An Outcast/Chapter XVI
Anna gives George Mullholland the letter of release, and on the succeeding morning he is seen entering at the iron gate of the wall that encloses the old prison. "Bread! give me bread," greets his ear as soon as he enters the sombre old pile. He walks through the debtors' floor, startles as he hears the stifled cry for bread, and contemplates with pained feelings the wasting forms and sickly faces that everywhere meet his eye. The same piercing cry grates upon his senses as he sallies along the damp, narrow aisle of the second floor, lined on both sides with small, filthy cells, in which are incarcerated men whose crime is that of having committed "assault and battery," and British seamen innocent of all crime except that of having a colored skin. If anything less than a gentleman commit assault and battery, we punish him with imprisonment; we have no law to punish gentlemen who commit such offences.
Along the felon's aisle—in the malarious cells where "poor" murderers and burglars are chained to die of the poisonous atmosphere, the same cry tells its mournful tale. Look into the dark vista of this little passage, and you will see the gleaming of flabby arms and shrunken hands. Glance into the apertures out of which they protrude so appealingly, you will hear the dull clank of chains, see the glare of vacant eyes, and shudder at the pale, cadaverous faces of beings tortured with starvation. A low, hoarse whisper, asks you for bread; a listless countenance quickens at your footfall. Oh! could you but feel the emotion that has touched that shrunken form which so despondingly waits the coming of a messenger of mercy. That system of cruelty to prisoners which so disgraced England during the last century, and which for her name she would were erased from her history, we preserve here in all its hideousness. The Governor knows nothing, and cares nothing about the prison; the Attorney-General never darkens its doors; the public scarce give a thought for those within its walls—and to one man, Mr. Hardscrabble, is the fate of these wretched beings entrusted. And so prone has become the appetite of man to speculate on the misfortunes of his fellow-man, that this good man, as we shall call him, tortures thus the miserable beings entrusted to his keeping, and makes it a means of getting rich. Pardon, reader, this digression.
George, elated with the idea of setting Tom at liberty, found the young theologian at the prison, and revealed to him the fact that he had got the much-desired order. To the latter this seemed strange—not that such a person as George could have succeeded in what he had tried in vain to effect, but that there was a mystery about it. It is but justice to say that the young theologian had for six months used every exertion in his power, without avail, to procure an order of release. He had appealed to the Attorney-General, who declared himself powerless, but referred him to the Governor. The Governor could take no action in the premises, and referred him to the Judge of the Sessions. The Judge of the Sessions doubted his capacity to interfere, and advised a petition to the Clerk of the Court. The Clerk of the Court, who invariably took it upon himself to correct the judge's dictum, decided that the judge could not interfere, the case being a committal by a Justice of the Peace, and not having been before the sessions. And against these high functionaries—the Governor, Attorney-General, Judge of the Sessions, and Clerk of the Court, was Mr. Soloman and Mrs. Swiggs all-powerful. There was, however, another power superior to all, and that we have described in the previous chapter.
Accompanied by the brusque old jailer, George and the young theologian make their way to the cell in which Tom is confined.
"Hallo! Tom," exclaims George, as he enters the cell, "boarding at the expense of the State yet, eh?" Tom lay stretched on a blanket in one corner of the cell, his faithful old friend, the sailor, watching over him with the solicitude of a brother. "I don't know how he'd got on if it hadn't bin for the old sailor, yonder," says the jailer, pointing to Spunyarn, who is crouched down at the great black fireplace, blowing the coals under a small pan. "He took to Tom when he first came in, and hasn't left him for a day. He'll steal to supply Tom's hunger, and fight if a prisoner attempts to impose upon his charge. He has rigged him out, you see, with his pea-coat and overalls," continues the man, folding his arms.
"I am sorry, Tom—"
"Yes," says Tom, interrupting the young theologian, "I know you are. You don't find me to have kept my word; and because I haven't you don't find me improved much. I can't get out; and if I can't get out, what's the use of my trying to improve? I don't say this because I don't want to improve. I have no one living who ought to care for me, but my mother. And she has shown what she cares for me."
"Everything is well. (The young theologian takes Tom by the hand.) We have got your release. You are a free man, now."
"My release!" exclaims the poor outcast, starting to his feet, "my release?"
"Yes," kindly interposes the jailer, "you may go, Tom. Stone walls, bolts and chains have no further use for you." The announcement brings tears to his eyes; he cannot find words to give utterance to his emotions. He drops the young theologian's hand, grasps warmly that of George Mullholland, and says, the tears falling fast down his cheeks, "now I will be a new man."
"God bless Tom," rejoins the old sailor, who has left the fireplace and joined in the excitement of the moment. "I alwas sed there war better weather ahead, Tom." He pats him encouragingly on the shoulder, and turns to the bystanders, continuing with a childlike frankness: "he's alwas complained with himself about breaking his word and honor with you, sir—"
The young theologian says the temptation was more than he could withstand.
"Yes sir!—that was it. He, poor fellow, wasn't to blame. One brought him in a drop, and challenged him; then another brought him in a drop, and challenged him; and the vote-cribber would get generous now and then, and bring him a drop, saying how he would like to crib him if he was only out, on the general election coming on, and make him take a drop of what he called election whiskey. And you know, sir, it's hard for a body to stand up against all these things, specially when a body's bin disappointed in love. It's bin a hard up and down with him. To-day he would make a bit of good weather, and to-morrow he'd be all up in a hurricane." And the old sailor takes a fresh quid of tobacco, wipes Tom's face, gets the brush and fusses over him, and tells him to cheer up, now that he has got his clearance.
"Tom would know if his mother ordered it."
"No! she must not know that you are at large," rejoins George.
"Not that I am at large?"
"I have," interposes the young theologian, "provided a place for you. We have a home for you, a snug little place at the house of old McArthur—"
"Old McArthur," interpolates Tom, smiling, "I'm not a curiosity."
George Mullholland says he may make love to Maria, that she will once more be a sister. Touched by the kindly act on his behalf, Tom replies saying she was always kind to him, watched over him when no one else would, and sought with tender counsels to effect his reform, to make him forget his troubles.
"Thank you!—my heart thanks you more forcibly than my tongue can. I feel a man. I won't touch drink again: no I won't. You won't find me breaking my honor this time. A sick at heart man, like me, has no power to buffet disappointment. I was a wretch, and like a wretch without a mother's sympathy, found relief only in drinks—"
"And such drinks!" interposes the old sailor, shrugging his shoulders. "Good weather, and a cheer up, now and then, from a friend, would have saved him."
Now there appears in the doorway, the stalworth figure of the vote-cribber, who, with sullen face, advances mechanically toward Tom, pauses and regards him with an air of suspicion. "You are not what you ought to be, Tom," he says, doggedly, and turns to the young Missionary. "Parson," he continues, "this 'ere pupil of yourn's a hard un. He isn't fit for respectable society. Like a sponge, he soaks up all the whiskey in jail." The young man turns upon him a look more of pity than scorn, while the jailer shakes his head admonishingly. The vote-cribber continues insensible to the admonition. He, be it known, is a character of no small importance in the political world. Having a sort of sympathy for the old jail he views his transient residences therein rather necessary than otherwise. As a leading character is necessary to every grade of society, so also does he plume himself the aristocrat of the prison. Persons committed for any other than offences against the election laws, he holds in utter contempt. Indeed, he says with a good deal of truth, that as fighting is become the all necessary qualification of our Senators and Representatives to Congress, he thinks of offering himself for the next vacancy. The only rival he fears is "handsome Charley." The accommodations are not what they might be, but, being exempt from rent and other items necessary to a prominent politician, he accepts them as a matter of economy.
The vote-cribber is sure of being set free on the approach of an election. We may as well confess it before the world—he is an indispensable adjunct to the creating, of Legislators, Mayors, Congressmen, and Governors. Whiskey is not more necessary to the reputation of our mob-politicians than are the physical powers of Milman Mingle to the success of the party he honors with his services. Nor do his friends scruple at consulting him on matters of great importance to the State while in his prison sanctuary.
"I'm out to-morrow, parson," he resumes; the massive fingers of his right hand wandering into his crispy, red beard, and again over his scarred face. "Mayor's election comes off two weeks from Friday—couldn't do without me—can knock down any quantity of men—you throw a plumper, I take it?" The young Missionary answers in the negative by shaking his head, while the kind old sailor continues to fuss over and prepare Tom for his departure. "Tom is about to leave us," says the old sailor, by way of diverting the vote-cribber's attention. That dignitary, so much esteemed by our fine old statesmen, turns to Tom, and inquires if he has a vote.
Tom has a vote, but declares he will not give it to the vote-cribber's party. The politician says "p'raps," and draws from his bosom a small flask. "Whiskey, Tom," he says,—"no use offering it to parsons, eh? (he casts an insinuating look at the parson.) First-chop election whiskey—a sup and we're friends until I get you safe under the lock of my crib. Our Senators to Congress patronize this largely." The forlorn freeman, with a look of contempt for the man who thus upbraids him, dashes the drug upon the floor, to the evident chagrin of the politician, who, to conceal his feelings, turns to George Mulholland, and mechanically inquires if he has a vote. Being answered in the negative, he picks up his flask and walks away, saying: "what rubbish!"
Accompanied by his friends and the old sailor, Tom sallies forth into the atmosphere of sweet freedom. As the old jailer swings back the outer gate, Spunyarn grasps his friend and companion in sorrow warmly by the hand, his bronzed face brightens with an air of satisfaction, and like pure water gushing from the rude rock his eyes fill with tears. How honest, how touching, how pure the friendly lisp—good bye! "Keep up a strong heart, Tom,—never mind me. I don't know by what right I'm kept here, and starved; but I expect to get out one of these days; and when I do you may reckon on me as your friend. Keep the craft in good trim till then; don't let the devil get master. Come and see us now and then, and above all, never give up the ship during a storm." Tom's emotions are too deeply touched. He has no reply to make, but presses in silence the hand of the old sailor, takes his departure, and turns to wave him an adieu.
- An election bully, the ugliest man in Charleston, and the deadly foe of Mingle.