An Outcast/Chapter XV
Tom Swiggs has enjoyed, to the evident satisfaction of his mother, a seven months' residence in the old prison. The very first families continue to pay their respects to the good old lady, and she in return daily honors them with mementoes of her remembrance. These little civilities, exchanging between the stately old lady and our first families, indicate the approach of the fashionable season. Indeed, we may as well tell you the fashionable season is commencing in right good earnest. Our elite are at home, speculations are rife as to what the "Jockey Club" will do, we are recounting our adventures at northern watering-places, chuckling over our heroism in putting down those who were unwise enough to speak disrespectful of our cherished institutions, and making very light of what we would do to the whole north. You may know, too, that our fashionable season is commenced by what is taking place at the house of Madame Flamingo on the one side, and the St. Cecilia on the other. We recognize these establishments as institutions. That they form the great fortifications of fashionable society, flanking it at either extreme, no one here doubts.
We are extremely sensitive of two things—fashion, and our right to sell negroes. Without the former we should be at sea; without the latter, our existence would indeed be humble. The St. Cecilia Society inaugurates the fashionable season, the erudite Editor of the Courier will tell you, with an entertainment given to the elite of its members and a few very distinguished foreigners. Madame Flamingo opens her forts, at the same time, with a grand supper, which she styles a very select entertainment, and to which she invites none but "those of the highest standing in society." If you would like to see what sort of a supper she sets to inaugurate the fashionable season, take our arm for a few minutes.
Having just arrived from New York, where she has been luxuriating and selecting her wares for the coming season, (New York is the fountain ejecting its vice over this Union,) Madame looks hale, hearty, and exceedingly cheerful. Nor has she spared any expense to make herself up with becoming youthfulness—as the common people have it. She has got her a lace cap of the latest fashion, with great broad striped blue and red strings; and her dress is of orange-colored brocade, trimmed with tulle, and looped with white blossoms. Down the stomacher it is set with jewels. Her figure seems more embonpoint than when we last saw her; and as she leans on the arm of old Judge Sleepyhorn, forms a striking contrast to the slender figure of that singular specimen of judicial infirmity. Two great doors are opened, and Madame leads the way into what she calls her upper and private parlor, a hall of some fifty feet by thirty, in the centre of which a sumptuously decorated table is set out. Indeed there is a chasteness and richness about the furniture and works of art that decorate this apartment, singularly at variance with the bright-colored furniture of the room we have described in a former chapter. "Ladies and gentlemen!" ejaculates the old hostess, "imagine this a palace, in which you are all welcome. As the legal gentry say (she casts a glance at the old Judge), when you have satisfactorily imagined that, imagine me a princess, and address me—"
"High ho!" interrupts Mr. Soloman.
"I confess," continues the old woman, her little, light-brown curls dangling across her brow, and her face crimsoning, "I would like to be a princess."
"You can," rejoins the former speaker, his fingers wandering to his chin.
"Well! I have my beadle—beadles, I take, are inseparable from royal blood—and my servants in liveries. After all (she tosses her head) what can there be in beadles and liveries? Why! the commonest and vulgarest people of New York have taken to liveries. If you chance to take an elegant drive up the 'Fifth Avenue,' and meet a dashing equipage—say with horses terribly caparisoned, a purloined crest on the carriage-door, a sallow-faced footman covered up in a green coat, all over big brass buttons, stuck up behind, and a whiskey-faced coachman half-asleep in a great hammercloth, be sure it belongs to some snob who has not a sentence of good English in his head. Yes! perhaps a soap-chandler, an oil-dealer, or a candy-maker. Brainless people always creep into plush—always! People of taste and learning, like me, only are entitled to liveries and crests." This Madame says, inviting her guests to take seats at her banquet-table, at the head of which she stands, the Judge on her right, Mr. Soloman on her left. Her china is of the most elaborate description, embossed and gilt; her plate is of pure silver, and massive; she has vases and candelabras of the same metal; and her cutlery is of the most costly description. No house in the country can boast a more exact taste in their selection. At each plate a silver holder stands, bearing a bouquet of delicately-arranged flowers. A trellise of choice flowers, interspersed here and there with gorgeous bouquets in porcelain vases, range along the centre of the table; which presents the appearance of a bed of fresh flowers variegated with delicious fruits. Her guests are to her choicer than her fruits; her fruits are choicer than her female wares. No entertainment of this kind would be complete without Judge Sleepyhorn and Mr. Soloman. They countenance vice in its most insidious form—they foster crime; without crime their trade would be damaged. The one cultivates, that the other may reap the harvest and maintain his office.
"I see," says Mr. Soloman, in reply to the old hostess, "not the slightest objection to your being a princess—not the slightest! And, to be frank about the matter, I know of no one who would better ornament the position."
"Your compliments are too liberally bestowed, Mr. Soloman."
"Not at all! 'Pon my honor, now, there is a chance for you to bring that thing about in a very short time. There is Grouski, the Polish exile, a prince of pure blood. Grouski is poor, wants to get back to Europe. He wants a wife, too. Grouski is a high old fellow—a most celebrated man, fought like a hero for the freedom of his country; and though an exile here, would be received with all the honors due to a prince in either Italy, France or England.
"A very respectable gentleman, no doubt; but a prince of pure blood, Mr. Soloman, is rather a scarce article these days."
"Not a bit of it—why there is lots of exiled Princes all over this country. They are modest men, you know, like me; and having got it into their heads that we don't like royal blood, rather keep the fact of their birth to themselves. As for Grouski! why his history is as familiar to every American who takes any interest in these things, as is the history of poor Kossuth. I only say this, Madame Flamingo, to prove to you that Grouski is none of your mock articles. And what is more, I have several times heard him speak most enthusiastically of you."
"Of me!" interrupts the old hostess, blushing. "I respect Grouski, and the more so for his being a poor prince in exile." Madame orders her servants, who are screwed into bright liveries, to bring on some sparkling Moselle. This done, and the glasses filled with the sparkling beverage, Mr. Soloman rises to propose a toast; although, as he says, it is somewhat out of place, two rounds having only succeeded the soup: "I propose the health of our generous host, to whom we owe so much for the superb manner in which she has catered for our amusement. Here's that we may speedily have the pleasure of paying our respects to her as the Princess Grouski." Madame Flamingo bows, the toast is drunk with cheers, and she begins to think there is something in it after all.
"Make as light of it as you please, ladies and gentlemen—many stranger things have come to pass. As for the exile, Grouski, I always esteemed him a very excellent gentleman."
"Exactly!" interposes the Judge, tipping his glass, and preparing his appetite for the course of game—broiled partridges, rice-birds, and grouse—which is being served by the waiters. "No one more worthy," he pursues, wiping his sleepy face with his napkin, "of being a princess. Education, wealth, and taste, you have; and with Grouski, there is nothing to prevent the happy consummation—nothing! I beg to assure you," Madame Flamingo makes a most courteous bow, and with an air of great dignity condescends to say she hopes gentlemen of the highest standing in Charleston have for ten years or more had the strongest proofs of her ability to administer the offices of a lady of station. "But you know," she pursues, hoping ladies and gentlemen will be kind enough to keep their glasses full, "people are become so pious now-a-days that they are foolish enough to attach a stigma to our business."
"Pooh, pooh!" interrupts the accommodation man, having raised his glass in compliment to a painted harlot. "Once in Europe, and under the shadow of the wife of Prince Grouski, the past would be wiped out; your money would win admirers, while your being a princess would make fashionable society your tool. The very atmosphere of princesses is full of taint; but it is sunk in the rank, and rather increases courtiers. In France your untainted princess would prognosticate the second coming of—, well, I will not profane."
"Do not, I beg of you," says Madame, blushing. "I am scrupulously opposed to profanity." And then there breaks upon the ear music that seems floating from an enchanted chamber, so soft and dulcet does it mingle with the coarse laughing and coarser wit of the banqueters. At this feast of flowers may be seen the man high in office, the grave merchant, the man entrusted with the most important affairs of the commonwealth—the sage and the charlatan. Sallow-faced and painted women, more undressed than dressed, sit beside them, hale companions. Respectable society regards the Judge a fine old gentleman; respectable society embraces Mr. Soloman, notwithstanding he carries on a business, as we shall show, that brings misery upon hundreds. Twice has he received a large vote as candidate for the General Assembly.
A little removed from the old Judge (excellent man) sits Anna Bonard, like a jewel among stones less brilliant, George Mullholland on her left. Her countenance wears an expression of gentleness, sweet and touching. Her silky black hair rolls in wavy folds down her voluptuous shoulders, a fresh carnatic flush suffuses her cheeks, her great black eyes, so beautifully arched with heavy lashes, flash incessantly, and to her bewitching charms is added a pensive smile that now lights up her features, then subsides into melancholy.
"What think you of my statuary?" inquired the old hostess, "and my antiques? Have I not taste enough for a princess?" How soft the carpet, how rich its colors! Those marble mantel-pieces, sculptured in female figures, how massive! How elegantly they set off each end of the hall, as we shall call this room; and how sturdily they bear up statuettes, delicately executed in alabaster and Parian, of Byron, Goethe, Napoleon, and Charlemagne—two on each. And there, standing between two Gothic windows on the front of the hall, is an antique side-table, of curious design. The windows are draped with curtains of rich purple satin, with embroidered cornice skirts and heavy tassels. On this antique table, and between the undulating curtains, is a marble statue of a female in a reclining posture, her right hand supporting her head, her dishevelled hair flowing down her shoulder. The features are soft, calm, and almost grand. It is simplicity sleeping, Madame Flamingo says. On the opposite side of the hall are pedestals of black walnut, with mouldings in gilt, on which stand busts of Washington and Lafayette, as if they were unwilling spectators of the revelry. A venerable recline, that may have had a place in the propylæa, or served to decorate the halls of Versailles in the days of Napoleon, has here a place beneath the portrait of Jefferson. This humble tribute the old hostess says she pays to democracy. And at each end of the hall are double alcoves, over the arches of which are great spread eagles, holding in their beaks the points of massive maroon-colored drapery that falls over the sides, forming brilliant depressions. In these alcoves are groups of figures and statuettes, and parts of statuettes, legless and armless, and all presenting a rude and mutilated condition. What some of them represented it would have puzzled the ancient Greeks to decypher. Madame, nevertheless, assures her guests she got them from among the relics of Italian and Grecian antiquity. You may do justice to her taste on living statuary; but her rude and decrepit wares, like those owned and so much valued by our New York patrons of the arts, you may set down as belonging to a less antique age of art. And there are chairs inlaid with mosaic and pearl, and upholstered with the richest and brightest satin damask,—revealing, however, that uncouthness of taste so characteristic of your Fifth Avenue aristocrat.
Now cast your eye upward to the ceiling. It is frescoed with themes of a barbaric age. The finely-outlined figure of a female adorns the centre. Her loins are enveloped in what seems a mist; and in her right hand, looking as if it were raised from the groundwork, she holds gracefully the bulb of a massive chandelier, from the jets of which a refulgent light is reflected upon the flowery banquet table. Madame smilingly says it is the Goddess of Love, an exact copy of the one in the temple of Jupiter Olympus. Another just opposite, less voluptuous in its outlines, she adds, is intended for a copy of the fabled goddess, supposed by the ancients to have thrown off her wings to illustrate the uncertainty of fortune.
Course follows course, of viands the most delicious, and sumptuously served. The wine cup now flows freely, the walls reëcho the coarse jokes and coarser laughs of the banqueters, and leaden eyelids, languid faces, and reeling brains, mark the closing scene. Such is the gorgeous vice we worship, such the revelries we sanction, such the insidious debaucheries we shield with the mantle of our laws—laws made for the accommodation of the rich, for the punishment only of the poor. And a thousand poor in our midst suffer for bread while justice sleeps.
Midnight is upon the banqueters, the music strikes up a last march, the staggering company retire to the stifled air of resplendent chambers. The old hostess contemplates herself as a princess, and seriously believes an alliance with Grouski would not be the strangest thing in the world. There is, however, one among the banqueters who seems to have something deeper at heart than the transitory offerings on the table—one whose countenance at times assumes a thoughtfulness singularly at variance with those around her. It is Anna Bonard.
Only to-day did George Mullholland reveal to her the almost hopeless condition of poor Tom Swiggs, still confined in the prison, with criminals for associates, and starving. She had met Tom when fortune was less ruthless; he had twice befriended her while in New York. Moved by that sympathy for the suffering which is ever the purest offspring of woman's heart, no matter how low her condition, she resolved not to rest until she had devised the means of his release. Her influence over the subtle-minded old Judge she well knew, nor was she ignorant of the relations existing between him and the accommodation man.
On the conclusion of the feast she invites them to her chamber. They are not slow to accept the invitation. "Be seated, gentlemen, be seated," she says, preserving a calmness of manner not congenial to the feelings of either of her guests. She places chairs for them at the round table, upon the marble top of which an inlaid portfolio lies open.
"Rather conventional," stammers Mr. Snivel, touching the Judge significantly on the arm, as they take seats. Mr. Snivel is fond of good wine, and good wine has so mellowed his constitution that he is obliged to seek support for his head in his hands.
"I'd like a little light on this 'ere plot. Peers thar's somethin' a foot," responds the Judge.
Anna interposes by saying they shall know quick enough. Placing a pen and inkstand on the table, she takes her seat opposite them, and commences watching their declining consciousness. "Thar," ejaculates the old Judge, his moody face becoming dark and sullen, "let us have the wish."
"You owe me an atonement, and you can discharge it by gratifying my desire."
"Women," interposes the old Judge, dreamily, "always have wishes to gratify. W-o-l, if its teu sign a warrant, hang a nigger, tar and feather an abolitionist, ride the British Consul out a town, or send a dozen vagrants to the whipping-post—I'm thar. Anything my hand's in at!" incoherently mumbles this judicial dignitary.
Mr. Snivel having reminded the Judge that ten o'clock to-morrow morning is the time appointed for meeting Splitwood, the "nigger broker," who furnishes capital with which they start a new paper for the new party, drops away into a refreshing sleep, his head on the marble.
"Grant me, as a favor, an order for the release of poor Tom Swiggs. You cannot deny me this, Judge," says Anna, with an arch smile, and pausing for a reply.
"Wol, as to that," responds this high functionary, "if I'd power, 'twouldn't be long afore I'd dew it, though his mother'd turn the town upside down; but I hain't no power in the premises. I make it a rule, on and off the bench, never to refuse the request of a pretty woman. Chivalry, you know."
"For your compliment, Judge, I thank you. The granting my request, however, would be more grateful to my feelings."
"It speaks well of your heart, my dear girl; but, you see, I'm only a Judge. Mr. Snivel, here, probably committed him ('Snivel! here, wake up!' he says, shaking him violently), he commits everybody. Being a Justice of the Peace, you see, and justices of the peace being everything here, I may prevail on him to grant your request!" pursues the Judge, brightening up at the earnest manner in which Anna makes her appeal. "Snivel! Snivel!—Justice Snivel, come, wake up. Thar is a call for your sarvices." The Judge continues to shake the higher functionary violently. Mr. Snivel with a modest snore rouses from his nap, says he is always ready to do a bit of a good turn. "If you are, then," interposes the fair girl, "let it be made known now. Grant me an order of release for Tom Swiggs. Remember what will be the consequence of a refusal!"
"Tom Swiggs! Tom Swiggs!—why I've made a deal of fees of that fellow. But, viewing it in either a judicial or philosophical light, he's quite as well where he is. They don't give them much to eat in jail I admit, but it is a great place for straightening the morals of a rum-head like Tom. And he has got down so low that all the justices in the city couldn't make him fit for respectable society." Mr. Snivel yawns and stretches his arms athwart.
"But you can grant me the order independent of what respectable society will do."
Mr. Snivel replies, bowing, a pretty woman is more than a match for the whole judiciary. He will make a good amount of fees out of Tom yet; and what his testy old mother declines to pay, he will charge to the State, as the law gives him a right to do.
"Then I am to understand!" quickly retorts Anna, rising from her chair, with an expression of contempt on her countenance, and a satirical curl on her lip, "you have no true regard for me then; your friendship is that of the knave, who has nothing to give after his ends are served. I will leave you!" The Judge takes her gently by the arm; indignantly she pushes him from her, as her great black eyes flash with passion, and she seeks for the door. Mr. Snivel has placed himself against it, begs she will be calm. "Why," he says, "get into a passion at that which was but a joke." The Judge touches him on the arm significantly, and whispers in his ear, "grant her the order—grant it, for peace sake, Justice Snivel."
"Now, if you will tell me why you take so deep an interest in getting them fellows out of prison, I will grant the order of release," Mr. Snivel says, and with an air of great gallantry leads her back to her chair.
"None but friendship for one who served me when he had it in his power."
"I see! I see!" interrupts our gallant justice; "the renewal of an old acquaintance; you are to play the part of Don Quixote,—he, the mistress. It's well enough there should be a change in the knights, and that the stripling who goes about in the garb of the clergy, and has been puzzling his wits how to get Tom out of prison for the last six months—"
"Your trades never agree;" parenthesises Anna.
"Should yield the lance to you."
"Who better able to wield it in this chivalrous atmosphere? It only pains my own feelings to confess myself an abandoned woman; but I have a consolation in knowing how powerful an abandoned woman may be in Charleston."
An admonition from the old Judge, and Mr. Snivel draws his chair to the table, upon which he places his left elbow, rests his head on his hand. "This fellow will get out; his mother—I have pledged my honor to keep him fast locked up—will find it out, and there'll be a fuss among our first families," he whispers. Anna pledges him her honor, a thing she never betrays, that the secret of Tom's release shall be a matter of strict confidence. And having shook hands over it, Mr. Snivel seizes the pen and writes an order of release, commanding the jailer to set at liberty one Tom Swiggs, committed as a vagrant upon a justice's warrant,
&c., &c., &c. "There," says Justice Snivel, "the thing is done—now for a kiss;" and the fair girl permits him to kiss her brow. "Me too; the bench and the bar!" rejoins the Judge, following the example of his junior. And with an air of triumph the victorious girl bears away what at this moment she values a prize.