An Outcast/Chapter XLI
A few days have elapsed, Maria has just paid a visit to her father, still in prison, and may be seen looking in at Mr. Keepum's office, in Broad street. "I come not to ask a favor, sir; but, at my father's request, to say to you that, having given up all he has in the world, it can do no good to any one to continue him in durance, and to ask of you—in whom the sole power rests—that you will grant him his release ere he dies?" She addresses Mr. Keepum, who seems not in a very good temper this morning, inasmuch as several of his best negroes, without regard to their value to him, got a passion for freedom into their heads, and have taken themselves away. In addition to this, he is much put out, as he says, at being compelled to forego the pleasure held out on the previous night, of tarring and feathering two northerners suspected of entertaining sentiments not exactly straight on the "peculiar question." A glorious time was expected, and a great deal of very strong patriotism wasted; but the two unfortunate individuals, by some means not yet discovered, got the vigilance committee, to whose care they were entrusted, very much intoxicated, and were not to be found when called for. Free knives, and not free speech, is our motto. And this Mr. Keepum is one of the most zealous in carrying out.
Mr. Keepum sits, his hair fretted back over his lean forehead, before a table covered with papers, all indicating an immense business in lottery and other speculations. Now he deposits his feet upon it; leans back in his chair, puffs his cigar, and says, with an air of indifference to the speaker: "I shall not be able to attend to any business of yours to-day, Madam!" His clerk, a man of sturdy figure, with a broad, red face, and dressed in rather dilapidated broadcloth, is passing in and out of the front office, bearing in his fingers documents that require a signature or mark of approval.
"I only come, sir, to tell you that we are destitute—" Maria pauses, and stands trembling in the doorway.
"That's a very common cry," interrupts Keepum, relieving his mouth of the cigar. "The affair is entirely out of my hands. Go to my attorney, Peter Crimpton, Esq.,—what he does for you will receive my sanction. I must not be interrupted to-day. I might express a thousand regrets; yes, pass an opinion on your foolish pride, but what good would it do."
And while Maria stands silent and hesitating, there enters the office abruptly a man in the garb of a mechanic. "I have come," speaks the man, in a tone of no very good humor, "for the last time. I asks of you—you professes to be a gentleman—my honest rights. If the law don't give it to me, I mean to take it with this erehand." (He shakes his hand at Keepum.) "I am a poor man who ain't thought much of because I works for a living; you have got what I had worked hard for, and lain up to make my little family comfortable. I ask a settlement and my own—what is due from one honest man to another!" He now approaches the table, strikes his hand upon it, and pauses for a reply.
Mr. Keepum coolly looks up, and with an insidious leer, says, "There, take yourself into the street. When next you enter a gentleman's office, learn to deport yourself with good manners."
"Pshaw! pshaw!" interrupts the man. "What mockery! When men like you—yes, I say men like you—that has brought ruin on so many poor families, can claim to be gentlemen, rogues may get a patent for their order." The man turns to take his departure, when the infuriated Keepum, who, as we have before described, gets exceedingly put out if any one doubts his honor, seizes an iron bar, and stealing up behind, fetches him a blow over the head that fells him lifeless to the floor.
Maria shrieks, and vaults into the street. The mass upon the floor fetches a last agonizing shrug, and a low moan, and is dead. The murderer stands over him, exultant, as the blood streams from the deep fracture. In fine, the blood of his victim would seem rather to increase his satisfaction at the deed, than excite a regret.
Call you this murder? Truly, the man has outraged God's law. And the lover of law and order, of social good, and moral honesty, would find reasons for designating the perpetrator an assassin. For has he not first distressed a family, and then left it bereft of its protector? You may think of it and designate it as you please. Nevertheless we, in our fancied mightiness, cannot condescend to such vulgar considerations. We esteem it extremely courageous of Mr. Keepum, to defend himself "to the death" against the insults of one of the common herd. Our first families applaud the act, our sensitive press say it was "an unfortunate affair," and by way of admonition, add that it were better working people be more careful how they approach gentlemen. Mr. Snivel will call this, the sublime quality of our chivalry. What say the jury of inquest?
Duly weighing the high position of Mr. Keepum, and the very low condition of the deceased, the good-natured jury return a verdict that the man met his death in consequence of an accidental blow, administered with an iron instrument, in the hands of one Keepum. From the testimony—Keepum's clerk—it is believed the act was committed in self-defence.
Mr. Keepum, as is customary with our fine gentlemen, and like a hero (we will not content ourselves with making him one jot less), magnanimously surrenders himself to the authorities. The majesty of our laws is not easily offended by gentlemen of standing. Only the poor and the helpless slave can call forth the terrible majesty of the law, and quicken to action its sensitive quality. The city is shocked that Mr. Keepum is subjected to a night in jail, notwithstanding he has the jailer's best parlor, and a barricade of champaign bottles are strewn at his feet by flattering friends, who make night jubilant with their carousal.
Southern society asks no repentance of him whose hands reek with the blood of his poor victim; southern society has no pittance for that family Keepum has made lick the dust in tears and sorrow. Even while we write—while the corpse of the murdered man, followed by a few brother craftsmen, is being borne to its last resting-place, the perpetrator, released on a paltry bail, is being regaled at a festive board. Such is our civilization! How had the case stood with a poor man! Could he have stood up against the chivalry of South Carolina, scoffed at the law, or bid good-natured justice close her eyes? No. He had been dragged to a close cell, and long months had passed ere the tardy movements of the law reached his case. Even then, popular opinion would have turned upon him, pre-judged him, and held him up as dangerous to the peace of the people. Yes, pliant justice would have affected great virtue, and getting on her high throne, never ceased her demands until he had expiated his crime at the gallows.
A few weeks pass: Keepum's reputation for courage is fully endorsed, the Attorney-General finds nothing in the act to justify him in bringing it before a Grand Jury, the law is satisfied (or ought to be satisfied), and the rich murderer sleeps without a pang of remorse.