An Outcast/Chapter XLVII
A bright fire burned that night in Keepum's best parlor, furnished with all the luxuries modern taste could invent. Keepum, restless, paces the carpet, contemplating his own importance, for he has just been made a Major of Militia, and we have a rare love for the feather. Now he pauses at a window and looks impatiently out, then frisks his fingers through his crispy hair and resumes his pacing. He expects some one, whose coming he awaits with evident anxiety. "The time is already up," he says, drawing his watch from his pocket. The door-bell rings just then, his countenance brightens, and a servant ushers Mr. Snivel in. "The time is already up, my good fellow," says Keepum, extending his hand familiarly,—Mr. Snivel saying, "I've so many demands on my time, you know. We're in good time, you know. Must bring the thing to a head to-night." A short conversation carried on in whispers, and they sally out, and soon disappear down Broad street.
Just rounding the frowning walls of fort Sumter, a fort the restless people never had any particular love for, is a big red light of the steamer cutting through the sea like a monster of smoke and flame, on her way up the harbor. Another hour, and she will be safely moored at her landing. Tom stands on the upper deck, looking intently towards the city, his anxiety increasing as the ship approaches the end of her voyage, and his eager eye catching each familiar object only to remind him more forceably of the time when he seemed on the downward road of life. Hope had already begun to dispel his fears, and the belief that what the man had told him was founded only in slander, became stronger the more he pondered over it.
St. Michael's clock has just struck ten, and the mounted guard are distributing into their different beats. Maria, contemplating what may come to-morrow, sits at the window of her lonely chamber like one whom the world had forgotten. The dull vibrating sound of the clock still murmurs on the air as she is startled from her reverie by the sound of voices under the window. She feels her very soul desponding. It does indeed seem as if that moment has come when nature in her last struggle with hope must yield up the treasure of woman's life, and sink into a life of remorse and shame. The talking becomes more distinct; then there is a pause, succeeded by Keepum and Snivel silently entering her room, the one drawing a chair by her side, the other taking a seat near the door. "Come as friends, you know," says Keepum, exchanging glances with Snivel, then fixing his eyes wickedly on the woman. "Don't seem to enjoy our company, eh? Poor folks is got to puttin' on airs right big, now-a-days. Don't 'mount to much, anyhow; ain't much better than niggers, only can't sell 'em." "Poor folks must keep up appearances, eh," interposes Mr. Snivel. They are waiting an opportunity for seizing and overpowering the unprotected girl. We put our chivalry to strange uses at times.
But the steamer has reached her wharf; the roaring of her escaping steam disturbs the city, and reëchoes far away down the bay. Again familiar scenes open to the impatient man's view; old friends pass and repass him unrecognized; but only one thought impels him, and that is fixed on Maria. He springs ashore, dashes through the crowd of spectators, and hurries on, scarcely knowing which way he is going.
At length he pauses on the corner of King and Market streets, and glances up to read the name by the glare of gas-light. An old negro wends his way homeward. "Daddy," says he, "how long have you lived in Charleston?"
"Never was out on em, Mas'r," replies the negro, looking inquisitively into the anxious man's face. "Why, lor's me, if dis are bin't Mas'r Tom, what used t' be dis old nigger's young Mas'r."
"Is it you, Uncle Cato?" Their recognition was warm, hearty, and true. "God bless you, my boy; I've need of your services now," says Tom, still holding the hard hand of the old negro firmly grasped in his own, and discovering the object of his mission.
"Jus' tote a'ter old Cato, Mas'r Tom. Maria's down da, at Undine's cabin, yander. Ain't no better gal libin dan Miss Maria," replies Cato, enlarging on Maria's virtues. There is no time to be lost. They hurry forward, Tom following the old negro, and turning into a narrow lane to the right, leading to Undine's cabin. But here they are doomed to disappointment. They reach Undine's cabin, but Maria is not there. Undine comes to the door, and points away down the lane, in the direction of a bright light. "You will find her dare" says Undine; "and if she ain't dare, I don' know where she be." They thank her, repay her with a piece of silver, and hurry away in the direction of the light, which seems to burn dimmer and dimmer as they approach. It suddenly disappears, and, having reached the house, a rickety wooden tenement, a cry of "Save me, save me! Heaven save me!" rings out on the still air, and falls on the ear of the already excited man, like a solemn warning.
"Up dar! Mas'r Tom, up dar!" shouts Cato, pointing to a stairs leading on the outside. Up Tom vaults, and recognizing Maria's voice, supplicating for mercy, thunders at the door, which gives away before his strength. "It is me, Maria! it is me!" he proclaims. "Who is this that has dared to abuse or insult you?" and she runs and throws herself into his arms. "A light! a light, bring a light, Cato!" he demands, and the old negro hastens to obey.
In the confusion of the movement, Keepum reaches the street in safety and hastens to his home, leaving his companion to take care of himself.
A pale gleam of light streams into the open door, discovering a tall dusky figure moving noiselessly towards it. "Why, if here bin't Mas'r Snivel!" ejaculates old Cato, who returns bearing a candle, the light of which falls on the tall figure of Mr. Snivel.
"What, villain! is it you who has brought all this distress upon a friendless girl?"——
"Glad to see you back, Tom. Don't make so much of it, my good fellow—only a bit of a lark, you know. 'Pon my honor, there was nothing wrong meant. Ready to do you a bit of a good turn, any time," interrupts Mr. Snivel, blandly, and extending his hand.
"You! villain, do me a friendly act? Never. You poisoned the mind of my mother against me, robbed her of her property, and then sought to destroy the happiness and blast forever the reputation of one who is dearer to me than a sister. You have lived a miscreant long enough. You must die now." Quickly the excited man draws a pistol, the report rings sharply on the ear, and the tall figure of Mr. Snivel staggers against the door, then falls to the ground,—dead. His day of reckoning has come, and with it a terrible retribution.
"Now Maria, here," says Tom, picking up a packet of letters that had dropped from the pocket of the man, as he fell, "is the proof of his guilt and my sincerity." They were the letters written by him to Maria, and intercepted by Mr. Snivel, through the aid of a clerk in the post-office. "He has paid the penalty of his misdeeds, and I have no regrets to offer. To-morrow I will give myself up and ask only justice."
Then clasping Maria in his arms he bids old Cato follow him, and proceeds with her to a place of safety for the night, as an anxious throng gather about the house, eager to know the cause of the shooting. "Ah, Mas'r Snivel," says old Cato, pausing to take a last look of the prostrate form, "you's did a heap o' badness. Gone now. Nobody'll say he care."