An Outcast/Chapter XLII
June, July, and August are past away, and September, with all its autumnal beauties, ushers in, without bringing anything to lighten the cares of that girl whose father yet pines in prison. She looks forward, hoping against hope, to the return of her lover (something tells her he still lives), only to feel more keenly the pangs of hope deferred.
And now, once more, New York, we are in thy busy streets. It is a pleasant evening in early September. The soft rays of an autumn sun are tinging the western sky, and night is fast drawing her sable mantle over the scene. In Washington Square, near where the tiny fountain jets its stream into a round, grassy-bordered basin, there sits a man of middle stature, apparently in deep study. His dress is plain, and might be taken for that of either a working man, or a somewhat faded inspector of customs. Heedless of those passing to and fro, he sits until night fairly sets in, then rises, and faces towards the East. Through the trunks of trees he sees, and seems contemplating the gray walls of the University, and the bold, sombre front of the very aristocratic church of the Reformed Dutch.
"Well!" he mutters to himself, resuming his seat, and again facing to the west, "this ere business of ourn is a great book of life—'tis that! Finds us in queer places; now and then mixed up curiously." He rises a second time, advances to a gas-light, draws a letter from his pocket, and scans, with an air of evident satisfaction, over the contents. "Umph!" he resumes, and shrugs his shoulders, "I was right on the address—ought to have known it without looking." Having resumed his seat, he returns the letter to his pocket, sits with his elbow upon his knee, and his head rested thoughtfully in his right hand. The picture before him, so calm and soft, has no attractions for him. The dusky hues of night, for slowly the scene darkens, seem lending a softness and calmness to the foliage. The weeping branches of the willow, interspersed here and there, as if to invest the picture with a touching melancholy, sway gently to and fro; the leaves of the silvery poplar tremble and reflect their shadows on the fresh waters; and the flitting gas-lights mingle their gleams, play and sport over the rippled surface, coquet with the tripping star-beams, then throw fantastic lights over the swaying foliage; and from beneath the massive branches of trees, there shines out, in bold relief, the marble porticoes and lintels of stately-looking mansions. Such is the calm grandeur of the scene, that one could imagine some Thalia investing it with a poetic charm the gods might muse over.
"It is not quite time yet," says the man, starting suddenly to his feet. He again approaches a gas-light, looks attentively at his watch, then saunters to the corner of Fourth and Thompson streets. An old, dilapidated wooden building, which some friend has whitewashed into respectability, and looking as if it had a strong inclination to tumble either upon the sidewalk, or against the great trunk of a hoary-headed tree at the corner, arrests his attention. "Well," he says, having paused before it, and scanned its crooked front, "this surely is the house where the woman lived when she was given the child. Practice, and putting two things together to find what one means, is the great thing in our profession. Like its old tenant, the house has got down a deal. It's on its last legs." Again he consults his watch, and with a quickened step recrosses the Square, and enters —— Avenue. Now he halts before a spacious mansion, the front of which is high and bold, and deep, and of brown freestone. The fluted columns; the elegantly-chiselled lintels; the broad, scrolled window-frames; the exactly-moulded arches; the massive steps leading to the deep, vaulted entrance, with its doors of sombre and highly-polished walnut; and its bold style of architecture, so grand in its outlines,—all invest it with a regal air. The man casts a glance along the broad avenue, then into the sombre entrance of the mansion. Now he seems questioning within himself whether to enter or retrace his steps. One-half of the outer door, which is in the Italian style, with heavy fluted mouldings, stands ajar; while from out the lace curtains of the inner, there steals a faint light. The man rests his elbow on the great stone scroll of the guard-rail, and here we leave him for a few moments.
The mansion, it may be well to add here, remains closed the greater part of the year; and when opened seems visited by few persons, and those not of the very highest standing in society. A broken-down politician, a seedy hanger-on of some "literary club," presided over by a rich, but very stupid tailor, and now and then a lady about whose skirts something not exactly straight hangs, and who has been elbowed out of fashionable society for her too ardent love of opera-singers, and handsome actors, may be seen dodging in now and then. Otherwise, the mansion would seem very generally deserted by the neighborhood.
Everybody will tell you, and everybody is an individual so extremely busy in other people's affairs, that he ought to know, that there is something that hangs so like a rain-cloud about the magnificent skirts of those who live so secluded "in that fine old pile," (mansion,) that the virtuous satin of the Avenue never can be got to "mix in." Indeed, the Avenue generally seems to have set its face against those who reside in it. They enjoy none of those very grand assemblies, balls, and receptions, for which the Avenue is become celebrated, and yet they luxuriate in wealth and splendor.
Though the head of the house seems banished by society, society makes her the subject of many evil reports and mysterious whisperings. The lady of the mansion, however, as if to retort upon her traducers, makes it known that she is very popular abroad, every now and then during her absence honoring them with mysterious clippings from foreign journals—all setting forth the admiration her appearance called forth at a grand reception given by the Earl and Countess of ——.
Society is made of inexorable metal, she thinks, for the prejudices of the neighborhood have not relaxed one iota with time. That she has been presented to kings, queens, and emperors; that she has enjoyed the hospitalities of foreign embassies; that she has (and she makes no little ado that she has) shone in the assemblies of prime ministers; that she has been invited to court concerts, and been the flattered of no end of fashionable coteries, serves her nothing at home. They are events, it must be admitted, much discussed, much wondered at, much regretted by those who wind themselves up in a robe of stern morality. In a few instances they are lamented, lest the morals and manners of those who make it a point to represent us abroad should reflect only the brown side of our society.
As if with regained confidence, the man, whom we left at the door scroll, is seen slowly ascending the broad steps. He enters the vaulted vestibule, and having touched the great, silver bell-knob of the inner door, stands listening to the tinkling chimes within. A pause of several minutes, and the door swings cautiously open. There stands before him the broad figure of a fussy servant man, wedged into a livery quite like that worn by the servants of an English tallow-chandler, but which, it must be said, and said to be regretted, is much in fashion with our aristocracy, who, in consequence of its brightness, believe it the exact style of some celebrated lord. The servant receives a card from the visitor, and with a bow, inquires if he will wait an answer.
"I will wait the lady's pleasure—I came by appointment," returns the man. And as the servant disappears up the hall, he takes a seat, uninvited, upon a large settee, in carved walnut. "Something mysterious about this whole affair!" he muses, scanning along the spacious hall, into the conservatory of statuary and rare plants, seen opening away at the extreme end. The high, vaulted roof; the bright, tesselated floor; the taste with which the frescoes decorating the walls are designed; the great winding stairs, so richly carpeted—all enhanced in beauty by the soft light reflected upon them from a massive chandelier of stained glass, inspire him with a feeling of awe. The stillness, and the air of grandeur pervading each object that meets his eye, reminds him of the halls of those mediæval castles he has read of in his youth. The servant returns, and makes his bow. "My leady," he says, in a strong Lincolnshire brogue, "'as weated ye an 'our or more."
The visitor, evincing some nervousness, rises quickly to his feet, follows the servant up the hall, and is ushered into a parlor of regal dimensions, on the right. His eye falls upon one solitary occupant, who rises from a lounge of oriental richness, and advances towards him with an air of familiarity their conditions seem not to warrant. Having greeted the visitor, and bid him be seated (he takes his seat, shyly, beside the door), the lady resumes her seat in a magnificent chair. For a moment the visitor scans over the great parlor, as if moved by the taste and elegance of everything that meets his eye. The hand of art has indeed been lavishly laid on the decorations of this chamber, which presents a scene of luxury princes might revel in. And though the soft wind of whispering silks seemed lending its aid to make complete the enjoyment of the occupant, it might be said, in the words of Crabbe:
"But oh, what storm was in that mind!"
The person of the lady is in harmony with the splendor of the apartment. Rather tall and graceful of figure, her complexion pale, yet soft and delicate, her features as fine and regular as ever sculptor chiselled, her manner gentle and womanly. In her face, nevertheless, there is an expression of thoughtfulness, perhaps melancholy, to which her large, earnest black eyes, and finely-arched brows, fringed with dark lashes, lend a peculiar charm. While over all there plays a shadow of languor, increased perhaps by the tinge of age, or a mind and heart overtaxed with cares.
"I received your note, which I hastened to answer. Of course you received my answer. I rejoice that you have persevered, and succeeded in finding the object I have so long sought. Not hearing from you for so many weeks, I had begun to fear she had gone forever," says the lady, in a soft, musical voice, raising her white, delicate hand to her cheek, which is suffused with blushes.
"I had myself almost given her over, for she disappeared from the Points, and no clue could be got of her," returns the man, pausing for a moment, then resuming his story. "A week ago yesterday she turned up again, and I got wind that she was in a place we call 'Black-beetle Hole'—"
"Black-beetle Hole!" ejaculates the lady, whom the reader will have discovered is no less a person than Madame Montford. Mr. Detective Fitzgerald is the visitor.
"Yes, there's where she's got, and it isn't much of a place, to say the best. But when a poor creature has no other place to get a stretch down, she stretches down there—"
"Proceed to how you found her, and what you have got from her concerning the child," the lady interrupts, with a deep sigh.
"Well," proceeds the detective, "I meets—havin' an eye out all the while—Sergeant Dobbs one morning—Dobbs knows every roost in the Points better than me!—and says he, 'Fitzgerald, that are woman, that crazy woman, you've been in tow of so long, has turned up. There was a row in Black-beetle Hole last night. I got a force and descended into the place, found it crammed with them half-dead kind of women and men, and three thieves, what wanted to have a fuss with the hag that keeps it. One on 'em was thrashing the poor crazy woman. They had torn all the rags off her back. Hows-ever, if you wants to fish her out, you'd better be spry about it—'"
The lady interrupts by saying she will disguise, and with his assistance, go bring her from the place—save her! Mr. Fitzgerald begs she will take the matter practically. She could not breathe the air of the place, he says.
"'Thank you Dobbs,' says I," he resumes, "and when it got a bit dark I went incog. to Black-beetle's Hole—"
"And where is this curious place?" she questions, with an air of anxiety.
"As to that, Madame—well, you wouldn't know it was lived in, because its underground, and one not up to the entrance never would think it led to a place where human beings crawled in at night. I don't wonder so many of 'em does things what get 'em into the Station, and after that treated to a short luxury on the Island. As I was goin' on to say, I got myself fortified, started out into the Points, and walked—we take these things practically—down and up the east sidewalk, then stopped in front of the old rotten house that Black-beetle Hole is under. Then I looks down the wet little stone steps, that ain't wide enough for a big man to get down, and what lead into the cellar. Some call it Black-beetle Hole, and then again some call it the Hole of the Black-beetles. 'Yer after no good, Mr. Fitzgerald,' says Mrs. McQuade, whose husband keeps the junk-shop over the Hole, putting her malicious face out of the window.
"'You're the woman I want, Mrs. McQuade,' says I. 'Don't be puttin' your foot in the house,' says she. And when I got her temper a little down by telling her I only wanted to know who lived in the Hole, she swore by all the saints it had niver a soul in it, and was hard closed up. Being well up to the dodges of the Points folks, I descended the steps, and gettin' underground, knocked at the Hole door, and then sent it smash in. 'Well! who's here?' says I. 'It's me,' says Mrs. Lynch, a knot of an old woman, who has kept the Hole for many years, and says she has no fear of the devil."
Madame Montford listens with increasing anxiety; Mr. Detective Fitzgerald proceeds: "'Get a light here, then;' says I. You couldn't see nothing, it was so dark, but you could hear 'em move, and breathe. And then the place was so hot and sickly. Had to stand it best way I could. There was no standing straight in the dismal place, which was wet and nasty under foot, and not more nor twelve by fourteen. The old woman said she had only a dozen lodgers in; when she made out to get a light for me I found she had twenty-three, tucked away here and there, under straw and stuff. Well, it was curious to see 'em (here the detective wipes his forehead with his handkerchief) rise up, one after another, all round you, you know, like fiends that had been buried for a time, then come to life merely to get something to eat."
"And did you find the woman—and was she one of them?"
"That's what I'm comin' at. Well, I caught a sight at the woman; knew her at the glance. I got a sight at her one night in the Pit at the House of the Nine Nations. 'Here! I wants you,' says I, takin' what there was left of her by the arm. She shrieked, and crouched down, and begged me not to hurt her, and looked wilder than a tiger at me. And then the whole den got into a fright, and young women, and boys, and men—they were all huddled together—set up such a screaming. 'Munday!' says I, 'you don't go to the Tombs—here! I've got good news for you.' This quieted her some, and then I picked her up—she was nearly naked—and seeing she wanted scrubbing up, carried her out of the Hole, and made her follow me to my house, where we got her into some clothes, and seeing that she was got right in her mind, I thought it would be a good time to question her."
"If you will hasten the result of your search, it will, my good sir, relieve my feelings much!" again interposes the lady, drawing her chair nearer the detective.
"'You've had.' I says to her, 'a hard enough time in this world, and now here's the man what's going to be a friend to ye—understand that!' says I, and she looked at me bewildered. We gave her something to eat, and a pledge that no one would harm her, and she tamed down, and began to look up a bit. 'Your name wasn't always Munday?' says I, in a way that she couldn't tell what I was after. She said she had taken several names, but Munday was her right name. Then she corrected herself—she was weak and hoarse—and said it was her husband's name. 'You've a good memory, Mrs. Munday,' says I; 'now, just think as far back as you can, and tell us where you lived as long back as you can think.' She shook her head, and began to bury her face in her hands I tried for several minutes, but could get nothing more out of her. Then she quickened up, shrieked out that she had just got out of the devil's regions, and made a rush for the door."