A Story of Today
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Published by Arrangement with Charles Scribner's Sons
Which tells about Sevenoaks, and how Miss Butterworth passed one of her evenings
Mr. Belcher carries his point at the town-meeting, and the poor are knocked down to Thomas Buffum
In which Jim Fenton is introduced to the reader and introduces himself to Miss Butterworth
In which Jim Fenton applies for lodgings at Tom Buffum's boarding-house, and finds his old friend
In which Jim enlarges his accommodations and adopts a violent method of securing boarders
In which Sevenoaks experiences a great commotion, and comes to the conclusion that Benedict has met with foul play
In which Jim and Mike Conlin pass through a great trial and come out victorious
In which Mr. Belcher visits New York, and becomes the Proprietor of "Palgrave's Folly."
Mrs. Talbot gives her little dinner party, and Mr. Belcher makes an exceedingly pleasant acquaintance
Which tells how a lawyer spent his vacation in camp, and took home a specimen of game that he had never before found in the woods
Which records Mr. Belcher's connection with a great speculation and brings to a close his residence in Sevenoaks
In which Jim enlarges his plans for a house, and completes his plans for a house-keeper
Which introduces several residents of Sevenoaks to the Metropolis and a new character to the reader
Which tells of a great public meeting in Sevenoaks, the burning in effigy of Mr. Belcher, and that gentleman's interview with a reporter
Which tells about Mrs. Dillingham's Christmas and the New Year's Reception at the Palgrave Mansion
Which gives an account of a voluntary and an involuntary visit of Sam Yates to Number Nine
In which Jim constructs two happy-Davids, raises his hotel, and dismisses Sam Yates
In which Mrs. Dillingham makes some important discoveries, but fails to reveal them to the reader
In which Mr. Belcher becomes President of the Crooked Valley Railroad, with large "Terminal facilities," and makes an adventure into a long-meditated crime
In which "the little woman" announces her engagement to Jim Fenton and receives the congratulations of her friends
In which Jim gets the furniture into his house, and Mike Conlin gets another installment of advice into Jim
In which Jim gets married, the new hotel receives its mistress, and Benedict confers a power of attorney
In which Mr. Belcher expresses his determination to become a "founder," but drops his noun in fear of a little verb of the same name
Wherein the General leaps the bounds of law, finds himself in a new world, and becomes the victim of his friends without knowing it
In which the General goes through a great many trials, and meets at last the one he has so long anticipated
In which the case of "Benedict vs. Belcher" finds itself in court, an interesting question of identity is settled, and a mysterious disappearance takes place
In which Phipps is not to be found, and the General is called upon to do his own lying
In which a heavenly witness appears who cannot be cross-examined, and before which the defense utterly breaks down
Wherein Mr. Belcher, having exhibited his dirty record, shows a clean pair of heels
Which gives the history of an anniversary, presents a tableau, and drops the curtain
WHICH TELLS ABOUT SEVENOAKS, AND HOW MISS BUTTERWORTH PASSED ONE OF HER EVENINGS.
Everybody has seen Sevenoaks, or a hundred towns so much like it, in most particulars, that a description of any one of them would present it to the imagination—a town strung upon a stream, like beads upon a thread, or charms upon a chain. Sevenoaks was richer in chain than charms, for its abundant water-power was only partially used. It plunged, and roared, and played, and sparkled, because it had not half enough to do. It leaped down three or four cataracts in passing through the village; and, as it started from living springs far northward among the woods and mountains, it never failed in its supplies.
Few of the people of Sevenoaks—thoughtless workers, mainly—either knew or cared whence it came, or whither it went. They knew it as "The Branch;" but Sevenoaks was so far from the trunk, down to which it sent its sap, and from which it received no direct return, that no significance was attached to its name. But it roared all day, and roared all night, summer and winter alike, and the sound became a part of the atmosphere. Resonance was one of the qualities of the oxygen which the people breathed, so that if, at any midnight moment, the roar had been suddenly hushed, they would have waked with a start and a sense of suffocation, and leaped from their beds.
Among the charms that dangled from this liquid chain—depending from the vest of a landscape which ended in a ruffle of woods toward the north, overtopped by the head of a mountain—was a huge factory that had been added to from time to time, as necessity demanded, until it had become an imposing and not uncomely pile. Below this were two or three dilapidated saw-mills, a grist-mill in daily use, and a fulling-mill—a remnant of the old times when homespun went its pilgrimage to town—to be fulled, colored, and dressed—from all the sparsely settled country around.
On a little plateau by the side of The Branch was a row of stores and dram-shops and butchers' establishments. Each had a sort of square, false front, pierced by two staring windows and a door, that reminded one of a lion couchant—very large in the face and very thin in the flank. Then there were crowded in, near the mill, little rows of one-story houses, occupied entirely by operatives, and owned by the owner of the mill. All the inhabitants, not directly connected with the mill, were as far away from it as they could go. Their houses were set back upon either acclivity which rose from the gorge that the stream had worn, dotting the hill-sides in every direction. There was a clumsy town-hall, there were three or four churches, there was a high school and a low tavern. It was, on the whole, a village of importance, but the great mill was somehow its soul and center. A fair farming and grazing country stretched back from it eastward and westward, and Sevenoaks was its only home market.
It is not proposed, in this history, to tell where Sevenoaks was, and is to-day. It may have been, or may be, in Maine, or New Hampshire, or Vermont, or New York. It was in the northern part of one of these States, and not far from the border of a wilderness, almost as deep and silent as any that can be found beyond the western limit of settlement and civilization. The red man had left it forever, but the bear, the deer and the moose remained. The streams and lakes were full of trout; otter and sable still attracted the trapper, and here and there a lumberman lingered alone in his cabin, enamored of the solitude and the wild pursuits to which a hardly gentler industry had introduced him. Such lumber as could be drifted down the streams had long been cut and driven out, and the woods were left to the hunter and his prey, and to the incursions of sportsmen and seekers for health, to whom the rude residents became guides, cooks, and servants of all work, for the sake of occasional society, and that ever-serviceable consideration—money.
There were two establishments in Sevenoaks which stood so far away from the stream that they could hardly be described as attached to it. Northward, on the top of the bleakest hill in the region, stood the Sevenoaks poor-house. In dimensions and population, it was utterly out of proportion to the size of the town, for the people of Sevenoaks seemed to degenerate into paupers with wonderful facility. There was one man in the town who was known to be getting rich, while all the rest grew poor. Even the keepers of the dram-shops, though they seemed to do a thriving business, did not thrive. A great deal of work was done, but people were paid very little for it. If a man tried to leave the town for the purpose of improving his condition, there was always some mortgage on his property, or some impossibility of selling what he had for money, or his absolute dependence on each day's labor for each day's bread, that stood in the way. One by one—sick, disabled, discouraged, dead-beaten—they drifted into the poor-house, which, as the years went on, grew into a shabby, double pile of buildings, between which ran a county road.
This establishment was a county as well as a town institution, and, theoretically, one group of its buildings was devoted to the reception of county paupers, while the other was assigned to the poor of Sevenoaks. Practically, the keeper of both mingled his boarders indiscriminately, to suit his personal convenience.
The hill, as it climbed somewhat abruptly from the western bank of the stream—it did this in the grand leisure of the old geologic centuries—apparently got out of breath and sat down when its task was half done. Where it sat, it left a beautiful plateau of five or six acres, and from this it rose, and went on climbing, until it reached the summit of its effort, and descended the other side. On the brow of this plateau stood seven huge oaks which the chopper's axe, for some reason or another, had spared; and the locality, in all the early years of settlement, was known by the name of "The Seven Oaks." They formed a notable landmark, and, at last, the old designation having been worn by usage, the town was incorporated with the name of Sevenoaks, in a single word.
On this plateau, the owner of the mill, Mr. Robert Belcher—himself an exceptional product of the village—had built his residence—a large, white, pretentious dwelling, surrounded and embellished by all the appointments of wealth. The house was a huge cube, ornamented at its corners and cornices with all possible flowers of a rude architecture, reminding one of an elephant, that, in a fit of incontinent playfulness, had indulged in antics characteristic of its clumsy bulk and brawn. Outside were ample stables, a green-house, a Chinese pagoda that was called "the summer-house," an exquisite garden and trees, among which latter were carefully cherished the seven ancient oaks that had given the town its name.
Robert Belcher was not a gentleman. He supposed himself to be one, but he was mistaken. Gentlemen of wealth usually built a fine house; so Mr. Belcher built one. Gentlemen kept horses, a groom and a coachman; Mr. Belcher did the same. Gentlemen of wealth built green-houses for themselves and kept a gardener; Mr. Belcher could do no less. He had no gentlemanly tastes, to be sure, but he could buy or hire these for money; so he bought and hired them; and when Robert Belcher walked through his stables and jested with his men, or sauntered into his green-house and about his grounds, he rubbed his heavy hands together, and fancied that the costly things by which he had surrounded himself were the insignia of a gentleman.
From his windows he could look down upon the village, all of which he either owned or controlled. He owned the great mill; he owned the water-privilege; he owned many of the dwellings, and held mortgages on many others; he owned the churches, for all purposes practical to himself; he owned the ministers—if not, then this was another mistake that he had made. So long as it was true that they could not live without him, he was content with his title. He patronized the church, and the church was too weak to decline his ostentatious courtesy. He humiliated every man who came into his presence, seeking a subscription for a religious or charitable purpose, but his subscription was always sought, and as regularly obtained. Humbly to seek his assistance for any high purpose was a concession to his power, and to grant the assistance sought was to establish an obligation. He was willing to pay for personal influence and personal glory, and he often paid right royally.
Of course, Mr. Belcher's residence had a library; all gentlemen have libraries. Mr. Belcher's did not contain many books, but it contained a great deal of room for them. Here he spent his evenings, kept his papers in a huge safe built into the wall, smoked, looked down on the twinkling village and his huge mill, counted his gains and constructed his schemes. Of Mrs. Belcher and the little Belchers, he saw but little. He fed and dressed them well, as he did his horses. All gentlemen feed and dress their dependents well. He was proud of his family as he saw them riding in their carriage. They looked gay and comfortable, and were, as he thought, objects of envy among the humbler folk of the town, all of which reflected pleasantly upon himself.
On a late April evening, of a late spring in 18—, he was sitting in his library, buried in a huge easy chair, thinking, smoking, scheming. The shutters were closed, the lamps were lighted, and a hickory fire was blazing upon the hearth. Around the rich man were spread the luxuries which his wealth had bought—the velvet carpet, the elegant chairs, the heavy library table, covered with costly appointments, pictures in broad gold frames, and one article of furniture that he had not been accustomed to see in a gentleman's library—an article that sprang out of his own personal wants. This was an elegant pier-glass, into whose depths he was accustomed to gaze in self-admiration. He was flashily dressed in a heavy coat, buff waistcoat, and drab trousers. A gold chain of fabulous weight hung around his neck and held his Jurgensen repeater.
He rose and walked his room, and rubbed his hands, as was his habit; then paused before his mirror, admired his robust figure and large face, brushed his hair back from his big brow, and walked on again. Finally, he paused before his glass, and indulged in another habit peculiar to himself.
"Robert Belcher," said he, addressing the image in the mirror, "you are a brick! Yes, sir, you are a brick! You, Robert Belcher, sir, are an almighty smart man. You've outwitted the whole of 'em. Look at me, sir! Dare you tell me, sir, that I am not master of the situation? Ah! you hesitate; it is well! They all come to me, every man of 'em It is 'Mr. Belcher, will you be so good?' and 'Mr. Belcher, I hope you are very well,' and 'Mr. Belcher, I want you to do better by me.' Ha! ha! ha! ha! My name is Norval. It isn't? Say that again and I'll throttle you! Yes, sir, I'll shake your rascally head off your shoulders! Down, down in the dust, and beg my pardon! It is well; go! Get you gone, sir, and remember not to beard the lion in his den!"
Exactly what this performance meant, it would be difficult to say. Mr. Belcher, in his visits to the city, had frequented theaters and admired the villains of the plays he had seen represented. He had noticed figures upon the boards that reminded him of his own. His addresses to his mirror afforded him an opportunity to exercise his gifts of speech and action, and, at the same time, to give form to his self-gratulations. They amused him; they ministered to his preposterous vanity. He had no companions in the town, and the habit gave him a sense of society, and helped to pass away his evenings. At the close of his effort he sat down and lighted another cigar. Growing drowsy, he laid it down on a little stand at his side, and settled back in his chair for a nap. He had hardly shut his eyes when there came a rap upon his door.
"Please, sir," said a scared-looking maid, opening the door just wide enough to make room for her face.
"Well?" in a voice so sharp and harsh that the girl cringed.
"Please, sir, Miss Butterworth is at the door, and would like to see you."
Now, Miss Butterworth was the one person in all Sevenoaks who was not afraid of Robert Belcher. She had been at the public school with him when they were children; she had known every circumstance of his history; she was not dependent on him in any way, and she carried in her head an honest and fearless tongue. She was an itinerant tailoress, and having worked, first and last, in nearly every family in the town, she knew the circumstances of them all, and knew too well the connection of Robert Belcher with their troubles and reverses. In Mr. Belcher's present condition of self-complacency and somnolency, she was not a welcome visitor. Belligerent as he had been toward his own image in the mirror, he shrank from meeting Keziah Butterworth, for he knew instinctively that she had come with some burden of complaint.
"Come in," said Mr. Belcher to his servant, "and shut the door behind you."
The girl came in, shut the door, and waited, leaning against it.
"Go," said her master in a low tone, "and tell Mrs. Belcher that I am busy, and that she must choke her off. I can't see her to-night. I can't see her."
The girl retired, and soon afterward Mrs. Belcher came, and reported that she could do nothing with Miss Butterworth—that Miss Butterworth was determined to see him before she left the house.
"Bring her in; I'll make short work with her."
As soon as Mrs. Belcher retired, her husband hurried to the mirror, brushed his hair back fiercely, and then sat down to a pile of papers that he always kept conveniently upon his library table.
"Come in," said Mr. Belcher, in his blandest tone, when Miss Butterworth was conducted to his room.
"Ah! Keziah?" said Mr. Belcher, looking up with a smile, as if an unexpected old friend had come to him.
"My name is Butterworth, and it's got a handle to it,' said that bumptious lady, quickly.
"Well, but, Keziah, you know we used to—"
"My name is Butterworth, I tell you, and it's got a handle to it."
"Well, Miss Butterworth—happy to see you—hope you are well—take a chair."
"Humph," exclaimed Miss Butterworth, dropping down upon the edge of a large chair, whose back felt no pressure from her own during the interview. The expression of Mr. Belcher's happiness in seeing her, and his kind suggestion concerning her health, had overspread Miss Butterworth's countenance with a derisive smile, and though she was evidently moved to tell him that he lied, she had reasons for restraining her tongue.
They formed a curious study, as they sat there together, during the first embarrassing moments. The man had spent his life in schemes for absorbing the products of the labor of others. He was cunning, brutal, vain, showy, and essentially vulgar, from his head to his feet, in every fiber of body and soul. The woman had earned with her own busy hands every dollar of money she had ever possessed. She would not have wronged a dog for her own personal advantage. Her black eyes, lean and spirited face, her prematurely whitening locks, as they were exposed by the backward fall of her old-fashioned, quilted hood, presented a physiognomy at once piquant and prepossessing.
Robert Belcher knew that the woman before him was fearless and incorruptible. He knew that she despised him—that bullying and brow-beating would have no influence with her, that his ready badinage would not avail, and that coaxing and soft words would be equally useless. In her presence, he was shorn of all his weapons; and he never felt so defenseless and ill at ease in his life.
As Miss Butterworth did not seem inclined to begin conversation, Mr. Belcher hem'd and haw'd with affected nonchalance, and said:
"Ah!—to—what am I indebted for this visit. Miss—ah—Butterworth?"
"I'm thinking!" she replied sharply, looking into the fire, and pressing her lips together.
There was nothing to be said to this, so Mr. Belcher looked doggedly at her, and waited.
"I'm thinking of a man, and-he-was-a-man-every-inch-of-him, if there ever was one, and a gentleman too, if-I-know-what-a-gentleman-is, who came to this town ten years ago, from-nobody-knows-where; with a wife that was an angel, if-there-is-any-such-thing-as-an-angel."
Here Miss Butterworth paused. She had laid her foundation, and proceeded at her leisure.
"He knew more than any man in Sevenoaks, but he didn't know how to take care of himself," she went on. "He was the most ingenious creature God ever made, I do think, and his name was Paul Benedict."
Mr. Belcher grew pale and fidgeted in his chair.
"And his name was Paul Benedict. He invented something, and then he took it to Robert Belcher, and he put it into his mill, and-paid-him-just-as-little-for-it-as-he-could. And then he invented something more, and-that-went-into-the-mill; and then something more, and the patent was used by Mr. Belcher for a song, and the man grew poorer and poorer, while-Mr.-Belcher-grew-richer-and-richer-all-the-time. And then he invented a gun, and then his little wife died, and what with the expenses of doctors and funerals and such things, and the money it took to get his patent, which-I-begged-him-for-conscience'-sake-to-keep-out-of-Robert-Belcher's-hands, he almost starved with his little boy, and had to go to Robert Belcher for money."
"And get it," said Mr. Belcher.
"How much, now? A hundred little dollars for what was worth a hundred thousand, unless-everybody-lies. The whole went in a day, and then he went crazy."
"Well, you know I sent him to the asylum," responded Mr. Belcher.
"I know you did—yes, I know you did; and you tried to get him well enough to sign a paper, which the doctor never would let him sign, and which wouldn't have been worth a straw if he had signed it. The-idea-of-getting-a-crazy-man-to-sign-a-paper!"
"Well, but I wanted some security for the money I had advanced," said Mr. Belcher.
"No; you wanted legal possession of a property which would have made him rich; that's what it was, and you didn't get it, and you never will get it. He can't be cured, and he's been sent back, and is up at Tom Buffum's now, and I've seen him to-day."
Miss Butterworth expected that this intelligence would stun Mr. Belcher, but it did not.
The gratification of the man with the news was unmistakable. Paul Benedict had no relatives or friends that he knew of. All his dealings with him had been without witnesses. The only person living besides Robert Belcher, who knew exactly what had passed between his victim and himself, was hopelessly insane. The difference, to him, between obtaining possession of a valuable invention of a sane or an insane man, was the difference between paying money and paying none. In what way, and with what profit, Mr. Belcher was availing himself of Paul Benedict's last invention, no one in Sevenoaks knew; but all the town knew that he was getting rich, apparently much faster than he ever was before, and that, in a distant town, there was a manufactory of what was known as "The Belcher Rifle."
Mr. Belcher concluded that he was still "master of the situation." Benedict's testimony could not be taken in a court of justice. The town itself was in his hands, so that it would institute no suit on Benedict's behalf, now that he had come upon it for support; for the Tom Buffum to whom Miss Butterworth had alluded was the keeper of the poor-house, and was one of his own creatures.
Miss Butterworth had sufficient sagacity to comprehend the reasons for Mr. Belcher's change of look and manner, and saw that her evening's mission would prove fruitless; but her true woman's heart would not permit her to relinquish her project.
"Is poor Benedict comfortable?" he inquired, in his old, off-hand way.
"Comfortable—yes, in the way that pigs are."
"Pigs are very comfortable, I believe, as a general thing," said Mr. Belcher.
"Bob Belcher," said Miss Butterworth, the tears springing to her eyes in spite of herself, and forgetting all the proprieties she had determined to observe, "you are a brute. You know you are a brute. He is in a little cell, no larger than—than—a pig-pen. There isn't a bit of furniture in it. He sleeps on the straw, and in the straw, and under the straw, and his victuals are poked at him as if he were a beast. He is a poor, patient, emaciated wretch, and he sits on the floor all day, and weaves the most beautiful things out of the straw he sits on, and Tom Buffum's girls have got them in the house for ornaments. And he talks about his rifle, and explains it, and explains it, and explains it, when anybody will listen to him, and his clothes are all in rags, and that little boy of his that they have in the house, and treat no better than if he were a dog, knows he is there, and goes and looks at him, and calls to him, and cries about him whenever he dares. And you sit here, in your great house, with your carpets and chairs, that half smother you, and your looking-glasses and your fine clothes, and don't start to your feet when I tell you this. I tell you if God doesn't damn everybody who is responsible for this wickedness, then there is no such thing as a God."
Miss Butterworth was angry, and had grown more and more angry with every word. She had brooded over the matter all the afternoon, and her pent-up indignation had overflowed beyond control. She felt that she had spoken truth which Robert Belcher ought to hear and to heed, yet she knew that she had lost her hold upon him. Mr. Belcher listened with the greatest coolness, while a half smile overspread his face.
"Don't you think I'm a pretty good-natured man to sit here," said he, "and hear myself abused in this way, without getting angry?"
"No, I think you are a bad-natured man. I think you are the hardest-hearted and worst man I ever saw. What in God's name has Paul Benedict done, that he should be treated in this way? There are a dozen there just like him, or worse. Is it a crime to lose one's reason? I wish you could spend one night in Paul Benedict's room."
"Thank you. I prefer my present quarters."
"Yes, you look around on your present quarters, as you call 'em, and think you'll always have 'em. You won't. Mark my words; you won't. Some time you'll overreach yourself, and cheat yourself out of 'em. See if you don't."
"It takes a smart man to cheat himself, Miss Butterworth," responded Mr. Belcher, rubbing his hands.
"There is just where you're mistaken. It takes a fool."
Mr. Belcher laughed outright. Then, in a patronizing way, he said: "Miss Butterworth, I have given you considerable time, and perhaps you'll be kind enough to state your business. I'm a practical man, and I really don't see anything that particularly concerns me in all this talk. Of course, I'm sorry for Benedict and the rest of 'em, but Sevenoaks isn't a very rich town, and it cannot afford to board its paupers at the hotel, or to give them many luxuries."
Miss Butterworth was calm again. She knew that she had done her cause no good, but was determined to finish her errand.
"Mr. Belcher, I'm a woman."
"I know it, Keziah."
"And my name is Butterworth."
"I know it."
"You do? Well, then, here is what I came to say to you. The town-meeting comes to-morrow, and the town's poor are to be sold at auction, and to pass into Tom Buffum's hands again, unless you prevent it. I can't make a speech, and I can't vote. I never wanted to until now. You can do both, and if you don't reform this business, and set Tom Buffum at doing something else, and treat God's poor more like human beings, I shall get out of Sevenoaks before it sinks; for sink it will if there is any hole big enough to hold it."
"Well, I'll think of it," said Mr. Belcher, deliberately.
"Tell me you'll do it."
"I'm not used to doing things in a hurry. Mr. Buffum is a friend of mine, and I've always regarded him as a very good man for the place. Of course, if there's anything wrong it ought to be righted, but I think you've exaggerated."
"No, you don't mean to do anything. I see it. Good-night," and she had swept out of the door before he could say another word, or rise from his chair.
She went down the hill into the village. The earth was stiffening with the frost that lingered late in that latitude, and there were patches of ice, across which she picked her way. There was a great moon overhead, but just then all beautiful things, and all things that tended to lift her thoughts upward, seemed a mockery. She reached the quiet home of Rev. Solomon Snow.
"Who knows but he can be spurred up to do something?" she said to herself.
There was only one way to ascertain—so she knocked at the door, and was received so kindly by Mr. Snow and Mrs. Snow and the three Misses Snow, that she sat down and unburdened herself—first, of course, as regarded Mr. Robert Belcher, and second, as concerned the Benedicts, father and son.
The position of Mr. Belcher was one which inspired the minister with caution, but the atmosphere was freer in his house than in that of the proprietor. The vocal engine whose wheels had slipped upon the track with many a whirr, as she started her train in the great house on the hill, found a down grade, and went off easily. Mr. Snow sat in his arm-chair, his elbows resting on either support, the thumb and every finger of each hand touching its twin at the point, and forming a kind of gateway in front of his heart, which seemed to shut out or let in conviction at his will. Mrs. Snow and the girls, whose admiration of Miss Butterworth for having dared to invade Mr. Belcher's library was unbounded, dropped their work, and listened with eager attention. Mr. Snow opened the gate occasionally to let in a statement, but for the most part kept it closed. The judicial attitude, the imperturbable spectacles, the long, pale face and white cravat did not prevent Miss Butterworth from "freeing her mind;" and when she finished the task, a good deal had been made of the case of the insane paupers of Sevenoaks, and there was very little left of Mr. Robert Belcher and Mr. Thomas Buffum.
At the close of her account of what she had seen at the poor-house, and what had passed between her and the great proprietor, Mr. Snow cast his eyes up to the ceiling, pursed his lips, and somewhere in the profundities of his nature, or in some celestial laboratory, unseen by any eyes but his own, prepared his judgments.
"Cases of this kind," said he, at last, to his excited visitor, whose eyes glowed like coals as she looked into his impassive face, "are to be treated with great prudence. We are obliged to take things as they air. Personally (with a rising inflection and a benevolent smile), I should rejoice to see the insane poor clothed and in their right mind."
"Let us clothe 'em, then, anyway," interjected Miss Butterworth, impatiently. "And, as for being in their right mind, that's more than can be said of those that have the care of 'em."
"Personally—Miss Butterworth, excuse me—I should rejoice to see them clothed and in their right mind, but the age of miracles is past. We have to deal with the facts of to-day—with things as they air. It is possible, nay, for aught I know, it may be highly probable, that in other towns pauperism may fare better than it does with us. It is to be remembered that Sevenoaks is itself poor, and its poverty becomes one of the factors of the problem which you have propounded to us. The town of Buxton, our neighbor over here, pays taxes, let us say, of seven mills on the dollar; we pay seven mills on the dollar. Buxton is rich; we are poor. Buxton has few paupers; we have many. Consequently, Buxton may maintain its paupers in what may almost be regarded as a state of affluence. It may go as far as feather-beds and winter fires for the aged; nay, it may advance to some economical form of teeth-brushes, and still demand no more sacrifice from its people than is constantly demanded of us to maintain our poor in a humbler way. Then there are certain prudential considerations—certain, I might almost say, moral considerations—which are to be taken into account. It will never do, in a town like ours, to make pauperism attractive—to make our pauper establishments comfortable asylums for idleness. It must, in some way, be made to seem a hardship to go to the poor-house."
"Well, Sevenoaks has taken care of that with a vengeance," burst out Miss Butterworth.
"Excuse me, Miss Butterworth; let me repeat, that it must be made to seem a hardship to go to the poor-house. Let us say that we have accomplished this very desirable result. So far, so good. Give our system whatever credit may belong to it, and still let us frankly acknowledge that we have suffering left that ought to be alleviated. How much? In what way? Here we come into contact with another class of facts. Paupers have less of sickness and death among them than any-other class in the community. There are paupers in our establishment that have been there for twenty-five years—a fact which, if it proves anything, proves that a large proportion of the wants of our present civilization are not only artificial in their origin, but harmful in their gratifications. Our poor are compelled to go back nearer to nature—to old mother nature—and they certainly get a degree of compensation for it. It increases the expenses of the town, to be sure."
"Suppose we inquire of them," struck in Miss Butterworth again, "and find out whether they would not rather be treated better and die earlier."
"Paupers are hardly in a position to be consulted in that way," responded Mr. Snow, "and the alternative is one which, considering their moral condition, they would have no right to entertain."
Miss Butterworth had sat through this rather desultory disquisition with what patience she could command, breaking in upon it impulsively at various points, and seen that it was drifting nowhere—at least, that it was not drifting toward the object of her wishes. Then she took up the burden of talk, and carried it on in her very direct way.
"All you say is well enough, I suppose," she began, "but I don't stop to reason about it, and I don't wish to. Here is a lot of human beings that are treated like brutes—sold every year to the lowest bidder, to be kept. They go hungry, and naked, and cold. They are in the hands of a man who has no more blood in his heart than there is in a turnip, and we pretend to be Christians, and go to church, and coddle ourselves with comforts, and pay no more attention to them than we should if their souls had gone where their money went. I tell you it's a sin and a shame, and I know it. I feel it. And there's a gentleman among 'em, and his little boy, and they must be taken out of that place, or treated better in it. I've made up my mind to that, and if the men of Sevenoaks don't straighten matters on that horrible old hill, then they're just no men at all."
Mr. Snow smiled a calm, self-respectful smile, that said, as plainly as words could say: "Oh! I know women: they are amiably impulsive, but impracticable."
"Have you ever been there?" inquired Miss Butterworth, sharply.
"Yes, I've been there."
"And conscience forbid!" broke in Mrs. Snow, "that he should go again, and bring home what he brought home that time. It took me the longest time to get them out of the house!"
"Mrs. Snow! my dear! you forget that we have a stranger present."
"Well, I don't forget those strangers, anyway!"
The three Misses Snow tittered, and looked at one another, but were immediately solemnized by a glance from their father.
Mrs. Snow, having found her tongue—a characteristically lively and emphatic one—went on to say:—
"I think Miss Butterworth is right. It's a burning shame, and you ought to go to the meeting to-morrow, and put it down."
"Easily said, my dear," responded Mr. Snow, "but you forget that Mr. Belcher is Buffum's friend, and that it is impossible to carry any measure against him in Sevenoaks. I grant that it ought not to be so. I wish it were otherwise; but we must take things as they air."
"To take things as they air," was a cardinal aphorism in Mr. Snow's budget of wisdom. It was a good starting-point for any range of reasoning, and exceedingly useful to a man of limited intellect and little moral courage. The real truth of the case had dawned upon Miss Butterworth, and it had rankled in the breast of Mrs. Snow from the beginning of his pointless talk. He was afraid of offending Robert Belcher, for not only did his church need repairing, but his salary was in arrears, and the wolf that had chased so many up the long hill to what was popularly known as Tom Buffum's Boarding House he had heard many a night, while his family was sleeping, howling with menace in the distance.
Mrs. Snow rebelled, in every part of her nature, against the power which had cowed her reverend companion. There is nothing that so goads a spirited woman to madness as the realization that any man controls her husband. He may be subservient to her—a cuckold even—but to be mated with a man whose soul is neither his own nor wholly hers, is to her the torment of torments.
"I wish Robert Belcher was hanged," said Mrs. Snow, spitefully.
"Amen! and my name is Butterworth," responded that lady, making sure that there should be no mistake as to the responsibility for the utterance.
"Why, mother!" exclaimed the three hisses Snow, in wonder.
"And drawn and quartered!" added Mrs. Snow, emphatically.
"Amen, again!" responded Miss Butterworth.
"Mrs. Snow! my dear! You forget that you are a Christian pastor's wife, and that there is a stranger present."
"No, that is just what I don't forget," said Mrs. Snow. "I see a Christian pastor afraid of a man of the world, who cares no more about Christianity than he does about a pair of old shoes, and who patronizes it for the sake of shutting its mouth against him. It makes me angry, and makes me wish I were a man; and you ought to go to that meeting to-morrow, as a Christian pastor, and put down this shame and wickedness. You have influence, if you will use it. All the people want is a leader, and some one to tell them the truth."
"Yes, father, I'm sure you have a great deal of influence," said the elder Miss Snow.
"A great deal of influence," responded the next in years.
"Yes, indeed," echoed the youngest.
Mr. Snow established the bridge again, by bringing his fingers together,—whether to keep out the flattery that thus came like a subtle balm to his heart, or to keep in the self-complacency which had been engendered, was not apparent.
He smiled, looking benevolently out upon the group, and said: "Oh, you women are so hasty, so hasty, so hasty! I had not said that I would not interfere. Indeed, I had pretty much made up my mind to do so. But I wanted you in advance to see things as they air. It may be that something can be done, and it certainly will be a great satisfaction to me if I can be the humble instrument for the accomplishment of a reform."
"And you will go to the meeting? and you will speak?" said Miss Butterworth, eagerly.
"Yes!" and Mr. Snow looked straight into Miss Butterworth's tearful eyes, and smiled.
"The Lord add His blessing, and to His name be all the praise! Good-night!" said Miss Butterworth, rising and making for the door.
"Dear," said Mrs. Snow, springing and catching her by the arm, "don't you think you ought to put on something more? It's very chilly to-night."
"Not a rag. I'm hot. I believe I should roast if I had on a feather more."
"Wouldn't you like Mr. Snow to go home with you? He can go just as well as not," insisted Mrs. Snow.
"Certainly, just as well as not," repeated the elder Miss Snow, followed by the second with: "as well as not," and by the third with: "and be glad to do it."
"No—no—no—no"—to each. "I can get along better without him, and I don't mean to give him a chance to take back what he has said."
Miss Butterworth ran down the steps, the whole family standing in the open door, with Mr. Snow, in his glasses, behind his good-natured, cackling flock, thoroughly glad that his protective services were deemed of so small value by the brave little tailoress.
Then Miss Butterworth could see the moon and the stars. Then she could see how beautiful the night was. Then she became conscious of the everlasting roar of the cataracts, and of the wreaths of mist that they sent up into the crisp evening air. To the fear of anything in Sevenoaks, in the day or in the night, she was a stranger; so, with a light heart, talking and humming to herself, she went by the silent mill, the noisy dram-shops, and, with her benevolent spirit full of hope and purpose, reached the house where, in a humble hired room she had garnered all her treasures, including the bed and the linen which she had prepared years before for an event that never took place.
"The Lord add His blessing, and to His name be all the praise," she said, as she extinguished the candle, laughing in spite of herself, to think how she had blurted out the prayer and the ascription in the face of Solomon Snow.
"Well, he's a broken reed—a broken reed—but I hope Mrs. Snow will tie something to him—or starch him—or—something—to make him stand straight for once," and then she went to sleep, and dreamed of fighting with Robert Belcher all night.
MR. BELCHER CARRIES HIS POINT AT THE TOWN-MEETING, AND THE POOR ARE KNOCKED DOWN TO THOMAS BUFFUM.
The abrupt departure of Miss Butterworth left Mr. Belcher piqued and surprised. Although he regarded himself as still "master of the situation"—to use his own pet phrase,—the visit of that spirited woman had in various ways humiliated him. To sit in his own library, with an intruding woman who not only was not afraid of him but despised him, to sit before her patiently and be called "Bob Belcher," and a brute, and not to have the privilege of kicking her out of doors, was the severest possible trial of his equanimity. She left him so suddenly that he had not had the opportunity to insult her, for he had fully intended to do this before she retired. He had determined, also, as a matter of course, that in regard to the public poor of Sevenoaks he would give all his influence toward maintaining the existing state of things. The idea of being influenced by a woman, particularly by a woman over whom he had no influence, to change his policy with regard to anything, public or private, was one against which all the brute within him rebelled.
In this state of mind, angry with himself for having tolerated one who had so boldly and ruthlessly wounded his self-love, he had but one resort. He could not confess his humiliation to his wife; and there was no one in the world with whom he could hold conversation on the subject, except his old confidant who came into the mirror when wanted, and conveniently retired when the interview closed.
Rising from his chair, and approaching his mirror, as if he had been whipped, he stood a full minute regarding his disgraced and speechless image. "Are you Robert Belcher, Esquire, of Sevenoaks?" he inquired, at length. "Are you the person who has been insulted by a woman? Look at me, sir! Turn not away! Have you any constitutional objections to telling me how you feel? Are you, sir, the proprietor of this house? Are you the owner of yonder mill? Are you the distinguished person who carries Sevenoaks in his pocket? How are the mighty fallen! And you, sir, who have been insulted by a tailoress, can stand here, and look me in the face, and still pretend to be a man! You are a scoundrel, sir—a low, mean-spirited scoundrel, sir. You are nicely dressed, but you are a puppy. Dare to tell me you are not, and I will grind you under my foot, as I would grind a worm. Don't give me a word—not a word! I am not in a mood to bear it!"
Having vented his indignation and disgust, with the fiercest facial expression and the most menacing gesticulations, he became calm, and proceeded:
"Benedict at the poor-house, hopelessly insane! Tell me now, and, mark you, no lies here! Who developed his inventions? Whose money was risked? What did it cost Benedict? Nothing. What did it cost Robert Belcher? More thousands than Benedict ever dreamed of. Have you done your duty, Robert Belcher? Ay, ay, sir! I believe you. Did you turn his head? No, sir. I believe you; it is well! I have spent money for him—first and last, a great deal of money for him; and any man or woman who disputes me is a liar—a base, malignant liar! Who is still master of the situation? Whose name is Norval? Whose are these Grampian Hills? Who intends to go to the town-meeting to-morrow, and have things fixed about as he wants them? Who will make Keziah Butterworth weep and howl with anguish? Let Robert Belcher alone! Alone! Far in azure depths of space (here Mr. Belcher extended both arms heavenward, and regarded his image admiringly), far—far away! Well, you're a pretty good-looking man, after all, and I'll let you off this time; but don't let me catch you playing baby to another woman! I think you'll be able to take care of yourself [nodding slowly.] By-by! Good-night!"
Mr. Belcher retired from the glass with two or three profound bows, his face beaming with restored self-complacency, and, taking his chair, he resumed his cigar. At this moment, there arose in his memory a single sentence he had read in the warrant for the meeting of the morrow: "To see if the town will take any steps for the improvement of the condition of the poor, now supported at the public charge."
When he read this article of the warrant, posted in the public places of the village, it had not impressed him particularly. Now, he saw Miss Butterworth's hand in it. Evidently, Mr. Belcher was not the only man who had been honored by a call from that philanthropic woman. As he thought the matter over, he regretted that, for the sake of giving form and force to his spite against her, he should be obliged to relinquish the popularity he might have won by favoring a reformative measure. He saw something in it, also, that might be made to add to Tom Buffum's profits, but even this consideration weighed nothing against his desire for personal revenge, to be exhibited in the form of triumphant personal power.
He rose from his chair, walked his room, swinging his hands backward and forward, casting furtive glances into his mirror, and then rang his bell. He had arrived at a conclusion. He had fixed upon his scheme, and was ready for work.
"Tell Phipps to come here," he said to the maid who responded to the summons.
Phipps was his coachman, body-servant, table-waiter, pet, butt for his jests, tool, man of all occasions. He considered himself a part of Mr. Belcher's personal property. To be the object of his clumsy badinage, when visitors were present and his master was particularly amiable, was equivalent to an honorable public notice. He took Mr. Belcher's cast-off clothes, and had them reduced in their dimensions for his own wearing, and was thus always able to be nearly as well dressed and foppish as the man for whom they were originally made. He was as insolent to others as he was obsequious to his master—a flunky by nature and long education.
"Well, Phipps, what are you here for?" inquired Mr. Belcher.
"I was told you wanted me, sir," looking doubtfully with his cunning eyes into Mr. Belcher's face, as if questioning his mood.
"How is your health? You look feeble. Overwhelmed by your tremendous duties? Been sitting up late along back? Eh? You rascal! Who's the happy woman?"
Phipps laughed, and twiddled his fingers.
"You're a precious fellow, and I've got to get rid of you. You are altogether too many for me. Where did you get that coat? It seems to me I've seen something like that before. Just tell me how you do it, man. I can't dress the way you do. Yes, Phipps, you're too many for me!"
Phipps smiled, aware that he was expected to make no reply.
"Phipps, do you expect to get up to-morrow morning?"
"Oh, you do! Very well! See that you do."
"Bring the grays and the light wagon to the door to-morrow morning at seven o'clock."
"And Phipps, gather all the old clothes about the house that you can't use yourself, and tie 'em up in a bundle, and put 'em into the back of the wagon. Mum is the word, and if Mrs. Belcher asks you any questions, tell her I think of turning Sister of Charity."
"And Phipps, make a basket of cold meat and goodies, and put in with the clothes."
"And Phipps, remember:—seven o'clock, sharp, and no soldiering."
"And Phipps, here is a cigar that cost twenty-five cents. Do it up in a paper, and lay it away. Keep it to remember me by."
This joke was too good to be passed over lightly, and so Phipps giggled, took the cigar, put it caressingly to his nose, and then slipped it into his pocket.
"Now make yourself scarce," said his master, and the man retired, entirely conscious that the person he served had some rascally scheme on foot, and heartily sympathetic with him in the project of its execution.
Promptly at seven the next morning, the rakish pair of trotters stood before the door, with a basket and a large bundle in the back of the rakish little wagon. Almost at the same moment, the proprietor came out, buttoning his overcoat. Phipps leaped out, then followed his master into the wagon, who, taking the reins, drove off at a rattling pace up the long hill toward Tom Buffum's boarding-house. The road lay entirely outside of the village, so that the unusual drive was not observed.
Arriving at the poor-house, Mr. Belcher gave the reins to his servant, and, with a sharp rap upon the door with the butt of his whip, summoned to the latch the red-faced and stuffy keeper. What passed between them, Phipps did not hear, although he tried very hard to do so. At the close of a half hour's buzzing conversation, Tom Buffum took the bundle from the wagon, and pitched it into his doorway. Then, with the basket on his arm, he and Mr. Belcher made their way across the street to the dormitories and cells occupied by the paupers of both sexes and all ages and conditions. Even the hard-hearted proprietor saw that which wounded his blunted sensibilities; but he looked on with a bland face, and witnessed the greedy consumption of the stale dainties of his own table.
It was by accident that he was led out by a side passage, and there he caught glimpses of the cells to which Miss Butterworth had alluded, and inhaled an atmosphere which sickened him to paleness, and brought to his lips the exclamation: "For God's sake let's get out of this."
"Ay! ay!" came tremblingly from behind the bars of a cell, "let's get out of this."
Mr. Belcher pushed toward the light, but not so quickly that a pair of eyes, glaring from the straw, failed to recognize him.
"Robert Belcher! Oh, for God's sake! Robert Belcher!"
It was a call of wild distress—a whine, a howl, an objurgation, all combined. It was repeated as long as he could hear it. It sounded in his ears as he descended the hill. It came again and again to him as he was seated at his comfortable breakfast. It rang in the chambers of his consciousness for hours, and only a firm and despotic will expelled it at last. He knew the voice, and he never wished to hear it again.
What he had seen that morning, and what he had done, where he had been, and why he had gone, were secrets to which his wife and children were not admitted. The relations between himself and his wife were not new in the world. He wished to retain her respect, so he never revealed to her his iniquities. She wished as far as possible to respect him, so she never made uncomfortable inquiries. He was bountiful to her. He had been bountiful to many others. She clothed and informed all his acts of beneficence with the motives which became them. If she was ever shocked by his vulgarity, he never knew it by any word of hers, in disapproval. If she had suspicions, she did not betray them. Her children were trained to respect their father, and among them she found the satisfactions of her life. He had long ceased to be her companion. As an associate, friend, lover, she had given him up, and, burying in her heart all her griefs and all her loneliness, had determined to make the best of her life, and to bring her children to believe that their father was a man of honor, of whom they had no reason to be ashamed. If she was proud, hers was an amiable pride, and to Mr. Belcher's credit let it be said that he respected her as much as he wished her to honor him.
For an hour after breakfast, Mr. Belcher was occupied in his library, with his agent, in the transaction of his daily business. Then, just as the church bell rang its preliminary summons for the assembling of the town-meeting, Phipps came to the door again with the rakish grays and the rakish wagon, and Mr. Belcher drove down the steep hill into the village, exchanging pleasant words with the farmers whom he encountered on the way, and stopping at various shops, to speak with those upon whom he depended for voting through whatever public schemes he found it desirable to favor.
The old town-hall was thronged for half-an-hour before the time designated in the warrant. Finally, the bell ceased to ring, at the exact moment when Mr. Belcher drove to the door and ascended the steps. There was a buzz all over the house when he entered, and he was surrounded at once.
"Have it just as you want it," shaking his head ostentatiously and motioning them away, "don't mind anything about me. I'm a passenger," he said aloud, and with a laugh, as the meeting was called to order and the warrant read, and a nomination for moderator demanded.
"Peter Vernol," shouted a dozen voices in unison.
Peter Vernol had represented the district in the Legislature, and was supposed to be familiar with parliamentary usage. He was one of Mr. Belcher's men, of course—as truly owned and controlled by him as Phipps himself.
Peter Vernol became moderator by acclamation. He was a young man, and, ascending the platform very red in the face, and looking out upon the assembled voters of Sevenoaks, he asked with a trembling voice:
"What is the further pleasure of the meeting?"
"I move you," said Mr. Belcher, rising, and throwing open his overcoat, "that the Rev. Solomon Snow, whom I am exceedingly glad to see present, open our deliberations with prayer."
The moderator, forgetting apparently that the motion had not been put, thereupon invited the reverend gentleman to the platform, from which, when his service had been completed, he with dignity retired—but with the painful consciousness that in some way Mr. Belcher had become aware of the philanthropic task he had undertaken. He knew he was beaten, at the very threshold of his enterprise—that his conversations of the morning among his neighbors had been reported, and that Paul Benedict and his fellow-sufferers would be none the better for him.
The business connected with the various articles of the warrant was transacted without notable discussion or difference. Mr. Belcher's ticket for town officers, which he took pains to show to those around him, was unanimously adopted. When it came to the question of schools, Mr. Belcher indulged in a few flights of oratory. He thought it impossible for a town like Sevenoaks to spend too much money for schools. He felt himself indebted to the public school for all that he was, and all that he had won. The glory of America, in his view—its pre-eminence above all the exhausted and decayed civilizations of the Old World—was to be found in popular education. It was the distinguishing feature of our new and abounding national life. Drop it, falter, recede, and the darkness that now hangs over England, and the thick darkness that envelops the degenerating hordes of the Continent, would settle down upon fair America, and blot her out forever from the list of the earth's teeming nations. He would pay good wages to teachers. He would improve school-houses, and he would do it as a matter of economy. It was, in his view, the only safeguard against the encroachments of a destructive pauperism. "We are soon," said Mr. Belcher, "to consider whether we will take any steps for the improvement of the condition of the poor, now supported at the public charge. Here is our first step. Let us endow our children with such a degree of intelligence that pauperism shall be impossible. In this thing I go hand in hand with the clergy. On many points I do not agree with them, but on this matter of popular education, I will do them the honor to say that they have uniformly been in advance of the rest of us. I join hands with them here to-day, and, as any advance in our rate of taxation for schools will bear more heavily upon me than upon any other citizen—I do not say it boastingly, gentlemen—I pledge myself to support and stand by it."
Mr. Belcher's speech, delivered with majestic swellings of his broad chest, the ostentatious removal of his overcoat, and brilliant passages of oratorical action, but most imperfectly summarized in this report, was received with cheers. Mr. Snow himself feebly joined in the approval, although he knew it was intended to disarm him. His strength, his resolution, his courage, ebbed away with sickening rapidity; and he was not reassured by a glance toward the door, where he saw, sitting quite alone, Miss Butterworth herself, who had come in for the purpose partly of strengthening him, and partly of informing herself concerning the progress of a reform which had taken such strong hold upon her sympathies.
At length the article in the warrant which most interested that good lady was taken up, and Mr. Snow rose to speak upon it. He spoke of the reports he had heard concerning the bad treatment that the paupers, and especially those who were hopelessly insane, had received in the alms-house, enlarged upon the duties of humanity and Christianity, and expressed the conviction that the enlightened people of Sevenoaks should spend more money for the comfort of the unfortunate whom Heaven had thrown upon their charge, and particularly that they should institute a more searching and competent inspection of their pauper establishment.
As he took his seat, all eyes were turned upon Mr. Belcher, and that gentleman rose for a second exhibition of his characteristic eloquence.
"I do not forget," said Mr. Belcher, "that we have present here to-day an old and well-tried public servant. I see before me Mr. Thomas Buffum, who, for years, has had in charge the poor, not only of this town, but of this county. I do not forget that his task has been one of great delicacy, with the problem constantly before him how to maintain in comfort our most unfortunate class of population, and at the same time to reduce to its minimum the burden of our taxpayers. That he has solved this problem and served the public well, I most firmly believe. He has been for many years my trusted personal friend, and I cannot sit here and hear his administration questioned, and his integrity and humanity doubted, without entering my protest. [Cheers, during which Mr. Buffum grew very red in the face.] He has had a task to perform before which the bravest of us would shrink. We, who sit in our peaceful homes, know little of the hardships to which this faithful public servant has been subjected. Pauperism is ungrateful. Pauperism is naturally filthy. Pauperism is noisy. It consists of humanity in its most repulsive forms, and if we have among us a man who can—who can—stand it, let us stand by him." [Tremendous cheers.]
Mr. Belcher paused until the wave of applause had subsided, and then went on:
"An open-hand, free competition: this has been my policy, in a business of whose prosperity you are the best judges. I say an open-hand and free competition in everything. How shall we dispose of our poor? Shall they be disposed of by private arrangement—sold out to favorites, of whose responsibility we know nothing? [Cries of no, no, no!] If anybody who is responsible—and now he is attacked, mark you, I propose to stand behind and be responsible for Mr. Buffum myself—can do the work cheaper and better than Mr. Buffum, let him enter at once upon the task. But let the competition be free, nothing covered up. Let us have clean hands in this business, if nowhere else. If we cannot have impartial dealing, where the interests of humanity are concerned, we are unworthy of the trust we have assumed. I give the Rev. Mr. Snow credit for motives that are unimpeachable—unimpeachable, sir. I do not think him capable of intentional wrong, and I wish to ask him, here and now, whether, within a recent period, he has visited the pauper establishment of Sevenoaks."
Mr. Snow rose and acknowledged that it was a long time since he had entered Mr. Buffum's establishment.
"I thought so. He has listened to the voice of rumor. Very well. I have to say that I have been there recently, and have walked through the establishment. I should do injustice to myself, and fail to hint to the reverend gentleman, and all those who sympathize with him, what I regard as one of their neglected duties, if I should omit to mention that I did not go empty-handed. [Loud cheers.] It is easy for those who neglect their own duties to suspect that others do the same. I know our paupers are not supported in luxury. We cannot afford to support them in luxury; but I wash my hands of all responsibility for inhumanity and inattention to their reasonable wants. The reverend gentleman himself knows, I think, whether any man ever came to me for assistance on behalf of any humane or religious object, and went away without aid, I cannot consent to be placed in a position that reflects upon my benevolence, and, least of all, by the reverend gentleman who has reflected upon that administration of public charity which has had, and still retains, my approval. I therefore move that the usual sum be appropriated for the support of the poor, and that at the close of this meeting the care of the poor for the ensuing year be disposed of at public auction to the lowest bidder."
Mr. Snow was silent, for he knew that he was impotent.
Then there jumped up a little man with tumbled hair, weazened face, and the general look of a broken-down gentleman, who was recognized by the moderator as "Dr. Radcliffe."
"Mr. Moderator," said he, in a screaming voice, "as I am the medical attendant and inspector of our pauper establishment, it becomes proper for me, in seconding the motion of Mr. Belcher, as I heartily do, to say a few words, and submit my report for the past year."
Dr. Radcliffe was armed with a large document, and the assembled voters of Sevenoaks were getting tired.
"I move," said Mr. Belcher, "that, as the hour is late, the reading of the report be dispensed with." The motion was seconded, and carried nem. con.
The Doctor was wounded in a sensitive spot, and was determined not to be put down.
"I may at least say," he went on, "that I have made some discoveries during the past year that ought to be in the possession of the scientific world. It takes less food to support a pauper than it does any other man, and I believe the reason is that he hasn't any mind. If I take two potatoes, one goes to the elaboration of mental processes, the other to the support of the physical economy. The pauper has only a physical economy, and he needs but one potato. Anemia is the normal condition of the pauper. He breathes comfortably an atmosphere which would give a healthy man asphyxia. Hearty food produces inflammatory diseases and a general condition of hypertrophy. The character of the diseases at the poor-house, during the past year, has been typhoid. I have suggested to Mr. Buffum better ventilation, a change from farinaceous to nitrogenous food as conducive to a better condition of the mucous surfaces and a more perfect oxydation of the vital fluids. Mr. Buffum—"
"Oh, git out!" shouted a voice at the rear.
"Question! question!" called a dozen voices.
The moderator caught a wink and a nod from Mr. Belcher, and put the question, amid the protests of Dr. Radcliffe; and it was triumphantly carried.
And now, as the town-meeting drops out of this story, let us leave it, and leave Mr. Thomas Buffum at its close to underbid all contestants for the privilege of feeding the paupers of Sevenoaks for another year.
IN WHICH JIM FENTON IS INTRODUCED TO THE READER AND INTRODUCES HIMSELF TO MISS BUTTERWORTH.
Miss Butterworth, while painfully witnessing the defeat of her hopes from the last seat in the hall, was conscious of the presence at her side of a very singular-looking personage, who evidently did not belong in Sevenoaks. He was a woodsman, who had been attracted to the hall by his desire to witness the proceedings. His clothes, originally of strong material, were patched; he held in his hand a fur cap without a visor; and a rifle leaned on the bench at his side. She had been attracted to him by his thoroughly good-natured face, his noble, muscular figure, and certain exclamations that escaped from his lips during the speeches. Finally, he turned to her, and with a smile so broad and full that it brought an answer to her own face, he said: "This 'ere breathin' is worse nor an old swamp. I'm goin', and good-bye to ye!"
Why this remark, personally addressed to her, did not offend her, coming as it did from a stranger, she did not know; but it certainly did not seem impudent. There was something so simple and strong and manly about him, as he had sat there by her side, contrasted with the baser and better dressed men before her, that she took his address as an honorable courtesy.
When the woodsman went out upon the steps of the town-hall, to get a breath, he found there such an assembly of boys as usually gathers in villages on the smallest public occasion. Squarely before the door stood Mr. Belcher's grays, and in Mr. Belcher's wagon sat Mr. Belcher's man, Phipps. Phipps was making the most of his position. He was proud of his horses, proud of his clothes, proud of the whip he was carelessly snapping, proud of belonging to Mr. Belcher. The boys were laughing at his funny remarks, envying him his proud eminence, and discussing the merits of the horses and the various points of the attractive establishment.
As the stranger appeared, he looked down upon the boys with a broad smile, which attracted them at once, and quite diverted them from their flattering attentions to Phipps—a fact quickly perceived by the latter, and as quickly revenged in a way peculiar to himself and the man from whom he had learned it.
"This is the hippopotamus, gentlemen," said Phipps, "fresh from his native woods. He sleeps underneath the banyan-tree, and lives on the nuts of the hick-o-ree, and pursues his prey with his tail extended upward and one eye open, and has been known when excited by hunger to eat small boys, spitting out their boots with great violence. Keep out of his way, gentlemen! Keep out of his way, and observe his wickedness at a distance."
Phipps's saucy speech was received with a great roar by the boys, who were surprised to notice that the animal himself was not only not disturbed, but very much amused by being shown up as a curiosity.
"Well, you're a new sort of a monkey, anyway," said the woodsman, after the laugh had subsided. "I never hearn one talk afore."
"You never will again," retorted Phipps, "if you give me any more of your lip."
The woodsman walked quickly toward Phipps, as if he were about to pull him from his seat.
Phipps saw the motion, started the horses, and was out of his way in an instant.
The boys shouted in derision, but Phipps did not come back, and the stranger was the hero. They gathered around him, asking questions, all of which he good-naturedly answered. He seemed to be pleased with their society, as if he were only a big boy himself, and wanted to make the most of the limited time which his visit to the town afforded him.
While he was thus standing as the center of an inquisitive and admiring group, Miss Butterworth came out of the town-hall. Her eyes were full of tears, and her eloquent face expressed vexation and distress. The stranger saw the look and the tears, and, leaving the boys, he approached her without the slightest awkwardness, and said:
"Has anybody teched ye, mum?"
"Oh, no, sir," Miss Butterworth answered.
"Has anybody spoke ha'sh to ye?"
"Oh, no, sir;" and Miss Butterworth pressed on, conscious that in that kind inquiry there breathed as genuine respect and sympathy as ever had reached her ears in the voice of a man.
"Because," said the man, still walking along at her side, "I'm spilin' to do somethin' for somebody, and I wouldn't mind thrashin' anybody you'd p'int out."
"No, you can do nothing for me. Nobody can do anything in this town for anybody until Robert Belcher is dead," said Miss Butterworth.
"Well, I shouldn't like to kill 'im," responded the man, "unless it was an accident in the woods—a great ways off—for a turkey or a hedgehog—and the gun half-cocked."
The little tailoress smiled through her tears, though she felt very uneasy at being observed in company and conversation with the rough-looking stranger. He evidently divined the thoughts which possessed her, and said, as if only the mention of his name would make him an acquaintance:
"I'm Jim Fenton. I trap for a livin' up in Number Nine, and have jest brung in my skins."
"My name is Butterworth," she responded mechanically.
"I know'd it," he replied. "I axed the boys."
"Good-bye," he said. "Here's the store, and I must shoulder my sack and be off. I don't see women much, but I'm fond of 'em, and they're pretty apt to like me."
"Good-bye," said the woman. "I think you're the best man I've seen to-day;" and then, as if she had said more than became a modest woman, she added, "and that isn't saying very much."
They parted, and Jim Fenton stood perfectly still in the street and looked at her, until she disappeared around a corner. "That's what I call a genuine creetur'," he muttered to himself at last, "a genuine creetur'."
Then Jim Fenton went into the store, where he had sold his skins and bought his supplies, and, after exchanging a few jokes with those who had observed his interview with Miss Butterworth, he shouldered his sack as he called it, and started for Number Nine. The sack was a contrivance of his own, with two pouches which depended, one before and one behind, from his broad shoulders. Taking his rifle in his hand, he bade the group that had gathered around him a hearty good-bye, and started on his way.
The afternoon was not a pleasant one. The air was raw, and, as the sun went toward its setting, the wind came on to blow from the north-west. This was just as he would have it. It gave him breath, and stimulated the vitality that was necessary to him in the performance of his long task. A tramp of forty miles was not play, even to him, and this long distance was to be accomplished before he could reach the boat that would bear him and his burden into the woods.
He crossed the Branch at its principal bridge, and took the same path up the hill that Robert Belcher had traveled in the morning. About half-way up the hill, as he was going on with the stride of a giant, he saw a little boy at the side of the road, who had evidently been weeping. He was thinly and very shabbily clad, and was shivering with cold. The great, healthy heart within Jim Fenton was touched in an instant.
"Well, bub," said he, tenderly, "how fare ye? How fare ye? Eh?"
"I'm pretty well, I thank you, sir," replied the lad.
"I guess not. You're as blue as a whetstone. You haven't got as much on you as a picked goose."
"I can't help it, sir," and the boy burst into tears.
"Well, well, I didn't mean to trouble you, boy. Here, take this money, and buy somethin' to make you happy. Don't tell your dad you've got it. It's yourn."
The boy made a gesture of rejection, and said: "I don't wish to take it, sir."
"Now, that's good! Don't wish to take it! Why, what's your name? You're a new sort o' boy."
"My name is Harry Benedict."
"Harry Benedict? And what's your pa's name?"
"His name is Paul Benedict."
"Where is he now?"
"He is in the poor-house."
"And you, too?"
"Yes, sir," and the lad found expression for his distress in another flow of tears.
"Well, well, well, well! If that ain't the strangest thing I ever hearn on! Paul Benedict, of Sevenoaks, in Tom Buffum's Boardin'-house!"
"Yes, sir, and he's very crazy, too."
Jim Fenton set his rifle against a rock at the roadside, slowly lifted off his pack and placed it near the rifle, and then sat down on a stone and called the boy to him, folding him in his great warm arms to his warm breast.
"Harry, my boy," said Jim, "your pa and me was old friends. We have hunted together, fished together, eat together, and slept together many's the day and night. He was the best shot that ever come into the woods. I've seed him hit a deer at fifty rod many's the time, and he used to bring up the nicest tackle for fishin', every bit of it made with his own hands. He was the curisist creetur' I ever seed in my life, and the best; and I'd do more fur 'im nor fur any livin' live man. Oh, I tell ye, we used to have high old times. It was wuth livin' a year in the woods jest to have 'im with me for a fortnight. I never charged 'im a red cent fur nothin', and I've got some of his old tackle now that he give me. Him an' me was like brothers, and he used to talk about religion, and tell me I ought to shift over, but I never could see 'zactly what I ought to shift over from, or shift over to; but I let 'im talk, 'cause he liked to. He used to go out behind the trees nights, and I hearn him sayin' somethin'—somethin' very low, as I am talkin' to ye now. Well, he was prayin'; that's the fact about it, I s'pose; and ye know I felt jest as safe when that man was round! I don't believe I could a' been drownded when he was in the woods any more'n if I'd a' been a mink. An' Paul Benedict is in the poor-house! I vow I don't 'zactly see why the Lord let that man go up the spout; but perhaps it'll all come out right. Where's your ma, boy?"
Harry gave a great, shuddering gasp, and, answering him that she was dead, gave himself up to another fit of crying.
"Oh, now don't! now don't!" said Jim tenderly, pressing the distressed lad still closer to his heart. "Don't ye do it; it don't do no good. It jest takes the spunk all out o' ye. Ma's have to die like other folks, or go to the poor-house. You wouldn't like to have yer ma in the poor-house. She's all right. God Almighty's bound to take care o' her. Now, ye jest stop that sort o' thing. She's better off with him nor she would be with Tom Buffum—any amount better off. Doesn't Tom Buffum treat your pa well?"
"Oh, no, sir; he doesn't give him enough to eat, and he doesn't let him have things in his room, because he says he'll hurt himself, or break them all to pieces, and he doesn't give him good clothes, nor anything to cover himself up with when it's cold."
"Well, boy," said Jim, his great frame shaking with indignation, "do ye want to know what I think of Tom Buffum?"
"It won't do fur me to tell ye, 'cause I'm rough, but if there's anything awful bad—oh, bad as anything can be, in Skeezacks—I should say that Tom Buffum was an old Skeezacks."
Jim Fenton was feeling his way.
"I should say he was an infernal old Skeezacks. That isn't very bad, is it?"
"I don't know sir," replied the boy.
"Well, a d——d rascal; how's that?"
"My father never used such words," replied the boy.
"That's right, and I take it back. I oughtn't to have said it, but unless a feller has got some sort o' religion he has a mighty hard time namin' people in this world. What's that?"
Jim started with the sound in his ear of what seemed to be a cry of distress.
"That's one of the crazy people. They do it all the time.'"
Then Jim thought of the speeches he had heard in the town-meeting, and recalled the distress of Miss Butterworth, and the significance of all the scenes he had so recently witnessed.
"Look 'ere, boy; can ye keep right 'ere," tapping him on his breast, "whatsomever I tell ye? Can you keep yer tongue still?—hope you'll die if ye don't?"
There was something in these questions through which the intuitions of the lad saw help, both for his father and himself. Hope strung his little muscles in an instant, his attitude became alert, and he replied:
"I'll never say anything if they kill me."
"Well, I'll tell ye what I'm goin' to do. I'm goin' to stay to the poor-house to-night, if they'll keep me, an' I guess they will; and I'm goin' to see yer pa too, and somehow you and he must be got out of this place."
The boy threw his arms around Jim's neck, and kissed him passionately, again and again, without the power, apparently, to give any other expression to his emotions.
"Oh, God! don't, boy! That's a sort o' thing I can't stand. I ain't used to it."
Jim paused, as if to realize how sweet it was to hold the trusting child in his arms, and to be thus caressed, and then said: "Ye must be mighty keerful, and do just as I bid ye. If I stay to the poor-house to-night, I shall want to see ye in the mornin', and I shall want to see ye alone. Now ye know there's a big stump by the side of the road, half-way up to the old school-house."
Harry gave his assent.
"Well, I want ye to be thar, ahead o' me, and then I'll tell ye jest what I'm a goin' to do, and jest what I want to have ye do."
"Now mind, ye mustn't know me when I'm about the house, and mustn't tell anybody you've seed me, and I mustn't know you. Now ye leave all the rest to Jim Fenton, yer pa's old friend. Don't ye begin to feel a little better now?"
"You can kiss me again, if ye want to. I didn't mean to choke ye off. That was all in fun, ye know."
Harry kissed him, and then Jim said: "Now make tracks for yer old boardin'-house. I'll be along bimeby."
The boy started upon a brisk run, and Jim still sat upon the stone watching him until he disappeared somewhere among the angles of the tumble-down buildings that constituted the establishment.
"Well, Jim Fenton," he said to himself, "ye've been spilin' fur somethin' to do fur somebody. I guess ye've got it, and not a very small job neither."
Then he shouldered his pack, took up his rifle, looked up at the cloudy and blustering sky, and pushed up the hill, still talking to himself, and saying: "A little boy of about his haighth and bigness ain't a bad thing to take."
IN WHICH JIM FENTON APPLIES FOR LODGINGS AT TOM BUFFUM'S BOARDING-HOUSE, AND FINDS HIS OLD FRIEND.
As Jim walked up to the door of the building occupied by Tom Buffum's family, he met the head of the family coming out; and as, hitherto, that personage has escaped description, it will be well for the reader to make his acquaintance. The first suggestion conveyed by his rotund figure was, that however scantily he furnished his boarders, he never stinted himself in the matter of food. He had the sluggish, clumsy look of a heavy eater. His face was large, his almost colorless eyes were small, and, if one might judge by the general expression of his features, his favorite viand was pork. Indeed, if the swine into which the devils once entered had left any descendants, it would be legitimate to suppose that the breed still thrived in the most respectable sty connected with his establishment. He was always hoarse, and spoke either in a whisper or a wheeze. For this, or for some other reason not apparent, he was a silent man, rarely speaking except when addressed by a question, and never making conversation with anybody. From the time he first started independently in the world, he had been in some public office. Men with dirty work to do had found him wonderfully serviceable, and, by ways which it would be hard to define to the ordinary mind, he had so managed that every town and county office, in which there was any money, had been by turns in his hands.
"Well, Mr. Buffum, how fare ye?" said Jim, walking heartily up to him, and shaking his hand, his face glowing with good-nature.
Mr. Buffum's attempt to respond to this address ended in a wheeze and a cough.
"Have ye got room for another boarder to-night? Faith, I never expected to come to the poor-house, but here I am. I'll take entertainment for man or beast. Which is the best, and which do you charge the most for? Somebody's got to keep me to-night, and ye're the man to bid low."
Buffum made no reply, but stooped down, took a sliver from a log, and began to pick his teeth. Jim watched him with quiet amusement. The more Mr. Buffum thought, the more furious he grew with his toothpick.
"Pretty tough old beef, wasn't it?" said Jim, with a hearty laugh.
"You go in and see the women," said Mr. Buffum, in a wheezy whisper.
This, to Jim, was equivalent to an honorable reception. He had no doubt of his ability to make his way with "the women" who, he was fully aware, had been watching him all the time from the window.
To the women of Tom Buffum's household, a visitor was a godsend. Socially, they had lived all their lives in a state of starvation. They knew all about Jim Fenton, and had exchanged many a saucy word with him, as he had passed their house on his journeys to and from Sevenoaks.
"If you can take up with what we've got," said Mrs. Buffum suggestively.
"In course," responded Jim, "an' I can take up with what ye haven't got."
"Our accommodations is very crowded," said Mrs. Buffum.
"So is mine to home," responded Jim. "I allers sleep hangin' on a gambrel, between two slabs."
While Mr. Tom Buffum's "women" were laughing, Jim lifted off his pack, placed his rifle in the corner of the room, and sat down in front of the fire, running on with his easygoing tongue through preposterous stories, and sundry flattering allusions to the beauty and attractiveness of the women to whose hospitalities he had committed himself.
After supper, to which he did full justice, the family drew around the evening fire, and while Mr. Buffum went, or seemed to go, to sleep, in his chair, his guest did his best to entertain the minor members of the group.
"This hollerin' ye have here reminds me," said Jim, "of Number Nine. Ther's some pretty tall hollerin' thar nights. Do ye see how my ha'r sticks up? I can't keep it down. It riz one night jest about where you see it now, and it's mostly been thar ever sence. Combin' don't do no good Taller don't do no good. Nothin' don't do no good. I s'pose if Mr. Buffum, a-snorin' jest as hard as he does now, should set on it for a fortnight, it would spring right up like a staddle, with a b'ar ketched at the eend of it, jest as quick as he let up on me." At this there was a slight rumble in Mr. Buffum's throat.
"Why, what made it rise so?" inquired the most interested and eldest Miss Buffum.
"Now, ain't your purty eyes wide open?" said Jim.
"You're jest fooling; you know you are," responded Miss Buffum, blushing.
"Do ye see the ha'r on the back of my hand?" said Jim, patting one of those ample instruments with the other. "That stands up jest as it does on my head. I'm a regular hedgehog. It all happened then."
"Now, Jim Fenton, you shall go along and tell your story, and not keep us on tenter-hooks all night," said Miss Buffum sharply.
"I don't want to scare the dear little heart out o' ye," said Jim, with a killing look of his eyes, "but if ye will hear it, I s'pose I must tell ye. Ye see I'm alone purty much all the time up thar. I don't have no such times as I'm havin' here to-night, with purty gals 'round me. Well, one night I hearn a loon, or thought I hearn one. It sounded 'way off on the lake, and bimeby it come nigher, and then I thought it was a painter, but it didn't sound 'zactly like a painter. My dog Turk he don't mind such things, but he knowed it wa'r'n't a loon and wa'r'n't a painter. So he got up and went to the door, and then the yell come agin, and he set up the most un'arthly howl I ever hearn. I flung one o' my boots at 'im, but he didn't mind any thing more about it than if it had been a feather. Well, ye see, I couldn't sleep, and the skeeters was purty busy, and I thought I'd git up. So I went to my cabin door and flung it open. The moon was shinin', and the woods was still, but Turk, he rushed out, and growled and barked like mad. Bimeby he got tired, and come back lookin' kind o' skeered, and says I: 'Ye're a purty dog, ain't ye?' Jest then I hearn the thing nigher, and I begun to hear the brush crack. I knowed I'd got to meet some new sort of a creetur, and I jest stepped back and took my rifle. When I stood in the door agin, I seen somethin' comin'. It was a walkin' on two legs like a man, and it was a man, or somethin' that looked like one. He come toward the cabin, and stopped about three rod off. He had long white hair that looked jest like silk under the moon, and his robes was white, and he had somethin' in his hand that shined like silver. I jest drew up my rifle, and says I: 'Whosomever you be, stop, or I'll plug ye.' What do ye s'pose he did? He jest took that shinin' thing and swung it round and round his head, and I begun to feel the ha'r start, and up it come all over me. Then he put suthin' to his mouth, and then I knowed it was a trumpet, and he jest blowed till all the woods rung, and rung, and rung agin, and I hearn it comin' back from the mountain, louder nor it was itself. And then says I to myself: 'There's another one, and Jim Fenton's a goner;' but I didn't let on that I was skeered, and says I to him: 'That's a good deal of a toot; who be ye callin' to dinner?' And says he: 'It's the last day! Come to jedgment! I'm the Angel Gabr'el!' 'Well,' says I, 'if ye're the Angel Gabr'el, cold lead won't hurt ye, so mind yer eyes!' At that I drew a bead on 'im, and if ye'll b'lieve it, I knocked a tin horn out of his hands and picked it up the next mornin', and he went off into the woods like a streak o' lightnin'. But my ha'r hain't never come down."
Jim stroked the refractory locks toward his forehead with his huge hand, and they rose behind it like a wheat-field behind a summer wind. As he finished the manipulation, Mr. Buffum gave symptoms of life. Like a volcano under premonitory signs of an eruption, a wheezy chuckle seemed to begin somewhere in the region of his boots, and rise, growing more and more audible, until it burst into a full demonstration, that was half laugh and half cough.
"Why, what are you laughing at, father?" exclaimed Miss Buffum.
The truth was that Mr. Buffum had not slept at all. The simulation of sleep had been indulged in simply to escape the necessity of talking.
"It was old Tilden," said Mr. Buffum, and then went off into another fit of coughing and laughing that nearly strangled him.
"I wonder if it was!" seemed to come simultaneously from the lips of the mother and her daughters.
"Did you ever see him again?" inquired Mr. Buffum.
"I seen 'im oncet, in the spring, I s'pose," said Jim, "what there was left of 'im. There wasn't much left but an old shirt and some bones, an' I guess he wa'n't no great shakes of an angel. I buried 'im where I found 'im, and said nothin' to nobody."
"That's right," wheezed Mr. Buffum. "It's just as well."
"The truth is," said Mrs. Buffum, "that folks made a great fuss about his gettin' away from here and never bein' found. I thought 'twas a good riddance myself, but people seem to think that these crazy critturs are just as much consequence as any body, when they don't know a thing. He was always arter our dinner horn, and blowin', and thinkin' he was the Angel Gabriel. Well, it's a comfort to know he's buried, and isn't no more expense."
"I sh'd like to see some of these crazy people," said Jim. "They must be a jolly set. My ha'r can't stand any straighter nor it does now, and when you feed the animals in the mornin', I'd kind o' like to go round with ye."
The women insisted that he ought not to do it. Only those who understood them, and were used to them, ought to see them.
"You see, we can't give 'em much furnitur'," said Mrs. Buffum. "They break it, and they tear their beds to pieces, and all we can do is to jest keep them alive. As for keepin' their bodies and souls together, I don't s'pose they've got any souls. They are nothin' but animils, as you say, and I don't see why any body should treat an animil like a human bein.' They hav'n't no sense of what you do for 'em."
"Oh, ye needn't be afraid o' my blowin'. I never blowed about old Tilden, as you call 'im, an' I never expect to," said Jim.
"That's right," wheezed Mr. Buffum. "It's just as well."
"Well, I s'pose the Doctor'll be up in the mornin'," said Mrs. Buffum, "and we shall clean up a little, and put in new straw, and p'r'aps you can go round with him?"
Mr. Buffum nodded his assent, and after an evening spent in story-telling and chaffing, Jim went to bed upon the shakedown in an upper room to which he was conducted.