An Outcast/Chapter XLVI
You know it is Bulwer who says, and says truly: "There is in calumny a rank poison that, even when the character throws off the slander, the heart remains diseased beneath the effect." The force of this on Maria's thoughts and feelings, surrounded as she was by the vile influences of a Charleston cell, came with strange effect as she contemplated her friendless condition. There is one witness who can bear testimony to her innocence, and in Him she still puts her trust. But the charitable have closed their ears to her; and the outside world is too busy to listen to her story. Those words of the poor woman who said, "You are still richer than me," again ring their sweet music in her ear, and give strength to her weary soul. They come to her like the voice of a merciful Providence, speaking through the hushed air of midnight, and breathing the sweet spirit of love into the dusky figures who tenant that dreary cell. To Maria it is the last spark of hope, that rarely goes out in woman's heart, and has come to tell her that to-morrow her star may brighten. And now, reader, turn with us to another scene of hope and anxiety.
The steamer which bears Tom to Charleston is off Cape Romaine. He has already heard of the fate of the old man McArthur. But, he asks himself, may not truth and justice yet triumph? He paces and repaces the deck, now gazing vacantly in the direction the ship is steering, then walking to the stern and watching the long train of phosphoric light playing on the toppling waves.
There was something evasive in the manner of the man who communicated to him the intelligence concerning McArthur. "May I ask another question of you, sir?" he inquires, approaching the man who, like himself, sauntered restlessly along the deck.
The man hesitates, lights a fresh cigar. "You desire me to be frank with you, of course," rejoins the man. "But I observe you are agitated. I will answer your question, if it carry no personal wound. Speak, my friend."
"You know Maria?"
"You know what has become of her, or where she resides?"
Again the man hesitates—then says, "These are delicate matters to discover."
"You are not responsible for my feelings," interrupts the impatient man.
"If, then, I must be plain,—she is leading the life of an outcast. Yes, sir, the story is that she has fallen, and from necessity. I will say this, though," he adds, by way of relief, "that I know nothing of it myself." The words fall like a death-knell on his thoughts and feelings. He stammers out a few words, but his tongue refuses to give utterance to his thoughts. His whole nature seems changed; his emotions have filled the cup of his sorrow; an abyss, deep, dark, and terrible, has opened to his excited imagination. All the dark scenes of his life, all the struggles he has had to gain his manliness, rise up before him like a gloomy panorama, and pointing him back to that goal of dissipation in which his mind had once found relief. He seeks his stateroom in silence, and there invokes the aid of Him who never refuses to protect the right. And here again we must return to another scene.
Morning has come, the guard-roll has been called, and Judge Sleepyhorn is about to hold high court. Maria and the companions of her cell are arraigned, some black, others white, all before so august a judge. His eye rests on a pale and dejected woman inwardly resolved to meet her fate, calm and resolute. It is to her the last struggle of an eventful life, and she is resolved to meet it with womanly fortitude.
The Judge takes his seat, looks very grave, and condescends to say there is a big docket to be disposed of this morning. "Crime seems to increase in the city," he says, bowing to Mr. Seargent Stubbs.
"If your Honor will look at that," Mr. Stubbs says, smiling,—"most on em's bin up afore. All hard cases, they is."
"If yeer Onher plases, might a woman o' my standin' say a woord in her own difince? Sure its only a woord, Judge, an beein a dacent gintleman ye'd not refuse me the likes."
"Silence, there!" ejaculates Mr. Seargent Stubbs; "you must keep quiet in court."
"Faith its not the likes o' you'd keep me aisy, Mr. Stubbs. Do yee see that now?" returns the woman, menacingly. She is a turbulent daughter of the Emerald Isle, full five feet nine inches, of broad bare feet, with a very black eye, and much in want of raiment.
"The most corrigible case what comes to this court," says Mr. Stubbs, bowing knowingly to the judge. "Rather likes a prison, yer Honor. Bin up nine times a month. A dear customer to the state."
The Judge, looking grave, and casting his eye learnedly over the pages of a ponderous statute book, inquires of Mr. Seargent Stubbs what the charge is.
"Disturbed the hole neighborhood. A fight atween the Donahues, yer Honor."
"Dorn't believe a woord of it, yeer Onher. Sure, din't Donahue black the eye o' me, and sphil the whisky too? Bad luck to Donahue, says I. You don't say that to me, says he. I'd say it to the divil, says I. Take that! says Donahue." Here Mrs. Donahue points to her eye, and brings down even the dignity of the court.
"In order to preserve peace between you and Donahue," says his Honor, good naturedly, "I shall fine you ten dollars, or twenty days."
"Let it go at twenty days," replies Mrs. Donahue, complimenting his Honor's high character, "fir a divil o' ten dollars have I." And Mrs. Donahue resigns herself to the tender mercies of Mr. Seargent Stubbs, who removes her out of court.
A dozen or more delinquent negroes, for being out after hours without passes, are sentenced thirty stripes apiece, and removed, to the evident delight of the Court, who is resolved that the majesty of the law shall be maintained.
It is Maria's turn now. Pale and trembling she approaches the circular railing, assisted by Mr. Seargent Stubbs. She first looks imploringly at the judge, then hangs down her head, and covers her face with her hands.
"What is the charge?" inquires the Judge, turning to the loquacious Stubbs. Mr. Stubbs says: "Disorderly conduct—and in a house of bad repute."
"I am innocent—I have committed no crime," interrupts the injured woman. "You have dragged me here to shame me." Suddenly her face becomes pale as marble, her limbs tremble, and the court is thrown into a state of confusion by her falling to the floor in a swoon.
"Its all over with her now," says Mr. Stubbs, standing back in fear.
Crime has not dried up all the kinder impulses of Judge Sleepyhorn's heart. Leaving the bench he comes quickly to the relief of the unfortunate girl, holds her cold trembling hand in his own, and tenderly bathes her temples. "Sorry the poor girl," he says, sympathizingly, "should have got down so. Knew her poor old father when he was comfortably off, and all Charleston liked him." His Honor adjourns court, and ten minutes pass before the sufferer is restored to consciousness. Then with a wild despairing look she scans those around her, rests her head on her hand despondingly, and gives vent to her tears. The cup of her sorrow has indeed overrun.
"It was wrong to arrest you, young woman, and I sympathize with you. No charge has been preferred, and so you are free. A carriage waits at the door, and I have ordered you to be driven home," says the judge, relaxing into sympathy.
"I have no home now," she returns, the tears coursing down her wet cheeks. "Slaves have homes, but I have none now."
"When you want a friend, you'll find a friend in me. Keep up your spirits, and remember that virtue is its own reward." Having said this, the Judge raises her gently to her feet, supports her to the carriage, and sees her comfortably seated. "Remember, you know, where to find a friend if you want one," he says, and bids her good-morning. In another minute the carriage is rolling her back to the home from whence she was taken. She has no better home now.