An Outcast/Chapter XIX
While the scene we have related in the foregoing chapter was being enacted, there might be seen pacing the great colonnade of the Charleston hotel, the tall figure of a man wrapped in a massive talma. Heedless of the throng of drinkers gathered in the spacious bar-room, making the very air echo with their revelry, he pauses every few moments, watches intently up and then down Meeting street, now apparently contemplating the twinkling stars, then turning as if disappointed, and resuming his sallies. "He will not come to night," he mutters, as he pauses at the "Ladies' door," then turns and rings the bell. The well-dressed and highly-perfumed servant who guards the door, admits him with a scrutinizing eye. "Beg pardon," he says, with a mechanical bow. He recognizes the stranger, bows, and motions his hands. "Twice," continues the servant, "she has sent a messenger to inquire of your coming." The figure in the talma answers with a bow, slips something into the hand of the servant, passes softly up the great stairs, and is soon lost to sight. In another minute he enters, without knocking, a spacious parlor, decorated and furnished most sumptuously. "How impatiently I have waited your coming," whispers, cautiously, a richly-dressed lady, as she rises from a velvet covered lounge, on which she had reclined, and extends her hand to welcome him.
"Madame, your most obedient," returns the man, bowing and holding her delicate hand in his. "You have something of importance,—something to relieve my mind?" she inquires, watching his lips, trembling, and in anxiety. "Nothing definite," he replies, touching her gently on the arm, as she begs him to be seated in the great arm-chair. He lays aside his talma, places his gloves on the centre-table, which is heaped with an infinite variety of delicately-enveloped missives and cards, all indicative of her position in fashionable society. "I may say, Madame, that I sympathize with you in your anxiety; but as yet I have discovered nothing to relieve it." Madame sighs, and draws her chair near him, in silence. "That she is the woman you seek I cannot doubt. While on the Neck, I penetrated the shanty of one Thompson, a poor mechanic—our white mechanics, you see, are very poor, and not much thought of—who had known her, given her a shelter, and several times saved her from starvation. Then she left the neighborhood and took to living with a poor wretch of a shoemaker."
"Poor creature," interrupts Madame Montford, for it is she whom Mr. Snivel addresses. "If she be dead—oh, dear! That will be the end. I never shall know what became of that child. And to die ignorant of its fate will—" Madame pauses, her color changes, she seems seized with some violent emotion. Mr. Snivel perceives her agitation, and begs she will remain calm. "If that child had been my own," she resumes, "the responsibility had not weighed heavier on my conscience. Wealth, position, the pleasures of society—all sink into insignificance when compared with my anxiety for the fate of that child. It is like an arrow piercing my heart, like a phantom haunting me in my dreams, like an evil spirit waking me at night to tell me I shall die an unhappy woman for having neglected one I was bound by the commands of God to protect—to save, perhaps, from a life of shame." She lets fall the satin folds of her dress, buries her face in her hands, and gives vent to her tears in loud sobs. Mr. Snivel contemplates her agitation with unmoved muscle. To him it is a true index to the sequel. "If you will pardon me, Madame," he continues, "as I was about to say of this miserable shoemaker, he took to drink, as all our white mechanics do, and then used to abuse her. We don't think anything of these people, you see, who after giving themselves up to whiskey, die in the poor house, a terrible death. This shoemaker, of whom I speak, died, and she was turned into the streets by her landlord, and that sent her to living with a 'yellow fellow,' as we call them. Soon after this she died—so report has it. We never know much, you see, about these common people. They are a sort of trash we can make nothing of, and they get terribly low now and then." Madame Montford's swelling breast heaves, her countenance wears an air of melancholy; again she nervously lays aside the cloud-like skirts of her brocade dress. "Have you not," she inquires, fretting her jewelled fingers and displaying the massive gold bracelets that clasp her wrists, "some stronger evidence of her death?" Mr. Snivel says he has none but what he gathered from the negroes and poor mechanics, who live in the by-lanes of the city. There is little dependence, however, to be placed in such reports. Madame, with an air of composure, rises from her chair, and paces twice or thrice across the room, seemingly in deep study. "Something," she speaks, stopping suddenly in one of her sallies—"something (I do not know what it is) tells me she yet lives: that this is the child we see, living an abandoned life."
"As I was going on to say, Madame," pursues Mr. Snivel, with great blandness of manner, "when our white trash get to living with our negroes they are as well as dead. One never knows what comes of them after that. Being always ready to do a bit of a good turn, as you know, I looked in at Sam Wiley's cabin. Sam Wiley is a negro of some respectability, and generally has an eye to what becomes of these white wretches. I don't—I assure you I don't, Madame—look into these places except on professional business. Sam, after making inquiry among his neighbors—our colored population view these people with no very good opinion, when they get down in the world—said he thought she had found her way through the gates of the poor man's graveyard."
"Poor man's graveyard!" repeats Madame Montford, again resuming her chair.
"Exactly! We have to distinguish between people of position and those white mechanics who come here from the North, get down in the world, and then die. We can't sell this sort of people, you see. No keeping their morals straight without you can. However, this is not to the point. (Mr. Solomon Snivel keeps his eyes intently fixed upon the lady.)
"I sought out the old Sexton, a stupid old cove enough. He had neither names on his record nor graves that answered the purpose. In a legal sense, Madame, this would not be valid testimony, for this old cove being only too glad to get rid of our poor, and the fees into his pocket, is not very particular about names. If it were one of our 'first families,' the old fellow would be so obsequious about having the name down square—"
Mr. Snivel frets his fingers through his beard, and bows with an easy grace.
"Our first families!" repeats Madame Montford.
"Yes, indeed! He is extremely correct over their funerals. They are of a fashionable sort, you see. Well, while I was musing over the decaying dead, and the distinction between poor dead and rich dead, there came along one Graves, a sort of wayward, half simpleton, who goes about among churchyards, makes graves a study, knows where every one who has died for the last century is tucked away, and is worth six sextons at pointing out graves. He never knows anything about the living, for the living, he says, won't let him live; and that being the case, he only wants to keep up his acquaintance with the dead. He never has a hat to his head, nor a shoe to his foot; and where, and how he lives, no one can tell. He has been at the whipping-post a dozen times or more, but I'm not so sure that the poor wretch ever did anything to merit such punishment. Just as the crabbed old sexton was going to drive him out of the gate with a big stick, I says, more in the way of a joke than anything else: 'Graves, come here!—I want a word or two with you.' He came up, looking shy and suspicious, and saying he wasn't going to harm anybody, but there was some fresh graves he was thinking over."
"Some fresh graves!" repeats Madame Montford, nervously.
"Bless you!—a very common thing," rejoins Mr. Snivel, with a bow. "Well, this lean simpleton said they (the graves) were made while he was sick. That being the case, he was deprived—and he lamented it bitterly—of being present at the funerals, and getting the names of the deceased. He is a great favorite with the grave-digger, lends him a willing hand on all occasions, and is extremely useful when the yellow fever rages. But to the sexton he is a perfect pest, for if a grave be made during his absence he will importune until he get the name of the departed. 'Graves,' says I, 'where do they bury these unfortunate women who die off so, here in Charleston?' 'Bless you, my friend,' says Graves, accompanying his words with an idiotic laugh, 'why, there's three stacks of them, yonder. They ship them from New York in lots, poor things; they dies here in droves, poor things; and we buries them yonder in piles, poor things. They go—yes, sir, I have thought a deal of this thing—fast through life; but they dies, and nobody cares for them—you see how they are buried.' I inquired if he knew all their names. He said of course he did. If he didn't, nobody else would. In order to try him, I desired he would show me the grave of Mag Munday. He shook his head smiled, muttered the name incoherently, and said he thought it sounded like a dead name. 'I'll get my thinking right,' he pursued, and brightening up all at once, his vacant eyes flashed, then he touched me cunningly on the arm, and with a wink and nod of the head there was no mistaking, led the way to a great mound located in an obscure part of the graveyard—"
"A great mound! I thought it would come to that," sighs Madame Montford, impatiently.
"We bury these wretched creatures in an obscure place. Indeed, Madame, I hold it unnecessary to have anything to distinguish them when once they are dead. Well, this poor forlorn simpleton then sat down on a grave, and bid me sit beside him. I did as he bid me, and soon he went into a deep study, muttering the name of Mag Munday the while, until I thought he never would stop. So wild and wandering did the poor fellow seem, that I began to think it a pity we had not a place, an insane hospital, or some sort of benevolent institution, where such poor creatures could be placed and cared for. It would be much better than sending them to the whipping-post—"
"I am indeed of your opinion—of your way of thinking most certainly," interpolates Madame Montford, a shadow of melancholy darkening her countenance.
"At length, he went at it, and repeated over an infinite quantity of names. It was wonderful to see how he could keep them all in his head. 'Well, now,' says he, turning to me with an inoffensive laugh, 'she ben't dead. You may bet on that. There now!' he spoke, as if suddenly becoming conscious of a recently-made discovery. 'Why, she runned wild about here, as I does, for a time; was abused and knocked about by everybody. Oh, she had a hard time enough, God knows that.' 'But that is not disclosing to me what became of her,' says I; 'come, be serious, Graves.' (We call him this, you see, Madame, for the reason that he is always among graveyards.) Then he went into a singing mood, sang two plaintive songs, and had sung a third and fourth, if I had not stopped him. 'Well,' he says, 'that woman ain't dead, for I've called up in my mind the whole graveyard of names, and her's is not among them. Why not, good gentleman, (he seized me by the arm as he said this,) inquire of Milman Mingle, the vote-cribber? He is a great politician, never thinks of poor Graves, and wouldn't look into a graveyard for the world. The vote-cribber used to live with her, and several times he threatened to hang her, and would a hanged her—yes, he would, sir—if it hadn't a been for the neighbors. I don't take much interest in the living, you know. But I pitied her, poor thing, for she was to be pitied, and there was nobody but me to do it. Just inquire of the vote-cribber.' I knew the simpleton never told an untruth, being in no way connected with our political parties."
"Never told an untruth, being in no way connected with our political parties!" repeats Madame Montford, who has become more calm.
"I gave him a few shillings, he followed me to the gate, and left me muttering, 'Go, inquire of the vote-cribber.'"
"And have you found this man?" inquires the anxious lady.
"I forthwith set about it," replies Mr. Snivel, "but as yet, am unsuccessful. Nine months during the year his residence is the jail—"
"Yes, Madame, the jail. His profession, although essential to the elevation of our politicians and statesmen, is nevertheless unlawful. And he being obliged to practice it in opposition to the law, quietly submits to the penalty, which is a residence in the old prison for a short time. It's a nominal thing, you see, and he has become so habituated to it that I am inclined to the belief that he prefers it. I proceeded to the prison and found he had been released. One of our elections comes off in a few days. The approach of such an event is sure to find him at large. I sought him in all the drinking saloons, in the gambling dens, in the haunts of prostitution—in all the low places where our great politicians most do assemble and debauch themselves. He was not to be found. Being of the opposite party, I despatched a spy to the haunt of the committee of the party to which he belongs, and for which he cribs. I have paced the colonnade for more than an hour, waiting the coming of this spy. He did not return, and knowing your anxiety in the matter I returned to you. To-morrow I will seek him out; to-morrow I will get from him what he knows of this woman you seek.
"And now, Madame, here is something I would have you examine." (Mr. Snivel methodically says he got it of McArthur, the antiquary.) "She made a great ado about a dress that contained this letter. I have no doubt it will tell a tale." Mr. Snivel draws from his breast-pocket the letter found concealed in the old dress, and passes it to Madame Montford, who receives it with a nervous hand. Her eyes become fixed upon it, she glances over its defaced page with an air of bewilderment, her face crimsons, then suddenly pales, her lips quiver—her every nerve seems unbending to the shock. "Heavens! has it come to this?" she mutters, confusedly. Her strength fails her; the familiar letter falls from her fingers.—For a few moments she seems struggling to suppress her emotions, but her reeling brain yields, her features become like marble, she shrieks and swoons ere Mr. Snivel has time to clasp her in his arms.