The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 82/What will become of Them?
WHAT WILL BECOME OF THEM?
A STORY IN TWO PARTS.
"Please, Ma'am, I want to come in out of the rain," said the dripping figure at the door.
"And who are you, Sir?" demanded the lady, astonished; for the bell had been rung familiarly, and, thinking her son had come home, she had hastened to let him in, but had met instead (at the front-door of her fine house!) this wretch.
"I'm Fessenden's fool, please, Ma'am," replied the son—not of this happy mother, thank Heaven! not of this proud, elegant lady, oh, no!—but of some no less human-hearted mother, I suppose, who had likewise loved her boy, perhaps all the more fondly for his infirmity,—who had hugged him to her bosom so many, many times, with wild and sorrowful love,—and who, be sure, would not have kept him standing there, ragged and shivering, in the rain.
"Fessenden's fool!" cries the lady. "What's your name?"
"Please, Ma'am, that's my name." Meekly spoken, with an earnest, staring face. "Do you want me?"
"No; we don't want a boy with such a name as that!"
And the lady scowls, and shakes her head, and half closes the forbidding door,—not thinking of that other mother's heart,—never dreaming that such a gaunt and pallid wight ever had a mother at all. For the idea that those long, lean hands, reaching far out of the short and split coat-sleeves, had been a baby's pure, soft hands once, and had pressed the white maternal breasts, and had played with the kisses of the fond maternal lips,—it was scarcely conceivable; and a delicate-minded matron, like Mrs. Gingerford, may well be excused for not entertaining any such distressing fancy.
"Wal! I'll go!" And the youth turned away.
She could not shut the door. There was something in the unresentful, sad face, pale cheeks, and large eyes, that fascinated her; something about the tattered clothes, thin, wet locks of flaxen hair, and ravelled straw hat-brim, fantastic and pitiful. And as he walked wearily away, and she saw the night closing in black and dark, and felt the cold dash of the rain blown against her own cheek, she concluded to take pity on him. For she was by no means a hard-hearted woman; and though her house was altogether too good for poor folks, and she really didn't know what she should do with him, it seemed too bad to send him away shelterless, that stormy November night. Besides, her husband was a rising politician,—the public-spirited Judge Gingerford, you know,—the eloquent philanthropist and reformer;—and to have it said that his door had been shut against a perishing stranger might hurt him. So, as I remarked, she concluded to take pity on the boy, and, after duly weighing the matter, to call him back. And she called,—though, as I suspect, not very loud. Moreover, the wind was whistling through the leafless shrubbery, and his rags were fluttering, and his hat was flapping about his ears, and the rain was pelting him; and just then the Judge's respectable dog put his head out of the warm, dry kennel, and barked; so that he did not hear,—the lady believed.
He had heard very well, nevertheless. Why didn't he go back, then? Maybe, because he was a fool. More likely, because he was, after all, human. Within that husk of rags, under all that dull incumbrance of imperfect physical organs that cramped and stifled it, there dwelt a soul; and the soul of man knows its own worth, and is proud. The coarsest, most degraded drudge still harbors in his wretched house of clay a divine guest. There is that in the convict and slave which stirs yet at an insult. And even in this lank, half-witted lad, the despised and outcast of years, there abode a sense of inalienable dignity,—an immanent instinct that he, too, was a creature of God, and worthy therefore to be treated with a certain tenderness and respect, and not to be roughly repulsed. This was as strong in him as in you. His wisdom was little, but his will was firm. And though the house was cheerful and large, and had room and comforts enough and to spare, rather than enter it, after he had been flatly told he was not wanted, he would lie down in the cold, wet fields and die.
"Certainly, he will find shelter somewhere," thought the Judge's lady, discharging her conscience of the responsibility. "But I am sorry he didn't hear."
Was she very sorry?
She went back into her cozy, fire-lighted sewing-room, and thought no more of the beggar-boy. And the watchdog, having barked his well-bred, formal bark, without undue heat,—like a dog that knew the world, and had acquired the tone of society,—stood a minute, important, contemplating the drizzle from the door of his kennel, out of which he had not deigned to step, then stretched himself once more on his straw, gave a sigh of repose, and curled himself up, with his nose to the air, in an attitude of canine enjoyment, in which it was to be hoped no inconsiderate vagabond would again disturb him.
As for Fessenden's ——— How shall we name him? Somehow, it goes against the grain to call any person a fool. Though we may forget the Scriptural warning, still charity remembers that he is our brother. Suppose, therefore, we stop at the possessive case, and call him simply Fessenden's?
As for Fessenden's, then, he was less fortunate than the Judge's mastiff. He had no dry straw, not even a kennel to crouch in. And the fields were uninviting; and to die was not so pleasant. The veriest wretch alive feels a yearning for life, and few are so foolish as not to prefer a dry skin to a wet one. Even Fessenden's knew enough to go in when it rained,—if he only could. So, with the dismallest prospect before him, he kept on, in the wind and rain of that bitter November night.
And now the wind was rising to a tempest; and the rain was turning to sleet; and November was fast becoming December. For this was the last day of the month,—the close of the last day of autumn, as we divide the seasons: autumn was flying in battle before the fierce onset of winter. It was the close of the week also, being Saturday.
Saturday night! what a sentiment of thankfulness and repose is in the word! Comfort is in it; and peace exhales from it like an aroma. Your work is ended; it is the hour of rest; the sense of duty done sweetens reflection, and weariness subsides into soothing content. Once more the heart grows tenderly appreciative of the commonest blessings. That you have a roof to shelter you, and a pillow for your head, and love and light and supper, and something in store for Sunday,—that the raving rain is excluded, and the wolfish wind howls in vain,—that those dearest to you are gathered about your hearth, and all is well,—it is enough; the full soul asks no wore.
But this particular Saturday evening brought no such suffusion of bliss to Fessenden's,—if, indeed, any ever did. He saw, through the streaming, misty air, the happy homes in the village lighted up one by one as it grew dark. He had glimpses, through warm windows, of white supper-tables. The storm made sufficient seclusion; there was no need to draw the curtains. Servants were bringing in the tea-things. Children were playing about the floors,—laughing, beautiful children. Behold them, shivering beggar-boy! Lean by the iron rail, wait patiently in the rain, and look in upon them; it is worth your while. How frolicsome and light-hearted they seem! They are never cold, and seldom very hungry, and the world is dry to them, and comfortable. And they all have beds,—delicious beds. Mothers' hands tuck them in; mothers' lips teach them to say their little prayers, and kiss them good-night. Foolish fellow! why didn't you be one of those fortunate children, well fed, rosy, and bright, instead of a starved and stupid tatterdemalion? A question which shapes itself vaguely in his dull, aching soul, as he stands trembling in the sleet, with only a few transparent squares of glass dividing him and his misery from them and their joy.
Mighty question! it is vast and dark as the night to him. He cannot answer it; can you?
Vast and dark and pitiless is the night. But the morning will surely come; and after all the wrongs and tumults of life will rise the dawn of the Day of God. And then every question of fate, though it fill the universe for you now, shall dissolve in the brightness like a vapor, and vanish like a little cloud.
Meanwhile a servant comes out and drives Fessenden's away from the fence. He recommenced his wanderings,—up one street and down another, in search of a place to lay his head. The inferior dwellings he passed by. But when he arrived at a particularly fine one, there he rang. Was it not natural for him to infer that the largest houses had amplest accommodations, and that the rich could best afford to be bounteous? If in all these spacious mansions there was no little nook for him, if out of their luxuries not a blanket or crust could be spared, what could he hope from the poor? You see, he was not altogether witless, if he was a—Fessenden's. Another proof: At whatever house he applied, he never committed the vulgarity of a détour to the back-entrance, but advanced straight, with bold and confident port, to the front-door. The reason of which was equally simple and clear: Front-doors were the most convenient and inviting; and what were they made for, if not to go in at?
But he grew weary of ringing and of being repulsed. It was dismal standing still, however, and quite as comfortless sitting down. He was so cold! So, to keep his blood in motion, he keeps his limbs in motion,—till, lo! here he is again at the house where the happy children were! They have ceased their play. Two young girls are at the window, gazing out into the darkness, as if expecting some one. Not you, miserable! You needn't stop and make signs for them to admit you. There! don't you see you have frightened them? You are not a fitting spectacle for such sweet-eyed darlings. They do well to drop the shade, to shut out the darkness, and the dim, gesticulating phantom. Flit on! 'Tis their father they are looking for, coming home to them with gifts from the city.
But he does not flit. When, presently, they lift a corner of the shade to peep out, they see him still standing there, spectral in the gloom. He is waiting for them to open the door! He thinks they have quitted the window for that purpose! Ah! here comes the father, and they are glad.
He comes hurrying from the cars under his umbrella, which is braced against the gale and shuts out from his eyes the sight of the unsheltered wretch. And he is hastily entering his door, which is opened to him by the eager children, when they scream alarm; and looking over his shoulder, he perceives, following at his heels, the fright. He is one of your full-blooded, solid men; but he is startled.
"What do you want?" he cries, and lifts the threatening umbrella.
"I'm hungry," says the intruder, with a ghastly glare, still advancing.
He stands taller in his tattered shoes than the solid gentleman in his boots; and those long, lean, claw-like hands act as if anxious to clutch something. Papa thinks it is his throat.
"By heavens! and do you mean to"———And he prepares to charge umbrella.
"You may!" answers the wretch, with perfect sincerity, presenting his ragged bosom to the blow.
The lord of the castle lowers his weapon. The children huddle behind him, hushing their screams.
"Go in, Minnie! In, all of you! Tell Stephen to come here,—quick!"
The children scamper. And the florid, prosperous parent and the gaunt and famishing pauper are alone, confronting each other by the light of the shining hall-lamp.
"I'm cold," says the latter,—"and wet," with an aguish shiver.
"I should think so!" cries the gentleman, recovering from his alarm, and getting his breath again, as he hears Stephen's step behind him. "Stand back, can't you?" (indignantly). "Don't you see you are dripping on the carpet?"
"I'm so tired!"
"Well! you needn't rub yourself against the door, if you are! Don't you see you are smearing it? What are you roaming about in this way for, intruding into people's houses?"
"Please, Sir, I don't know," is the soft, sad answer; and Fessenden's is meekly taking himself away.
"It's too bad, though!" says the man, relenting. "What can we do with this fellow, Stephen?"
"Send him around to Judge Gingerford's,—I should say that's about the best thing to do with him," says the witty Stephen.
The man knew well what would please. His master's face lighted up. He rubbed his hands, and regarded the vagabond with a humorous twinkle, with malice in it.
"Would you, Stephen? By George, I've a good notion to! Take the umbrella, and go and show him the way."
Stephen did not like that.
"I was only joking, Sir," he said.
"A good joke, too! Here, you fellow! go with my man. He'll take you to a house where you'll find friends. Excellent folks! damned philanthropical! red-hot abolitionists! If you only had nigger-blood, now, they'd treat you like a prince. I don't know but I'd advise you to tell 'em you're about a quarter nigger,—they'll think ten times as much of you!"
It was sufficiently evident that the gentleman did not love his neighbor the Judge. There was in his tone bitter personal and political hatred. With his own hands he spread again the soaked umbrella, and, giving it to the reluctant Stephen, turned him away with the vagabond. Then he shut the door, and went in. By the fire he pulled off his wet boots, and put on the warm slippers, which the children brought him with innocent strife to see which should be foremost. And he gave to each kisses and toys; for he was a kind father. And sitting down to supper, with their beaming faces around him, he thought of the beggar-boy only in connection with the jocular spite he had indulged against his neighbor.
Meanwhile the disgusted Stephen, walking alone under the umbrella, drove Fessenden's before him through the storm. They turned a corner. Stephen stopped.
"There, that's the house, where the lights are. Good bye! Luck to you!" And Stephen and umbrella disappeared in the darkness.
Fessenden's kept on, wearily, wearily! He reached the house. And lo! it was the same, at the door of which the lady had told him that he, with his name, was not wanted. Tiger slept in his kennel, and dreamed of barking at beggars. The Judge, snugly ensconced in his study, listened to the report of his speech before the Timberville Benevolent Association. His son read it aloud, in the columns of the "Timberville Gazette." Gingerford smiled and nodded; for he thought it sounded well. And Mrs. Gingerford was pleased and proud. And the heart of Gingerford Junior swelled with the fervor of the eloquence, and with exultation in his father's talents and distinction, as he read. The sleet rattled a pleasant accompaniment against the window-shutters; and the organ-pipes of the wind sounded a solemn symphony. This last night of November was genial and bright to those worthy people, in their little family-circle. And the future was full of promise. And the rhetoric of the orator settled the duty of man to man so satisfactorily, and painted the pleasures of benevolence in such colors, that all their bosoms glowed.
"It is gratifying to think," said Mrs. Gingerford, wiping her eyes at the pathetic close, "how much good the printing of that address in the 'Gazette' must accomplish. It will reach many so who hadn't the good-fortune to hear it at the rooms."
Certainly, Madam. The "Gazette" is taken, and perhaps read this very evening, in every one of the houses at which the pauper has applied in vain for shelter, since you frowned him from your door. Those exalted sentiments, breathed in musical periods, are no doubt a rich legacy to the society of Timberville, and to the world. It was wise to print them; they will "reach many so." But will they reach this outcast beggar-boy, and benefit him? Alas, it is fast growing too late for that!
Utter fatigue and discouragement have overtaken him. The former notion of dying in the fields recurs to him now; and wretched indeed must he be, since even that desperate thought has a sort of comfort in it. But he is too weary to seek out some suitably retired spot to take cold leave of life in. On every side is darkness; on every side, wild storm. Why endeavor to drag farther his benumbed limbs? As well stretch himself here, upon this wet wintry sod, as anywhere. He has the presumption to do it,—never considering how deeply he may injure a fine gentleman's feelings by dying at his door.
Tiger does not bark him away, but only dreams of barking, in his cozy kennel. Close by are the windows of the mansion, glowing with light. There beat the philanthropic hearts; there smiles the pale, pensive lady; there beams the aspiring face of her son; and there sits the Judge, with his feet on the rug, pleasantly contemplating the good his speech will do, and thinking quite as much, perhaps, of the fame it will bring him,—happily unconscious alike of his neighbor's malicious jest, and of the real victim of that jest, lying out there in the tempest and freezing rain.
So November goes out; and winter, boisterous and triumphant, comes in.
Sunday morning: cold and clear. The December sun shines upon the glassy turf, and upon trees all clad in armor of glittering ice. And the trees creak and rattle in the north wind; and the icy splinters fall tinkling to the ground.
The splendor of the morning gilds the Judge's estate. Everything about the mansion smiles and sparkles. Were last night's horrors a dream?
There was danger, we remember, that the foolish youth might do a very inconsiderate and shocking thing, and perhaps ruin the Judge. What if he had really deposited his mortal remains at the gate of that worthy man,—to be found there, ghastly and stiff, a revolting spectacle, this bright morning? What a commentary on Gingerford philanthropy! For of course some one would at once have stepped forward to testify to having seen him driven from the door, which he came back to lay his bones near. And Stephen would have been on hand to remember directing such a person, inquiring his way a second time to the Judge's house. And here he is dead,—to the secret delight of the Judge's enemies, and to the indignation of all Timberville. At anybody else's door it wouldn't have seemed so bad. But at Gingerford's! a philanthropist by profession! author of that beautiful speech you cried over! You will never forgive him those tears. The greatest crime a man can be guilty of in the eyes of his constituents is to have been over-praised by them. Woe to him, when they find out their error! and woe now to the Judge! The fact that a dozen other influential citizens had also refused shelter to the vagabond will not help the matter. Those very men will probably be the first to cry, "Hypocrite! inhuman! a judgment upon him!"—for it is always the person of doubtful virtue who is most eager to assume the appearance of severe integrity; and we often flatter ourselves that our private faults are atoned for, when we have loudly denounced them in others.
Fortunately, the flower of the Judge's reputation is saved from so terrible a blight. There is no corpse at his gate; and our speculations are idle.
This is what had occurred. Not long after the lad had lain down, a dream-like spell came over him. His pain was gone. He forgot that he was cold. He was not hungry any more. A sweet sense of rest was diffused through his tired limbs. And smiling and soothed he lay, while the storm beat upon him. Was this death? For we know that in this merciful shape death sometimes comes to the sufferer.
Fessenden's afterwards said that he had "one of his fits." He was subject to such. When men reviled and denied him, then came the angels,—or he imagined they came. They walked by his side, and talked with him; and often, all a summer's afternoon, he could be heard conversing in the fields, as with familiar friends, when only himself was visible, and his voice alone was heard in the silence. This was, in fact, one of those idiosyncrasies which had earned him his shameful name.
In the trance of that night, lying cold upon the ground, he beheld his ghostly visitors. They came and stood around him, a shining company, and looked upon him with countenances of fair women and good men. Their apparel was not unlike that of mortals. And he heard them questioning among themselves how they should help him. And one of them, as it seemed, brought human assistance; though the boy, who could see plenty of ghosts, could not, for some reason, see the only actually visible and substantial person then on the spot besides himself. He felt, however, sensibly enough, the concussion of a stout pair of mortal legs that presently went stumbling over him in the dark. The shock roused him. The whole shadowy company vanished instantly; and in their place he saw, by the glimmer from the Judge's windows, a dark sprawling figure getting up out of the mud and water.
"Don't be scared, it's me," said Fessenden's; for he guessed the fellow was frightened.
"Excuse me, Sir! I really didn't know it was you, Sir!" said the man, with agitated politeness. "And who might you be, Sir? if I may be so bold as to inquire." And regaining his balance, his umbrella, and his self-possession, he drew near, and squatted cautiously before the prostrate beggar, who, had his eyesight been half as keen for the living as it was for the dead, would have discovered that the face bending over him was black.
"Never mind me," said Fessenden's. "Did it hurt ye?"
"Well, Sir,—no, Sir,—only my knee went pretty seriously into something wet. And I believe I've turned my umbrella wrong side out. I say, Sir, what was you doing, lying here, Sir? You don't think of remaining here all night, I trust, Sir?"
"I've nowhere else to go," said the boy, trying to rise.
The black man helped him up.
"But this never'll do, you know! such an inclement night as this is!—you'd die before morning, sure! Just wait till I can get my umbrella into shape,—my gracious! how the wind pulls it! Now, then, suppose you come along with me."
"Please, Sir, I can't walk"; for the lad's limbs had stiffened, in spite of his angels.
"Is that so, Sir? Let me see; about how much do you weigh, Sir? Not much above a hundred, do you? It isn't impossible but I may take you on my back. Suppose you try it."
"Oh, I can't!" groaned the boy.
"Excuse me for contradicting you, but I think you can, Sir. I shouldn't like to do it myself, in the daytime; but in the night so, who cares? Nobody'll laugh at us, even if we don't succeed. Really, I wish you wasn't quite so wet, Sir; for these here is my Sunday clothes. But never mind a little water; we'll find a fire to get dry again. There you are, my friend! A little higher. Put your hands over across my breast. Couldn't manage to hold, the umbrella over us, could you? So fashion. Now steady, while I rise with you."
And the stalwart young negro, hooking his arms well under the legs of his rider, got up stoopingly, gave a toss and a jolt to get him into the right position, and walked off with him. Away they go, tramp, tramp, in the storm and darkness. Thank Heaven, the Judge's fame is safe! If the pauper dies, it will not be at his door. Little he knows, there in his elegant study, what an inestimable service this black Samaritan is rendering him. And it was just; for, after all the Judge had done for the negro, (who, I suppose, was equally unconscious of any substantial benefit received,) it was time that the negro should do something for him in return.
Tramp! tramp! a famous beggar's ride! It was a picturesque scene, with food for laughter and tears in it, had we only been there with a lantern. Fessenden's, fantastic, astride of the African, staring forward into the darkness from under his ragged hat-brim, endeavoring to hold the wreck of an umbrella over them,—the wind flapping and whirling it. Tramp! tramp! past all those noble mansions, to the negro-hut beyond the village. And, oh, to think of it! the rich citizens, the enlightened and white-skinned Levites, having left him out, one of their own race, to perish in the storm, this despised black man is found, alone of all the world, to show mercy unto him!
"How do you get on, Sir?" says the stout young Ethiop. "Would you ride easier, if I should trot? or would you prefer a canter? Tell 'em to bring on their two-forty nags now, if they want a race."
Talking in this strain, to keep up his rider's spirits, he brought him, not without sweat and toil, to the hut. A kick on the door with the beggar's foot, which he used for the purpose, caused it to be opened by a woolly-headed urchin; and in he staggered.
Little woolly-head clapped his hands and screamed.
"Oh, crackie, pappy! here comes Bill with the Devil on his back!"
Sensation in the hut. There was an old negro woman in the corner, on one side of the stove, knitting; and a very old negro man in the opposite corner, napping; and a middle-aged man, with spectacles on his ebony nose, reading slowly aloud from an ancient grease-covered book opened before him on the old pine table; and a middle-aged woman patching a jacket; and a girl washing dishes, which another girl was wiping: representatives of four generations: and they all quitted their occupations at once, to see what sort of a devil Bill had brought home.
"Why, William! who have you got there, William?" said he of the spectacles, with mild wonder,—removing those clerkly aids of vision, and laying them across the book.
"A chair!" panted Bill. "Now ease him down, if you please,—careful,—and I'll—recite the circumstances,"—puffing, but polite to the last.
Helpless and gasping, Fessenden's was unfastened, and slipped down the African's back upon a seat placed to receive him. He still clung to the umbrella, which he endeavored to keep spread over him, while he stared around with stupid amazement at the dim room and the array of black faces.
And now the excited urchin began to caper and sing:—
" 'Went down to river, couldn't get across;
Jumped upon a nigger's back, thought it was a hoss!'
"Oh, crackie, Bill!"
"Father," said William, with wounded dignity,—for he was something of a gentleman in his way,—"I wish you'd discipline that child, or else give me permission to chuck him."
"Joseph!" said the father, with a stern shake of his big black head at the boy, "here's a stranger in the house! Walk straight, Joseph!"
Which solemn injunction Joseph obeyed in a highly offensive manner, by strutting off in imitation of William's dandified air.
By this time the aged negro in the corner had become fully roused to the consciousness of a guest in the house. He came forward with slow, shuffling step. He was almost blind. He was exceedingly deaf. He was withered and wrinkled in the last degree. His countenance was of the color of rust-eaten bronze. He was more than a hundred years old,—the father of the old woman, the grandfather of the middle-aged man, and the great-grandfather of William, Joseph, and the girls. He was muffled in rags, and wore a little cap on his head. This he removed with his left hand, exposing a little battered tea-kettle of a bald pate, as with smiling politeness he reached out the other trembling hand to shake that of the stranger.
"Welcome, Sah! Sarvant, Sah!"
He bowed and smiled again, and the hospitable duty was performed; after which he put on his cap and shuffled back into his corner, greatly marvelled at by the gazing beggar-boy.
The girls and their mother now bestirred themselves to get their guest something to eat. The tin tea-pot was set on the stove, and hash was warmed up in the spider. In the mean time William somewhat ruefully took off his wet Sunday coat, and hung it to dry by the stove, interpolating affectionate regrets for the soiled garment with the narration of his adventure.
"It was the merest chance my coming that way," he explained; "for I had got started up the other street, when something says to me, 'Go by Gingerford's! go by Judge Gingerford's!' so I altered my course, and the result was, just as I got against the Judge's gate I was precipitated over this here person."
"I know what made ye!" spoke up the boy, with an earnest stare.
"What, Sir,—if you please?"
"The—the what, Sir?"
"The angels! I seen 'em!" says Fessenden's.
This astounding announcement was followed by a strange hush. Bill forgot to smooth out the creases of his coat, and looked suspiciously at the youth whom it had served as a saddle. He wondered if he had really been ridden by the Devil.
The old woman now interfered. She was at least seventy years of age. The hair of her head was like mixed carded wool. Her coarse, cleanly gown was composed of many-colored, curious patches. The atmosphere of thorough grandmotherly goodness surrounded her. In the twilight sky of her dusky face twinkled shrewdness and good-humor; and her voice was full of authority and kindness.
"Stan' back here now, you troubles!" pushing the children aside. "Didn't none on ye never see nobody afore? This 'ere chile has got to be took keer on, and that mighty soon! Gi' me the comf'table off'm the bed, mammy."
"Mammy" was the mother of the children. The "comf'table" was brought, and she and her husband helped the old negress wrap Fessenden's up in it, from head to foot, wet clothes and all.
"Now your big warm gret-cut, pappy!"
"Pappy" was her own son; and the "gret-cut" was his old, gray, patched and double-patched surtout, which now came down from its peg, and spread its broad flaps, like brooding wings, over the half-drowned human chicken.
"Now put in the wood, boys! Pour some of that 'ere hot tea down his throat. Bless him, we'll sweat the cold out of him! we'll give him a steaming!"
She held with her own hand the cracked tea-cup to the lad's lips, and made him drink. Then she pulled up the comforter about his face, till nothing of him was visible but his nose and a curl or two of saturated tow. Then she had him moved up close to the glowing stove, like a huge chrysalis to be hatched by the heat.
The dozing centenarian now roused again, and, perceiving the little nose in the big bundle on the other side of the chimney, was once more reminded of the sacred duties of hospitality. So he got upon his trembling old legs again, pulled off his cap, and bowed and smiled as before, with exquisite politeness, across the stove. "Sarvant, Sah! Welcome, Sah!". And he sat down, and dozed again.
Fessenden's was not in a position to return the courteous salute. The old woman had by this time got his feet packed into the stove-oven, and he was beginning to smoke.
"Oh, Bill! just look a' Joe!" cried one of the girls.
Bill left smoothing his broadcloth, and, turning up the whites of his eyes, uttered a despairing groan. "Oh, that child! that child! that child!"—his voice running up into a wild falsetto howl.
The child thus passionately alluded to had possessed himself of Bill's genteel silk hat, which had been tenderly put away to dry. It had been sadly soaked by the rain, and bruised by the flopping umbrella which Fessenden's had unhappily attempted to hold over it. And now Joe had knocked in the crown, whilst geting it down from its peg with the broom. He had thought to improve its appearance by stroking the nap the wrong way with his sleeve. Lastly, putting it on his head, he had crushed the sides together, to prevent its coming quite down over his eyes and ears and resting on his shoulders. And there he was, with the broken umbrella spread, hitting the top of the hat with it at every step, as he strutted around the room in emulation of his brother's elegant style.
"My name's Mr. Bill Williams, Asquare!" simpered the little satirist. "Some folks call me Gentleman Bill, 'cause I'm so smart and good-looking, Sar!"
Gentleman Bill picked up the jack with which he had pulled off his wet boots, and waited for a good chance to launch it at Joe's head. But Joe kept behind his grandmother, and proceeded with his mimicry.
"Nobody knows I'm smart and good-looking 'cept me, and that's the why I tell on't Sar; that's the reason I excite the stircumsances, Sar!"—He remembered Bill's saying he would "recite the circumstances," and this was as near as he could come to the precise words.—"I'm a gentleman tailor; that's my perfession, Sar. Work over to the North Village, Sar. Come home Sat'day nights to stop over Sunday with the folks, and show my good clo'es. How d' 'e do, Sar? Perty well, thank ye, Sar." And Joe, putting down the umbrella, in order to lift the ingulfing hat from his little round, black, curly head with both hands, made a most extravagant bow to the chrysalis.
"Old granny!" hoarsely whispered Bill, "you just stand out of the way once, while I propel this boot-jack!"
"Old granny don't stan' out o' the way oncet, for you to frow no boot-jack in this house! S'pose I want to see that chile's head stove in? Which is mos' consequence, I'd like to know, your hat, or his head? Hats enough in the world. But that 'ere head is an oncommon head, and, bless the boy, if he should lose that, I do'no' where he'd git another like it! Come, no more fuss now! I got to make some gruel for this 'ere poor, wet, starvin' critter. That hash a'n't the thing for him, mammy,—you'd ought to know! He wants somefin' light and comfortin', that'll warm his in'ards, and make him sweat, bless him!—Joey! Joey! give up that 'ere hat now!"
"Take it, then! Mean old thing,—I don't want it!"
Joe extended it on the point of the umbrella; but just as Bill was reaching to receive it, he gave it a little toss, which sent it into the chip-basket.
"Might know I'd had on your hat!" and the little rogue scratched his head furiously.
"I shall certainly massacre that child some fine morning!" muttered Bill, ruefully extricating the insulted article from the basket. "Oh, my gracious! only look at that, now, Creshy!" to his sister. "That's an interesting object—isn't it?—for a gentleman to think of putting on to his head Sunday morning!"
"Oh, Bill!" cried Creshy, "jest look a' Joe agin!"
Whilst he was sorrowfully restoring his hat to its pristine shape, he had been robbed of his coat. The thief had run with it behind the bed, where he had succeeded in getting into it. The collar enveloped his ears. The skirts dragged upon the floor. He had buttoned it, to make it fit better, but there was still room in it for two or three boys. He had got on his father's spectacles and Fessenden's straw hat. He looked like a frightful little old misshapen dwarf. And now, rolling up the sleeves to find his hands, and wrinkling the coat outrageously at every movement, he advanced from his retreat, and began to dance a pigeon-wing, amid the convulsive laughter of the girls.
"Oh, my soul! my soul!" cried Bill, his voice inclining again to the falsetto. "Was there ever such an imp of Satan! Was there ever"———
Here he made a lunge at the offender. Joe attempted to escape, but, getting his feet entangled in the superabundant coat-skirts, fell, screaming as if he were about to be killed.
"Good enough for you!" said his mother. "I wish you would get hurt!"
"What you wish that for?" cried the old grandmother, rushing to the rescue, brandishing a long iron spoon with which she had been stirring the gruel. "Can't nobody never have no fun in this house? Bless us! what 'ud we do, if 't wa'n't for Joey, to make us laugh and keep our sperits up? Jest you stan' back now, Bill!—'d ruther you'd strike me 'n see ye hit that 'ere boy oncet!"
"He must let my things be, then," said Bill, who couldn't see much sport in the disrespectful use made of his wearing apparel.—"Here, you! surrender my property!"
"Laws! you be quiet! You'll git yer cut agin. Only jest look at him now, he's so blessed cunning!"
For Joe, reassured by his grandmother, had stopped screaming, and gone to tailoring. He sat cross-legged on one of the unlucky coat-skirts, and pulled the other up on his lap, for his work. Then he got an imaginary thread, and, putting his fingers together, screwed up his mouth, and looked over the spectacles, sharpening his sight,—
"Like an old tailor to his needle's eye."
Then he began to stitch, to the infinite disgust of Bill, who was sensitive touching his vocation.
"I do declare, father! how you can smile, seeing that child carrying on in this shape, is beyond my comprehension!"
"Joseph!" said Mr. Williams, good-naturedly, "I guess that'll do for to-night. Come, I want my spectacles."
He had sat down to his book again. He was a slow, thoughtful, easy, cheerful man, whom suffering and much humiliation had rendered very mild and patient, if not quite broken-spirited. His voice was indulgent and gentle, with that mellow richness of tone peculiar to the negro. After he had spoken, the laughter subsided; and Joe, impressed by the quiet paternal authority, quickly devised means to obey without appearing to do so. For it is not so much obedience, as the manifestation of obedience, that is repugnant to human nature,—not in children only, but in grown folks as well.
Joe disguised his compliance in this way. He got up, took off the beggar's hat, put the spectacles into it, holding his hand on a rip in the crown to keep them from falling through, and passed it around, walking solemnly in his brother's abused coat.
"I'm Deacon Todd," said he, "taking up a collection to buy Gentleman Bill a new cut: gunter make a missionary of him!"
He passed the hat to the women and the girls, all of whom pretended to put in something.
"I ha'n't got nothin'!" said Fessenden's, when it came to him; "I'm real sorry I but I'll give my hat!"—earnest as could be.
When the hat came to Mr. Williams, he quietly put in his hand and took out his glasses.
"Here, I've got something for you; I desire to contribute," said Gentleman Bill.
But Joe was shy of his brother.
"Oh, we don't let the missionary give anything!" he said. "Here's the hat what you're gunter wear;—give it to him, Cresh!"
Bill disdained the beggar's, contribution; but, in his anxiety to seize Joe, he suffered his sister to slip up behind him and clap the wet, ragged straw wreck on his head.
"Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill!" screamed the girls with merriment, in which mother and grandmother joined, while even their father indulged in a silent, inward laugh.
"Good!" said Fessenden's; "he may have it!"
Bill, watching his opportunity, made a dash at the pretending Deacon Todd. That nimble and quick-witted dwarf escaped as fast as his awkward attire would permit. The bed seemed to be the only place of refuge, and he dodged under it.
"Come out!" shouted Bill, furious.
"Come in and git me!" screamed Joe, defiant.
Bill, if not too large, was far too dignified for such an enterprise. So he got the broom, and began to stir Joe with the handle,—not observing, in his wrath, that, the more he worried Joe, the more he was damaging his own precious broadcloth.
"I'm the lion to the show!" cried Joe, rolling and tumbling under the bed to avoid the broom. "The keeper's a punchin' on me, to make me roar!"
And the lion roared.
"He's a gunter come into the cage by-'m-by, and put his head into my mouth. Then I'm a gunter swaller him! Ki! hoo! hoo! oo!"
He roared in earnest this time. Bill, grown desperate, had knocked his shins. As long as he hit him only on the head, the king of beasts didn't care; but he couldn't stand an attack on the more sensitive part.
"Jest look here, now!" exclaimed the old negress, with unusual spirit; "gi' me that broom!"
She wrenched it from Bill's hand.
"Perty notion, you can't come home a minute without pesterin' that boy's life out of him!"
You see, color makes no difference with grandmothers. Black or white, they are universally unjust, when they come to decide the quarrels of their favorites.
"Great lubberly fellow like you, 'busin' that poor babby all the time! Come, Joey! come to granny, poor chile!"
It was a sorry-looking lion that issued whimpering from the cage, limping, and rubbing his eyes. His borrowed hide—namely, Bill's coat—had been twisted into marvellous shapes in the scuffle; and, being wet, it was almost white with the dust and lint that adhered to it. Bill threw up his arms in despair; while Joe threw his, great sleeves and all, around granny's neck, and found comfort on her sympathizing bosom.
"Silence, now," said Mr. Williams, "so's we can go on with the reading."
Order was restored. Bill hung up his coat, and sat down. Joe nestled in the old woman's lap. And now the storm was heard beating against the house.
"Say!" spoke up Fessenden's, "can I stop here over night?"
"You don't suppose," said Mr. Williams, "we'd turn you out in such weather as this, do you?"
"Wal!" said Fessenden's, "nobody else would keep me."
"Don't you be troubled! While we 've a ruf over our heads, no stranger don't git turned away from it that wants shelter, and will put up with our 'commodations. We can keep you to-night, and probably to-morrow night, if you like to stay; but after that I can't promise. Mebby we sha'n't have a ruf for our own heads then. But we'll trust the Lord," said Mr. Williams, with a deep, serious smile,—while Mrs. Williams sighed.
"How is it about that matter?" Gentleman Bill inquired.
"The house is to be tore down Monday, I suppose," replied his father, mildly.
"My gracious!" exclaimed Bill; "Mr. Frisbie a'n't really going to carry that threat into execution?"
"That's what he says, William. He has got a prejudice ag'inst color, you know. Since he lost the election, through the opposition of the abolitionists, as he thinks, he's been very much excited on the subject," added Mr. Williams, in his subdued way.
"Excited!" echoed his wife, bitterly.
She was a much-suffering woman, inclined to melancholy; but there was a latent fire in her when she seemed most despondent, and she roused up now and spoke with passionate, flashing eyes:—
"Sence he got beat, town-meetin' day, he don't 'pear to take no comfort, 'thout 't is hatin' Judge Gingerford and spitin' niggers, as he calls us. He sent his hired man over agin this mornin', to say, if we wa'n't out of the house by Monday, 't would be pulled down on to our heads. Call that Christian, when he knows we can't git another house, there 's sich a s'picion agin people o' color?"
"'T wa'n't alluz so; 't wa'n't so in my day," said the old woman, pausing, as she was administering the gruel to Fessenden's with a spoon. "Here's gran'pa, he was a slave, and I was born a slave, in this here very State, as long ago as when they used to have slaves here, as I've told ye time and agin; though I don't clearly remember it, for I scacely ever knowed what bondage was, bless the Lord! But we allus foun' somebody to be kind to us, and got along,—for it did seem as though God kind o' looked arter us, and took keer on us, same as He did o' white folks. We've been carried through, somehow or 'nother; and I can't help thinkin' as how we shall be yit, spite o' Mr. Frisbie. S'pose God'll forgit us 'cause His grand church-folks do? S'pose all they can say'll pedijice Him?"
Having advanced this unanswerable question, she turned once more to her patient, who put up his head, and opened his mouth wide, to receive the great spoon.
"Lucky for them that can trust the Lord!" said Mrs. Williams, over her patching. "But if I was a man, I'm 'fraid I should put my trust in a good knife, and stan' by the ol' house when they come to pull it down! The fust man laid hands on 't 'ud git hurt, I'm dreffle 'fraid! Prayin' won't save it, you see!"
"Mr. Frisbie owns the house," observed Gentleman Bill, "and I wouldn't resort to violent measures to prevent him; though 't isn't possible for me to believe he'll be so unhuman as to demolish it before you find another."
"I'm inclined to think he will," answered Mr. Williams, calmly. "He's a rather determined man, William. But God won't quite forget us, I'm sartin sure. And we won't worry about the house till the time comes, anyhow. Le' 's see what the Good Book says to comfort us," he added, with a hopeful smile.
Unfortunately, the "Timberville Gazette" had not reached this benighted family; and not having the Judge's Address to read, Mr. Williams read the Sermon on the Mount.
Fessenden's listened with the rest. And alight, not of the understanding, but of the spirit, shone upon him. His intellect was too feeble, I think, to draw any very keen comparison between those houses where the "Timberville Gazette" was taken and read that evening and this lowly abode,—between the rich there, who had shut their proud, prosperous doors against him, and these poor servants of the Lord, who had taken him in and comforted him, though the hour was nigh when they, too, were to be driven forth shelterless in the wintry storms. The deep and affecting suggestiveness of that wide contrast his mind was, no doubt, too weak thoroughly to appreciate. Yet something his heart felt, and something his soul perceived; his pale and vacant face was illumined; and at the close of the reading he rose up. The coarse wrappings of his body fell away; and the muffling ignorance, the swaddling dulness, wherein that divine infant, the bright immortal spirit, was confined, seemed also to fall off. He lifted up his hands, spreading them as if dispensing blessings; and his countenance had a vague, smiling wonder in it, almost beautiful, and his voice, when he spoke, thrilled the ear.
"Praise the Lord! praise the Lord! for He will provide!
"Be comforted! for ye are the children of the Lord!
"Be glad! be glad! for the Angel of the Lord is here!
"Don't you see him? don't you see him? There! there!" he cried, pointing, with an earnestness and radiance of look which filled all who saw him with astonishment. They turned to gaze, as if really expecting to behold the vision; then fixed their eyes again on the stranger.
"You'll be taken care of, the Angel says. Even they that hate you shall do you good. The mercy you have shown, Christ will show to you."
Having uttered these sentences at intervals, in a loud voice, the speaker gave a start, turned as if bewildered, and sat down again.
Not a word was spoken. A hush of awe suspended the breath of the listeners. Then a smile of fervent emotion lighted up like daybreak the negro's dark visage, and his joy broke forth in song. The others joined him, filling the house with the jubilee of their wild and mellow voices.
"A poor wayfaring man of grief
Hath often crossed me on my way,
And sued so humbly for relief
That I could never answer nay."
And so the fair fame of Gingerford, as we said before, was saved from blight. The beggar-boy awakes this Sunday morning, not in the blaze of Eternity, but in that dim nook of the domain of Time, Nigger Williams's hut. He made his couch, not on the freezing ground, but in a bunk of the low-roofed garret. His steaming clothes had been taken off, a dry shirt had been given him, and he had Joe for a bedfellow.
"Hug him tight, Joey dear!" said the old woman, as she carried away the candle. "Snug up close, and keep him warm!"
"I will!" cried Joe, as affectionate as he was roguish; and Fessenden's never slept better than he did that night, with the tempest singing his lullaby, and the arms of the loving negro boy about him.
In the morning he found his clothes ready to put on. They had been carefully dried; and the old woman had got up early and taken a few needful stitches in them.
"It's Sunday, granny," Creshy reminded her, to see what she would say.
"A'n't no use lett'n' sich holes as these 'ere go, if 't is Sunday!" replied the old woman. "Hope I never sh'll ketch you a doin' nuffin' wus! A'n't we told to help our neighbor's sheep out o' the ditch on the Lord's day? An' which is mos' consequence, I'd like to know, the neighbor's sheep, or the neighbor hisself?"
"But his clothes a'n't him," said Creshy.
"S'pose I do'no' that? But what's a sheep for, if 't a'n't for its wool to make the clo'es? Then, to look arter the sheep that makes the clo'es, and not look arter the clo'es arter they're made, that's a mis'ble notion!"
"But you can mend the clothes any day."
"Could I mend 'em yis'day, when I didn't have 'em to mend? or las' night, when they was wringin' wet? Le' me alone, now, with your nonsense!"
"But you can mend them to-morrow," said the mischievous girl, delighted to puzzle her grandmother.
"And let that poor lorn chile go in rags over Sunday, freezin' cold weather like this? Guess I a'n't so onfeelin,'—an' you a'n't nuther, for all you like to tease your ole granny so! Bless the chile, seems to me he's jest gwine to bring us good luck. I feel as though the Angel of the Lord did ra'ly come into the house with him las' night! Wish I had somefin' ra'l good for him for his breakfas' now! He'll be dreffle hungry, that's sartin. Make a rousin' good big Johnny-cake, mammy; and, Creshy, you stop botherin', and slice up them 'ere taters for fryin'."
Soon the odor of the cooking stole up into the garret. Fessenden's snuffed it with delighted senses. The feeling of his garments dry and whole pleased him mightily. He heard the call to breakfast; and laughing and rubbing his eyes, he followed Joe down the dark, uncertain footing of the stairs.
The family was already huddled about the table. But room was reserved for their guest, and at his appearance the old patriarch rose smilingly from his seat, pulled off his cap, which it seemed he always wore, and shook hands with him, with the usual hospitable greeting.
"Sarvant, Sah! Welcome, Sah!"
Fessenden's was given a seat by his side. And the old woman piled his plate with good things. And he ate, and was filled. For he was by no means dainty, and had not, simple soul! the least prejudice against color.
And he was happy. The friendly black faces around him,—the cheerful, sympathetic, rich-toned voices,—the motherly kindness of the old woman,—the exquisite smiling politeness of the old man, who got up and shook hands with him, on an average, every half-hour,—the Bible-reading,—the singing,—the praying,—the elegance and condescension of Gentleman Bill,—the pleasant looks and words of the laughing-eyed girls,—and the irrepressible merriment of Joe, made that a golden Sabbath in the lad's life.
Alas that it should come to this! Associate with black folks! how shocking! What if he was a—Fessenden's? wasn't he white? Where were those finer tastes and instincts which make you and me shrink from persons of color? Pity they had not been properly developed in him! Pity he should stoop so low as to eat and sleep with niggers, and feel grateful! He rolls and tumbles in mad frolic with Joe on the garret-floor, and plays horse with him. He suffers his hair to be combed by the girls, and actually experiences pleasure at the touch of their gentle hands, and feels a vague wondering joy when they praise his smooth flaxen locks. In a word, he is so weak as to wish that good Mr. Williams was his father, and this delightful hut his home!
And so he spends his Sunday. The family does not attend public worship. They used to, when the old meeting-house was standing, and the old minister was alive. But they do not feel at ease in the new edifice, and the smart young preacher is too smart for them altogether. His rhetoric is like the cold carving and frescos,—very fine, very admirable, no doubt; but it has no warmth in it for them; it is foreign to their common daily lives; it comes not near the hopes and fears and sufferings of their humble hearts. Here religion, which too long suffered abasement, is exalted. It is highly respectable. It shows culture; it has the tone of society. It is worth while coming hither of a Sunday morning, if only to hear the organ and see the fashions. Yet it can hardly be expected that such creatures as the Williamses should appreciate the privilege of hearing and beholding from the inclosure which has been properly set off for their class,—the colored people's pew.
But Fessendon's might have done better, one would say, than to stay at home with them. Why didn't he go to church, and be somebody? He would not have been put into the niggers' pew. As for his clothes, which might have been objected to by worldly people, who would have thought of them, or of anything else but his immortal soul, in the house of God? Of course, there were no respecters of persons there,—none to say to a rich Frisbie, or an eloquent Gingerford, "Sit thou, here, in a good place," and to a ragged Fessenden's, "Stand thou there."
But perhaps the less said on the subject the better. Pass over that golden Sunday in the lad's life. Alas, when will he ever have such another? For here it is Monday morning, and the house is to be torn down.
There seems to be no mistake about it. Mr. Frisbie has come over early, driven in his light open carriage by his man Stephen, to see that the niggers are out. And yonder come the workmen, to commence the work of demolition.
But the niggers are not out; not an article of furniture has been removed.
"You see, Sir,"—Mr. Williams calmly represents the case to his landlord, as he sits in his carriage,—"it has been impossible. We shall certainly go, just as soon as we can get another house anywhere in town"———
"I don't want you to get another house in town," interrupts the full-blooded, red-faced Frisbie. "We have had enough of you. You have had fair warning. Now out with your traps, and off with you!"
"I trust, at least, Sir, you will give us another week"———
"Not an hour!"
"One day," remonstrates the mild negro; "I don't think you will refuse us that."
"Not a minute!" exclaims the firm Frisbie. "I've borne with you long enough. Fact is, we have got tired of niggers in this town. I bought the house with you in it, or you never would have got in. Now it is coming down. Call out your folks, and save your stuff, if you're going to.—Good morning, Adsly," to the master carpenter. "Go to work with your fellows. Guess they'll be glad to get out by the time you've ripped the roof off."
Mr. Williams retires, disheartened, his visage surcharged with trouble. For this wretched dwelling was his home, and dear to him. It was the centre of his world. Around it all the humble hopes and pleasures of the man had clustered for years. When weary with the long day's heavy toil, here he had found rest. To this spot his spirit, sorrow-laden, had ever turned with gratitude and yearning. And here he had found shelter, here he had found love and comfort, the lonely, despised man. Even care and grief had contributed to strengthen the hold of his heart upon this soil. Here had died the only child he had ever lost; and in the old burying-ground, over the hill yonder, it was buried. Under this mean roof he had laid his sorrows before the Lord, he had wrestled with the Lord in prayer, and his burdens had been taken from him, and light and gladness had been poured upon his soul. Oh, ye proud! do you think that happiness dwells only in high places, or that these lowly homes are not dear to the poor?
But now this sole haven of the negro and his family was to be destroyed. Cruel cold blew the December wind, that wintry morning. And the gusts of the landlord's temper were equally pitiless.