An Outcast/Chapter VII
Night has thrown her mantle over the city. There is a great gathering of denizens at the house of Madame Flamingo. She has a bal-masque to-night. Her door is beset with richly-caparisoned equipages. The town is on tip-toe to be there; we reluctantly follow it. An hundred gaudily-decorated drinking saloon are filled with gaudier-dressed men. In loudest accent rings the question—"Do you go to Madame Flamingo's to-night?" Gentlemen of the genteel world, in shining broadcloth, touch glasses and answer—"yes!" It is a wonderful city—this of ours. Vice knows no restraint, poverty hath no friends here. We bow before the shrine of midnight revelry; we bring licentiousness to our homes, but we turn a deaf ear to the cries of poverty, and we gloat over the sale of men.
The sickly gas-light throws a sicklier glare over the narrow, unpaved streets. The city is on a frolic, a thing not uncommon with it. Lithe and portly-figured men, bearing dominos in their hands, saunter along the sidewalk, now dangling ponderous watch-chains, then flaunting highly-perfumed cambrics—all puffing the fumes of choice cigars. If accosted by a grave wayfarer—they are going to the opera! They are dressed in the style of opera-goers. And the road to the opera seems the same as that leading to the house of the old hostess. A gaily-equipped carriage approaches. We hear the loud, coarse laughing of those it so buoyantly bears, then there comes full to view the glare of yellow silks and red satins, and doubtful jewels—worn by denizens from whose faded brows the laurel wreath hath fallen. How shrunken with the sorrow of their wretched lives, and yet how sportive they seem! The pale gas-light throws a spectre-like hue over their paler features; the artificial crimson with which they would adorn the withered cheek refuses to lend a charm to features wan and ghastly. The very air is sickly with the odor of their cosmetics. And with flaunting cambrics they bend over carriage sides, salute each and every pedestrian, and receive in return answers unsuited to refined ears. They pass into the dim vista, but we see with the aid of that flickering gas, the shadow of that polluting hand which hastens life into death.
Old Mr. McArthur, who sits smoking his long pipe in the door of his crazy-looking curiosity shop, (he has just parted company with the young theologian, having assured him he would find a place to stow Tom Swiggs in,) wonders where the fashionable world of Charleston can be going? It is going to the house of the Flamingo. The St. Cecilia were to have had a ball to-night; scandal and the greater attractions here have closed its doors.
A long line of carriages files past the door of the old hostess. An incessant tripping of feet, delicately encased in bright-colored slippers; an ominous fluttering of gaudy silks and satins; an inciting glare of borrowed jewelry, mingling with second-hand lace; an heterogeneous gleaming of bare, brawny arms, and distended busts, all lend a sort of barbaric splendor to that mysterious group floating, as it were, into a hall in one blaze of light. A soft carpet, overlain with brown linen, is spread from the curbstone into the hall. Two well-developed policemen guard the entrance, take tickets of those who pass in, and then exchange smiles of recognition with venerable looking gentlemen in masks. The hostess, a clever "business man" in her way, has made the admission fee one dollar. Having paid the authorities ten dollars, and honored every Alderman with a complimentary ticket, who has a better right? No one has a nicer regard for the Board of Aldermen than Madame Flamingo; no one can reciprocate this regard more condescendingly than the honorable Board of Aldermen do. Having got herself arrayed in a dress of sky-blue satin, that ever and anon streams, cloud-like, behind her, and a lace cap of approved fashion, with pink strings nicely bordered in gimp, and a rich Honiton cape, jauntily thrown over her shoulders, and secured under the chin with a great cluster of blazing diamonds, and rows of unpolished pearls at her wrists, which are immersed in crimped ruffles, she doddles up and down the hall in a state of general excitement. A corpulent colored man, dressed in the garb of a beadle,—a large staff in his right hand, a cocked hat on his head, and broad white stripes down his flowing coat, stands midway between the parlor doors. He is fussy enough, and stupid enough, for a Paddington beadle. Now Madame Flamingo looks scornfully at him, scolds him, pushes him aside; he is only a slave she purchased for the purpose; she commands that he gracefully touch his hat (she snatches it from his head, and having elevated it over her own, performs the delicate motion she would have him imitate) to every visitor. The least neglect of duty will incur (she tells him in language he cannot mistake) the penalty of thirty-nine well laid on in the morning. In another minute her fat, chubby-face glows with smiles, her whole soul seems lighted up with childlike enthusiasm; she has a warm welcome for each new comer, retorts saliently upon her old friends, and says—"you know how welcome you all are!" Then she curtsies with such becoming grace. "The house, you know, gentlemen, is a commonwealth to-night." Ah! she recognizes the tall, comely figure of Mr. Soloman, the accommodation man. He did not spring from among the bevy of coat-takers, and hood-retainers, at the extreme end of the great hall, nor from among the heap of promiscuous garments piled in one corner; and yet he is here, looking as if some magic process had brought him from a mysterious labyrinth. "Couldn't get along without me, you see. It's an ambition with me to befriend everybody. If I can do a bit of a good turn for a friend, so much the better!" And he grasps the old hostess by the hand with a self-satisfaction he rather improves by tapping her encouragingly on the shoulder. "You'll make a right good thing of this!—a clear thousand, eh?"
"The fates have so ordained it," smiles naively the old woman.
"Of course the fates could not ordain otherwise—"
"As to that, Mr. Soloman, I sometimes think the gods are with me, and then again I think they are against me. The witches—they have done my fortune a dozen times or more—always predict evil (I consult them whenever a sad fit comes over me), but witches are not to be depended upon! I am sure I think what a fool I am for consulting them at all." She espies, for her trade of sin hath made keen her eye, the venerable figure of Judge Sleepyhorn advancing up the hall, masked. "Couldn't get along without you," she lisps, tripping towards him, and greeting him with the familiarity of an intimate friend. "I'm rather aristocratic, you'll say!—and I confess I am, though a democrat in principle!" And Madame Flamingo confirms what she says with two very dignified nods. As the Judge passes silently in she pats him encouragingly on the back, saying,—"There ain't no one in this house what'll hurt a hair on your head." The Judge heeds not what she says.
"My honor for it, Madame, but I think your guests highly favored, altogether! Fine weather, and the prospect of a bal-masque of Pompeian splendor. The old Judge, eh?"
"The gods smile—the gods smile, Mr. Soloman!" interrupts the hostess, bowing and swaying her head in rapid succession.
"The gods have their eye on him to-night—he's a marked man! A jolly old cove of a Judge, he is! Cares no more about rules and precedents, on the bench, than he does for the rights and precedents some persons profess to have in this house. A high old blade to administer justice, eh?"
"But, you see, Mr. Soloman," the hostess interrupts, a gracious bow keeping time with the motion of her hand, "he is such an aristocratic prop in the character of my house."
"I rather like that, I confess, Madame. You have grown rich off the aristocracy. Now, don't get into a state of excitement!" says Mr. Soloman, fingering his long Saxon beard, and eyeing her mischievously. She sees a bevy of richly-dressed persons advancing up the hall in high glee. Indeed her house is rapidly filling to the fourth story. And yet they come! she says. "The gods are in for a time. I love to make the gods happy."
Mr. Soloman has lain his hand upon her arm retentively.
"It is not that the aristocracy and such good persons as the Judge spend so much here. But they give eclat to the house, and eclat is money. That's it, sir! Gold is the deity of our pantheon! Bless you (the hostess evinces the enthusiasm of a politician), what better evidence of the reputation of my house than is before you, do you want? I've shut up the great Italian opera, with its three squalling prima donnas, which in turn has shut up the poor, silly Empresario as they call him; and the St. Cecilia I have just used up. I'm a team in my way, you see;—run all these fashionable oppositions right into bankruptcy." Never were words spoken with more truth. Want of patronage found all places of rational amusement closed. Societies for intellectual improvement, one after another, died of poverty. Fashionable lectures had attendance only when fashionable lecturers came from the North; and the Northman was sure to regard our taste through the standard of what he saw before him.
The house of the hostess triumphs, and is corpulent of wealth and splendor. To-morrow she will feed with the rich crumbs that fall from her table the starving poor. And although she holds poor virtue in utter contempt, feeding the poor she regards a large score on the passport to a better world. A great marble stairway winds its way upward at the farther end of the hall, and near it are two small balconies, one on each side, presenting barricades of millinery surmounted with the picturesque faces of some two dozen denizens, who keep up an incessant gabbling, interspersed here and there with jeers directed at Mr. Soloman. "Who is he seeking to accommodate to-night?" they inquire, laughing merrily.
The house is full, the hostess has not space for one friend more; she commands the policemen to close doors. An Alderman is the only exception to her fiat. "You see," she says, addressing herself to a courtly individual who has just saluted her with urbane deportment, "I must preserve the otium cum dignitate of my (did I get it right?) standing in society. I don't always get these Latin sayings right. Our Congressmen don't. And, you see, like them, I ain't a Latin scholar, and may be excused for any little slips. Politics and larnin' don't get along well together. Speaking of politics, I confess I rather belong to the Commander and Quabblebum school—I do!"
At this moment (a tuning of instruments is heard in the dancing-hall) the tall figure of the accommodation man is seen, in company of the venerable Judge, passing hurriedly into a room on the right of the winding stairs before described. "Judge!" he exclaims, closing the door quickly after him, "you will be discovered and exposed. I am not surprised at your passion for her, nor the means by which you seek to destroy the relations existing between her and George Mullholland. It is an evidence of taste in you. But she is proud to a fault, and, this I say in friendship, you so wounded her feelings, when you betrayed her to the St. Cecilia, that she has sworn to have revenge on you. George Mullholland, too, has sworn to have your life.
"I tell you what it is, Judge, (the accommodation man assumes the air of a bank director,) I have just conceived—you will admit I have an inventive mind!—a plot that will carry you clean through the whole affair. Your ambition is divided between a passion for this charming creature and the good opinion of better society. The resolution to retain the good opinion of society is doing noble battle in your heart; but it is the weaker vessel, and it always will be so with a man of your mould, inasmuch as such resolutions are backed up by the less fierce elements of our nature. Put this down as an established principle. Well, then, I will take upon myself the betrayal. I will plead you ignorant of the charge, procure her forgiveness, and reconcile the matter with this Mullholland. It's worth an hundred or more, eh?"
The venerable man smiles, shakes his head as if heedless of the admonition, and again covers his face with his domino.
The accommodation man, calling him by his judicial title, says he will yet repent the refusal!
It is ten o'clock. The gentleman slightly colored, who represents a fussy beadle, makes a flourish with his great staff. The doors of the dancing hall are thrown open. Like the rushing of the gulf stream there floods in a motley procession of painted females and masked men—the former in dresses as varied in hue as the fires of remorse burning out their unuttered thoughts. Two and two they jeer and crowd their way along into the spacious hall, the walls of which are frescoed in extravagant mythological designs, the roof painted in fret work, and the cornices interspersed with seraphs in stucco and gilt. The lights of two massive chandeliers throw a bewitching refulgence over a scene at once picturesque and mysterious; and from four tall mirrors secured between the windows, is reflected the forms and movements of the masquers.
Reader! you have nothing in this democratic country with which to successfully compare it. And to seek a comparison in the old world, where vice, as in this city of chivalry, hath a license, serves not our office.
Madame Flamingo, flanked right and left by twelve colored gentlemen, who, their collars decorated with white and pink rosettes, officiate as masters of ceremony, and form a crescent in front of the thronging procession, steps gradually backward, curtsying and bowing, and spreading her hands to her guests, after the manner of my Lord Chamberlain.
Eight colored musicians, (everything is colored here,) perched on a raised platform covered with maroon-colored plush, at the signal of a lusty-tongued call-master, strike up a march, to which the motley throng attempt to keep time. It is martial enough; and discordant enough for anything but keeping time to.
The plush-covered benches filing along the sides and ends of the hall are eagerly sought after and occupied by a strange mixture of lookers on in Vienna. Here the hoary-headed father sits beside a newly-initiated youth who is receiving his first lesson of dissipation. There the grave and chivalric planter sports with the nice young man, who is cultivating a beard and his way into the by-ways. A little further on the suspicious looking gambler sits freely conversing with the man whom a degrading public opinion has raised to the dignity of the judicial bench. Yonder is seen the man who has eaten his way into fashionable society, (and by fashionable society very much caressed in return,) the bosom companion of the man whose crimes have made him an outcast.
Generous reader! contemplate this grotesque assembly; study the object Madame Flamingo has in gathering it to her fold. Does it not present the accessories to wrong doing? Does it not show that the wrong-doer and the criminally inclined, too often receive encouragement by the example of those whoso duty it is to protect society? The spread of crime, alas! for the profession, is too often regarded by the lawyer as rather a desirable means of increasing his trade.
Quadrille follows quadrille, the waltz succeeds the schottish, the scene presents one bewildering maze of flaunting gossamers and girating bodies, now floating sylph-like into the foreground, then whirling seductively into the shadowy vista, where the joyous laugh dies out in the din of voices. The excitement has seized upon the head and heart of the young,—the child who stood trembling between the first and second downward step finds her reeling brain a captive in this snare set to seal her ruin.
Now the music ceases, the lusty-tongued call-master stands surveying what he is pleased to call the oriental splendor of this grotesque assembly. He doesn't know who wouldn't patronize such a house! It suddenly forms in platoon, and marshalled by slightly-colored masters of ceremony, promenades in an oblong figure.
Here, leaning modestly on the arm of a tall figure in military uniform, and advancing slowly up the hall, is a girl of some sixteen summers. Her finely-rounded form is in harmony with the ravishing vivacity of her face, which is beautifully oval. Seen by the glaring gas-light her complexion is singularly clear and pale. But that freshness which had gained her many an admirer, and which gave such a charm to the roundness of early youth, we look for in vain. And yet there is a softness and delicacy about her well-cut and womanly features—a childlike sweetness in her smile—a glow of thoughtfulness in those great, flashing black eyes—an expression of melancholy in which at short intervals we read her thoughts—an incessant playing of those long dark eyelashes, that clothes her charms with an irresistible, a soul-inspiring seductiveness. Her dress, of moire antique, is chasteness itself; her bust exquisite symmetry; it heaves as softly as if touched by some gentle zephyr. From an Haidean brow falls and floats undulating over her marble-like shoulders, the massive folds of her glossy black hair. Nature had indeed been lavish of her gifts on this fair creature, to whose charms no painter could give a touch more fascinating. This girl, whose elastic step and erect carriage contrasts strangely with the languid forms about her, is Anna Bonard, the neglected, the betrayed. There passes and repasses her, now contemplating her with a curious stare, then muttering inaudibly, a man of portly figure, in mask and cowl. He touches with a delicate hand his watch-guard, we see two sharp, lecherous eyes peering through the domino; he folds his arms and pauses a few seconds, as if to survey the metal of her companion, then crosses and recrosses her path. Presently his singular demeanor attracts her attention, a curl of sarcasm is seen on her lip, her brow darkens, her dark orbs flash as of fire,—all the heart-burnings of a soul stung with shame are seen to quicken and make ghastly those features that but a moment before shone lambent as summer lightning. He pauses as with a look of withering scorn she scans him from head to foot, raises covertly her left hand, tossing carelessly her glossy hair on her shoulder, and with lightning quickness snatches with her right the domino from his face. "Hypocrite!" she exclaims, dashing it to the ground, and with her foot placed defiantly upon the domino, assumes a tragic attitude, her right arm extended, and the forefinger of her hand pointing in his face, "Ah!" she continues, in biting accents, "it is against the perfidy of such as you. I have struggled. Your false face, like your heart, needed a disguise. But I have dragged it away, that you may be judged as you are. This is my satisfaction for your betrayal. Oh that I could have deeper revenge!" She has unmasked Judge Sleepyhorn, who stands before the anxious gaze of an hundred night revellers, pressing eagerly to the scene of confusion. Madame Flamingo's house, as you may judge, is much out in its dignity, and in a general uproar. There was something touching—something that the graver head might ponder over, in the words of this unfortunate girl—"I have struggled!" A heedless and gold-getting world seldom enters upon the mystery of its meaning. But it hath a meaning deep and powerful in its appeal to society—one that might serve the good of a commonwealth did society stoop and take it by the hand.
So sudden was the motion with which this girl snatched the mask from the face of the Judge, (he stood as if appalled,) that, ere he had gained his self-possession, she drew from her girdle a pearl-hilted stiletto, and in attempting to ward off the dreadful lunge, he struck it from her hand, and into her own bosom. The weapon fell gory to the floor—the blood trickled down her bodice—a cry of "murder" resounded through the hall! The administrator of justice rushed out of the door as the unhappy girl swooned in the arms of her partner. A scene so confused and wild that it bewilders the brain, now ensued. Madame Flamingo calls loudly for Mr. Soloman; and as the reputation of her house is uppermost in her thoughts, she atones for its imperiled condition by fainting in the arms of a grave old gentleman, who was beating a hasty retreat, and whose respectability she may compromise through this uncalled-for act.
A young man of slender form, and pale, sandy features, makes his way through the crowd, clasps Anna affectionately in his arms, imprints a kiss on her pallid brow, and bears her out of the hall.
By the aid of hartshorn and a few dashes of cold water, the old hostess is pleased to come to, as we say, and set about putting her house in order. Mr. Soloman, to the great joy of those who did not deem it prudent to make their escape, steps in to negotiate for the peace of the house and the restoration of order. "It is all the result of a mistake," he says laughingly, and good-naturedly, patting every one he meets on the shoulder. "A little bit of jealousy on the part of the girl. It all had its origin in an error that can be easily rectified. In a word, there's much ado about nothing in the whole of it. Little affairs of this kind are incident to fashionable society all over the world! The lady being only scratched, is more frightened than hurt. Nobody is killed; and if there were, why killings are become so fashionable, that if the killed be not a gentleman, nobody thinks anything of it," he continues. And Mr. Soloman being an excellent diplomatist, does, with the aid of the hostess, her twelve masters of ceremony, her beadle, and two policemen, forthwith bring the house to a more orderly condition. But night has rolled into the page of the past, the gray dawn of morning is peeping in at the half-closed windows, the lights burning in the chandeliers shed a pale glow over the wearied features of those who drag, as it were, their languid bodies to the stifled music of unwilling slaves. And while daylight seems modestly contending with the vulgar glare within, there appears among the pale revellers a paler ghost, who, having stalked thrice up and down the hall, preserving the frigidity and ghostliness of the tomb, answering not the questions that are put to him, and otherwise deporting himself as becometh a ghost of good metal, is being taken for a demon of wicked import. Now he pauses at the end of the hall, faces with spectre-like stare the alarmed group at the opposite end, rests his left elbow on his scythe-staff, and having set his glass on the floor, points to its running sands warningly with his right forefinger. Not a muscle does he move. "Truly a ghost!" exclaims one. "A ghost would have vanished before this," whispers another. "Speak to him," a third responds, as the musicians are seen to pale and leave their benches. Madame Flamingo, pale and weary, is first to rush for the door, shrieking as his ghostship turns his grim face upon her. Shriek follows shriek, the lights are put out, the gray dawn plays upon and makes doubly frightful the spectre. A Pandemonium of shriekings and beseechings is succeeded by a stillness as of the tomb. Our ghost is victor.