An Outcast/Chapter XXXV
Mr. McArthur has jogged on, in the good old way but his worldly store seems not to increase. The time, nevertheless, is arrived when he is expected to return the little amount borrowed of Keepum, through the agency of Mr. Snivel. Again and again has he been notified that he must pay or go to that place in which we lock up all our very estimable "first families," whose money has taken wings and flown away. Not content with this, the two worthy gentlemen have more than once invaded the Antiquary's back parlor, and offered, as we have described in a former chapter, improper advances to his daughter.
Mr. Keepum, dressed in a flashy coat, his sharp, mercenary face, hectic of night revels, and his small but wicked eyes wandering over Mr. McArthur's stock in trade, is seen in pursuit of his darling object. "I don't mind so much about the pay, old man! I'm up well in the world. The fact is, I am esteemed—and I am!—a public benefactor. I never forget how much we owe to the chivalric spirit of our ancestors, and in dealing with the poor—money matters and politics are different from anything else—I am too generous. I don't mind my own interests enough. There it is!" Mr. Keepum says this with an evident relief to himself. Indeed it must here be acknowledged that this very excellent member of the St. Cecilia Society, and profound dealer in lottery tickets, like our fine gentlemen who are so scrupulous of their chivalry while stabbing men behind their backs, fancies himself one of the most disinterested beings known to generous nature.
Bent and tottering, the old man recounts the value of his curiosities; which, like our chivalry, is much talked of but hard to get at. He offers in apology for the nonpayment of the debt his knowledge of the old continentals, just as we offer our chivalry in excuse for every disgraceful act—every savage law. In fine, he follows the maxims of our politicians, recapitulating a dozen or more things (wiping the sweat from his brow the while) that have no earthly connection with the subject. "They are all very well," Mr. Keepum rejoins, with an air of self-importance, dusting the ashes from his cigar. He only wishes to impress the old man with the fact that he is his very best friend.
And having somewhat relieved the Antiquary's mind of its apprehensions, for McArthur stood in great fear of duns, Mr. Keepum pops, uninvited, into the "back parlor," where he has not long been when Maria's screams for assistance break forth.
"Ah! I am old—there is not much left me now. Yes, I am old, my infirmities are upon me. Pray, good man, spare me my daughter. Nay, you must not break the peace of my house;" mutters the old man, advancing into the room, with infirm step, and looking wistfully at his daughter, as if eager to clasp her in his arms. Maria stands in a defiant attitude, her left hand poised on a chair, and her right pointing scornfully in the face of Keepum, who recoils under the look of withering scorn that darkens her countenance. "A gentleman! begone, knave! for your looks betray you. You cannot buy my ruin with your gold; you cannot deceive me with your false tongue. If hate were a noble passion, I would not vent that which now agitates my bosom on you. Nay, I would reserve it for a better purpose—"
"Indeed, indeed—now I say honestly, your daughter mistakes me. I was only being a little friendly to her," interrupts the chopfallen man. He did not think her capable of summoning so much passion to her aid.
Maria, it must be said, was one of those seemingly calm natures in which resentment takes deepest root, in which the passions are most violent when roused. Solitude does, indeed, tend to invest the passionate nature with a calm surface. A less penetrating observer than the chivalrous Keepum, might have discovered in Maria a spirit he could not so easily humble to his uses. It is the modest, thoughtful woman, you cannot make lick the dust in sorrow and tears. "Coward! you laid ruffian hands on me!" says Maria, again towering to her height, and giving vent to her feelings.
"Madam, Madam," pursues Keepum, trembling and crouching, "you asperse my honor,—my sacred honor, Madam. You see—let me say a word, now—you are letting your temper get the better of you. I never, and the public know I never did—I never did a dishonorable thing in my life." Turning to the bewildered old man, he continues: "to be called a knave, and upbraided in this manner by your daughter, when I have befriended you all these days!" His wicked eyes fall guilty to the floor.
"Out man!—out! Let your sense of right, if you have it, teach you what is friendship. Know that, like mercy, it is not poured out with hands reeking of female dishonor."
Mr. Keepum, like many more of our very fine gentlemen, had so trained his thoughts to look upon the poor as slaves created for a base use, that he neither could bring his mind to believe in the existence of such things as noble spirits under humble roofs, nor to imagine himself—even while committing the grossest outrages—doing aught to sully the high chivalric spirit he fancied he possessed. The old Antiquary, on the other hand, was not a little surprised to find his daughter displaying such extraordinary means of repulsing an enemy.
Trembling, and childlike he stands, conscious of being in the grasp of a knave, whose object was more the ruin of his daughter than the recovery of a small amount of money, the tears glistening in his eyes, and the finger of old age marked on his furrowed brow.
"Father, father!" says Maria, and the words hang upon her quivering lips, her face becomes pale as marble, her strength deserts her,—she trembles from head to foot, and sinks upon the old man's bosom, struggling to smother her sobs. Her passion has left her; her calmer nature has risen up to rebuke it. The old man leads her tenderly to the sofa, and there seeks to sooth her troubled spirit.
"As if this hub bub was always to last!" a voice speaks suddenly. It is the Hon. Mr. Snivel, who looks in at the eleventh hour, as he says, to find affairs always in a fuss. "Being a man of legal knowledge—always ready to do a bit of a good turn—especially in putting a disordered house to rights—I thought it well to look in, having a leisure minute or two (we have had a convention for dissolving the Union, and passed a vote to that end!) to give to my old friends," Mr. Snivel says, in a voice at once conciliating and insinuating. "I always think of a border feud when I come here—things that find no favor with me." Mr. Snivel, having first patted the old man on the shoulder, exchanges a significant wink with his friend Keepum, and then bestows upon him what he is pleased to call a little wholesome advice. "People misunderstand Mr. Keepum," he says, "who is one of the most generous of men, but lacks discretion, and in trying to be polite to everybody, lets his feelings have too much latitude now and then." Maria buries her face in her handkerchief, as if indifferent to the reconciliation offered.
"Now let this all be forgotten—let friendship reign among friends: that's my motto. But! I say,—this is a bad piece of news we have this morning. Clipped this from an English paper," resumes the Hon. gentleman, drawing coolly from his pocket a bit of paper, having the appearance of an extract.
"You are never without some kind of news—mostly bad!" says Keepum, flinging himself into a chair, with an air of restored confidence. Mr. Snivel bows, thanks the gentleman for the compliment, and commences to read. "This news," he adds, "may be relied upon, having come from Lloyd's List: 'Intelligence was received here (this is, you must remember, from a London paper, he says, in parentheses) this morning, of the total loss of the American ship ——, bound from this port for Charleston, U.S., near the Needles. Every soul on board, except the Captain and second mate, perished. The gale was one of the worst ever known on this coast—'"
"The worst ever known on this coast!" ejaculates Mr. Keepum, his wicked eyes steadily fixed upon Maria. "One of Trueman's ships," Mr. Snivel adds. "Unlucky fellow, that Trueman—second ship he has lost."
"By-the-bye," rejoins Keepum, as if a thought has just flashed upon him, "your old friend, Tom Swiggs, was supercargo, clerk, or whatever you may call it, aboard that ship, eh?"
It is the knave who can most naturally affect surprise and regret when it suits his purposes, and Mr. Snivel is well learned in the art. "True!" he says, "as I'm a Christian. Well, I had made a man of him—I don't regret it, for I always liked him—and this is the end of the poor fellow, eh?" Turning to McArthur, he adds, rather unconcernedly: "You know somewhat of him?" The old man sits motionless beside his daughter, the changes of whose countenance discover the inward emotions that agitate her bosom. Her eyes fill with tears; she exchanges inquiring glances, first with Keepum, then with Snivel; then a thought strikes her that she received a letter from Tom, setting forth his prospects, and his intention to return in the ship above named. It was very natural that news thus artfully manufactured, and revealed with such apparent truthfulness, should produce a deep impression in the mind of an unsuspecting girl. Indeed, it was with some effort that she bore up under it. Expressions of grief she would fain suppress before the enemy gain a mastery over her—and ere they are gone the cup flows over, and she sinks exhausted upon the sofa.
"There! good as far as it goes. You have now another mode of gaining the victory," Mr. Snivel whispers in the ear of his friend, Keepum; and the two gentlemen pass into the street.