaw falling with the weight of anxiety, and fretting rapidly her bony hands.
Soloman suddenly pauses, says that was a glorious bottle of old Madeira with which he enjoyed her hospitality on his last visit. The flavor of it is yet fresh in his mouth.
"Thank you—thank you! Mr. Soloman. I've a few more left. But pray lose no time in disclosing to me what hath befallen the St. Cecilia."
"Well then—but what I say must be in confidence. (The old woman says it never shall get beyond her lips—never!) An Englishman of goodly looks, fashion, and money—and, what is more in favor with our first families, a Sir attached to his name, being of handsome person and accomplished manners, and travelling and living after the manner of a nobleman, (some of our first families are simple enough to identify a Baronet with nobility!) was foully set upon by the fairest and most marriageable belles of the St. Cecilia. If he had possessed a dozen hearts, he could have had good markets for them all. There was such a getting up of attentions! Our fashionable mothers did their very best in arraying the many accomplishments of their consignable daughters, setting forth in the most foreign but not over-refined phraseology, their extensive travels abroad—"
"Yes!" interrupts Mrs. Swiggs, nervously—"I know how they do it. It's a pardonable weakness." And she reaches out her hand and takes to her lap her inseparable Milton.
"And the many marked attentions—offers, in fact—they have received at the hands of Counts and Earls, with names so unpronounceable that they have outlived memory—"
"Perhaps I have them in my book of autographs!" interrupts the credulous old woman, making an effort to rise and proceed to an antique side-board covered with grotesque-looking papers.
Mr. Soloman urbanely touches her on the arm—begs she will keep her seat. The names only apply to things of the past. He proceeds, "Well—being a dashing fellow, as I have said—he played his game charmingly. Now he flirted with this one, and then with that one, and finally with the whole society, not excepting the very flirtable married ladies;—that is, I mean those whose husbands were simple enough to let him. Mothers were in a great flutter generally, and not a day passed but there was a dispute as to which of their daughters he would link his fortunes with and raise to that state so desirable in the eyes of our very republican first families—the State-Militant of nobility—"
"I think none the worse of 'em for that," says the old woman, twitching her wizard-like head in confirmation of her assertion. "My word for it, Mr. Soloman, to get up in the world, and to be above the common herd, is the grand ambition of our people; and our State has got the grand position it now holds before the world through the influence of this ambition."
"True!—you are right there, my dear friend. You may remember, I have always said you had the penetration of a statesman, (Mrs. Swiggs makes a curt bow, as a great gray cat springs into her lap and curls himself down on her Milton;) and, as I was going on to say of this dashing Baronet, he played our damsels about in agony, as an old sportsman does a covey of ducks, wounding more in the head than in the heart, and finally creating no end of a demand for matrimony. To-day, all the town was positive, he would marry the beautiful Miss Boggs; to-morrow it was not so certain that he would not marry the brilliant and all-accomplished Miss Noggs; and the next day he was certain of marrying the talented and very wealthy heiress, Miss Robbs. Mrs. Stepfast, highly esteemed in fashionable society, and the very best gossip-monger in the city, had confidentially spread it all over the neighborhood that Mr. Stepfast told her the young Baronet told him (and he verily believed he was head and ears in love with her!) Miss Robbs was the most lovely creature he had seen since he left Belgravia. And then he went into a perfect rhapsody of excitement while praising the poetry of her motion, the grace with which she performed the smallest offices of the drawing-room, her queenly figure, her round, alabaster arms, her smooth, tapering hands, (so chastely set off with two small diamonds, and so unlike the butchers' wives of this day, who bedazzle themselves all the day long with cheap jewelry,)—the beautiful swell of her marble bust, the sweet smile ever playing over her thoughtful face, the regularity of her Grecian features, and those great, languishing eyes, constantly flashing with the light of irresistible love. Quoth ye! according to what Mr. Stepfast told Mrs. Stepfast, the young Baronet would, with the ideal of a real poet, as was he, have gone on recounting her charms until sundown, had not Mr. Stepfast invited him to a quiet family dinner. And to confirm what Mr. Stepfast said, Miss Robbs had been seen by Mrs. Windspin looking in at Mrs. Stebbins', the fashionable dress-maker, while the young Baronet had twice been at Spears', in King Street, to select a diamond necklace of great value, which he left subject to the taste of Miss Robbs. And putting them two and them two together there was something in it!"
"I am truly glad it's nothing worse. There has been so much scandal got up by vulgar people against our St. Cecilia."
"Worse, Madam?" interpolates our hero, ere she has time to conclude her sentence, "the worst is to come yet."
"And I'm a member of the society!" Mrs. Swiggs replies with a languishing sigh, mistaking the head of the cat for her Milton, and apologizing for her error as that venerable animal, having got well squeezed, sputters and springs from her grasp, shaking his head, "elected solely on the respectability of my family."
Rather a collapsed member, by the way, Mr. Soloman thinks, contemplating her facetiously.
"Kindly proceed—proceed," she says, twitching at her cap strings, as if impatient to get the sequel.
"Well, as to that, being a member of the St. Cecilia myself, you see, and always—(I go in for a man keeping up in the world)—maintaining a high position among its most distinguished members, who, I assure you, respect me far above my real merits, (Mrs. Swiggs says we won't say anything about that now!) and honor me with all its secrets, I may, even in your presence, be permitted to say, that I never heard a member who didn't speak in high praise of you and the family of which you are so excellent a representative."
"Thank you—thank you. O thank you, Mr. Soloman!" she rejoins.
"Why, Madam, I feel all my veneration getting into my head at once when I refer to the name of Sir Sunderland Swiggs."
"But pray what came of the young Baronet?"
"Oh!—as to him, why, you see, he was what we call—it isn't a polite word, I confess—a humbug."
"A Baronet a humbug!" she exclaims, fretting her hands and commencing to rock herself in the chair.
"Well, as to that, as I was going on to say, after he had beat the bush all around among the young birds, leaving several of them wounded on the ground—you understand this sort of thing—he took to the older ones, and set them polishing up their feathers. And having set several very respectable families by the ears, and created a terrible flutter among a number of married dames—he was an adept in this sort of diplomacy, you see—it was discovered that one very distinguished Mrs. Constance, leader of fashion to the St. Cecilia, (and on that account on no very good terms with the vulgar world, that was forever getting up scandal to hurl at the society that would not permit it to soil, with its common muslin, the fragrant atmosphere of its satin and tulle), had been carrying on a villanous intrigue—yes, Madam! villanous intrigue! I said discovered: the fact was, this gallant Baronet, with one servant and no establishment, was feted and fooled for a month, until he came to the very natural and sensible conclusion, that we were all snobbs—yes, snobbs of the very worst kind. But there was no one who fawned over and flattered the vanity of this vain man more than the husband of Mrs. Constance. This poor man idolized his wife, whom he regarded as the very diamond light of purity, nor ever mistrusted that the Baronet's attentions were bestowed with any other than the best of motives. Indeed, he held it extremely condescending on the part of the Baronet to thus honor the family with his presence.
"And the Baronet, you see, with that folly so characteristic of Baronets, was so flushed with his success in this little intrigue with Madame Constance—the affair was too good for him to keep!—that he went all over town showing her letters. Such nice letters as they were—brim full of repentance, love, and appointments. The Baronet read them to Mr. Barrows, laughing mischievously, and saying what a fool the woman must be. Mr. Barrows couldn't keep it from Mrs. Barrows, Mrs. Barrows let the cat out of the bag to Mrs. Simpson, and Mrs. Simpson would let Mr. Simpson have no peace till he got on the soft side of the Baronet, and, what was not a difficult matter, got two of the letters for her to have a peep into. Mrs. Simpson having feasted her eyes on the two Mr. Simpson got of the Baronet, and being exceedingly fond of such wares as they contained, must needs—albeit, in strict confidence—whisper it to Mrs. Fountain, who was a very fashionable lady, but unfortunately had a head very like a fountain, with the exception that it ejected out double the amount it took in. Mrs. Fountain—as anybody might have known—let it get all over town. And then the vulgar herd took it up, as if it were assafœtida, only needing a little stirring up, and hurled it back at the St. Cecilia, the character of which it would damage without a pang of remorse.
"Then the thing got to Constance's ears; and getting into a terrible passion, poor Constance swore nothing would satisfy him but the Baronet's life. But the Baronet—"
"A sorry Baronet was he—not a bit like my dear ancestor, Sir Sunderland," Mrs. Swiggs interposes.
"Not a bit, Madam," bows our hero. "Like a sensible gentleman, as I was about to say, finding it getting too hot for him, packed up his alls, and in the company of his unpaid servant, left for parts westward of this. I had a suspicion the fellow was not what he should be; and I made it known to my select friends of the St. Cecilia, who generally pooh-poohed me. A nobleman, they said, should receive every attention. And to show that he wasn't what he should be, when he got to Augusta his servant sued him for his wages; and having nothing but his chivalry, which the servant very sensibly declined to accept for payment, he came out like a man, and declared himself nothing but a poor player.
"But this neither satisfied Constance nor stayed the drifting current of slander—"
"Oh! I am so glad it was no worse," Mrs. Swiggs interrupts again.
"True!" Mr. Soloman responds, laughing heartily, as he taps her on the arm. "It might have been worse, though. Well, I am, as you know, always ready to do a bit of a good turn for a friend in need, and pitying poor Constance as I did, I suggested a committee of four most respectable gentlemen, and myself, to investigate the matter. The thing struck Constance favorably, you see. So we got ourselves together, agreed to consider ourselves a Congress, talked over the affairs of the nation, carried a vote to dissolve the Union, drank sundry bottles of Champagne, (I longed for a taste of your old Madeira, Mrs. Swiggs,) and brought in a verdict that pleased Mrs. Constance wonderfully—and so it ought. We were, after the most careful examination, satisfied that the reports prejudicial to the character and standing of Mrs. Constance had no foundation in truth, being the base fabrications of evil-minded persons, who sought, while injuring an innocent lady, to damage the reputation of the St. Cecilia Society. Mr. Constance was highly pleased with the finding; and finally it proved the sovereign balm that healed all their wounds. Of course, the Knight, having departed, was spared his blood."
Here Mr. Soloman makes a pause. Mrs. Swiggs, with a sigh, says, "Is that all?"
"Quite enough for once, my good Madam," Mr. Soloman bows in return.
"Oh! I am so glad the St. Cecilia is yet spared to us. You said, you know, it was all up with it—"
"Up? up?—so it is! That is, it won't break it up, you know. Why—oh, I see where the mistake is—it isn't all over, you know, seeing how the society can live through a score of nine-months scandals. But the thing's in every vulgar fellow's lips—that is the worst of it."
Mrs. Swiggs relishes this bit of gossip as if it were a dainty morsel; and calling Rebecca, she commands her to forthwith proceed into the cellar and bring a bottle of the old Madeira—she has only five left—for Mr. Soloman. And to Mr. Soloman's great delight, the old negress hastily obeys the summons; brings forth a mass of cobweb and dust, from which a venerable black bottle is disinterred, uncorked, and presented to the guest, who drinks the health of Mrs. Swiggs in sundry well-filled glasses, which he declares choice, adding, that it always reminds him of the age and dignity of the family. Like the State, dignity is Mrs. Swiggs' weakness—her besetting sin. Mr. Soloman, having found the key to this vain woman's generosity, turns it when it suits his own convenience.
"By-the-bye," he suddenly exclaims, "you've got Tom locked up again."
"As safe as he ever was, I warrant ye!" Mrs. Swiggs replies, resuming her Milton and rocking-chair.
"Upon my faith I agree with you. Never let him get out, for he is sure to disgrace the family when he does—"
"I've said he shall rot there, and he shall rot! He never shall get out to disgrace the family—no, not if I live to be as gray as Methuselah, I warrant you!" And Mr. Soloman, having made his compliments to the sixth glass, draws from his breast pocket a legal-looking paper, which he passes to Mrs. Swiggs, as she ejaculates, "Oh! I am glad you thought of that."
Mr. Soloman, watching intently the changes of her face, says, "You will observe, Madam, I have mentioned the cripples. There are five of them. We are good friends, you see; and it is always better to be precise in those things. It preserves friendship. This is merely a bit of a good turn I do for you." Mr. Soloman bows, makes an approving motion with his hands, and lays at her disposal on the table, a small roll of bills. "You will find two hundred dollars there," he adds, modulating his voice. "You will find it all right; I got it for you of Keepum. We do a little in that way; he is very exact, you see—"
"Honor is the best security between people of our standing," she rejoins, taking up a pen and signing the instrument, which her guest deposits snugly in his pocket, and takes his departure for the house of Madame Flamingo.