THE SPORT OF THE GODS
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
Author of "Lyrics of Lowly Life," "Poems of Cabin and Field," "Candle-Lightin' Time," "The Fanatics," etc.
Originally published in 1902
I. The Hamiltons
II. A Farewell Dinner
III. The Theft
IV. From a Clear Sky
V. The Justice of Men
VII. In New York
VIII. An Evening Out
IX. His Heart's Desire
X. A Visitor from Home
XI. Broken Hopes
XII. "All the World's a Stage"
XIII. The Oakleys
XV. "Dear, Damned, Delightful Town"
XVI. Skaggs's Theory
XVII. A Yellow Journal
XVIII. What Berry Found
Fiction has said so much in regret of the old days when there were plantations and overseers and masters and slaves, that it was good to come upon such a household as Berry Hamilton's, if for no other reason than that it afforded a relief from the monotony of tiresome iteration.
The little cottage in which he lived with his wife, Fannie, who was housekeeper to the Oakleys, and his son and daughter, Joe and Kit, sat back in the yard some hundred paces from the mansion of his employer. It was somewhat in the manner of the old cabin in the quarters, with which usage as well as tradition had made both master and servant familiar. But, unlike the cabin of the elder day, it was a neatly furnished, modern house, the home of a typical, good-living negro. For twenty years Berry Hamilton had been butler for Maurice Oakley. He was one of the many slaves who upon their accession to freedom had not left the South, but had wandered from place to place in their own beloved section, waiting, working, and struggling to rise with its rehabilitated fortunes.
The first faint signs of recovery were being seen when he came to Maurice Oakley as a servant. Through thick and thin he remained with him, and when the final upward tendency of his employer began his fortunes had increased in like manner. When, having married, Oakley bought the great house in which he now lived, he left the little servant's cottage in the yard, for, as he said laughingly, "There is no telling when Berry will be following my example and be taking a wife unto himself."
His joking prophecy came true very soon. Berry had long had a tenderness for Fannie, the housekeeper. As she retained her post under the new Mrs. Oakley, and as there was a cottage ready to his hand, it promised to be cheaper and more convenient all around to get married. Fannie was willing, and so the matter was settled.
Fannie had never regretted her choice, nor had Berry ever had cause to curse his utilitarian ideas. The stream of years had flowed pleasantly and peacefully with them. Their little sorrows had come, but their joys had been many.
As time went on, the little cottage grew in comfort. It was replenished with things handed down from "the house" from time to time and with others bought from the pair's earnings.
Berry had time for his lodge, and Fannie time to spare for her own house and garden. Flowers bloomed in the little plot in front and behind it; vegetables and greens testified to the housewife's industry.
Over the door of the little house a fine Virginia creeper bent and fell in graceful curves, and a cluster of insistent morning-glories clung in summer about its stalwart stock.
It was into this bower of peace and comfort that Joe and Kitty were born. They brought a new sunlight into the house and a new joy to the father's and mother's hearts. Their early lives were pleasant and carefully guarded. They got what schooling the town afforded, but both went to work early, Kitty helping her mother and Joe learning the trade of barber.
Kit was the delight of her mother's life. She was a pretty, cheery little thing, and could sing like a lark. Joe too was of a cheerful disposition, but from scraping the chins of aristocrats came to imbibe some of their ideas, and rather too early in life bid fair to be a dandy. But his father encouraged him, for, said he, "It 's de p'opah thing fu' a man what waits on quality to have quality mannahs an' to waih quality clothes."
"'T ain't no use to be a-humo'in' dat boy too much, Be'y," Fannie had replied, although she did fully as much "humo'in'" as her husband; "hit sho' do mek' him biggety, an' a biggety po' niggah is a 'bomination befo' de face of de Lawd; but I know 't ain't no use a-talkin' to you, fu' you plum boun' up in dat Joe."
Her own eyes would follow the boy lovingly and proudly even as she chided. She could not say very much, either, for Berry always had the reply that she was spoiling Kit out of all reason. The girl did have the prettiest clothes of any of her race in the town, and when she was to sing for the benefit of the A. M. E. church or for the benefit of her father's society, the Tribe of Benjamin, there was nothing too good for her to wear. In this too they were aided and abetted by Mrs. Oakley, who also took a lively interest in the girl.
So the two doting parents had their chats and their jokes at each other's expense and went bravely on, doing their duties and spoiling their children much as white fathers and mothers are wont to do.
What the less fortunate negroes of the community said of them and their offspring is really not worth while. Envy has a sharp tongue, and when has not the aristocrat been the target for the plebeian's sneers?
Joe and Kit were respectively eighteen and sixteen at the time when the preparations for Maurice Oakley's farewell dinner to his brother Francis were agitating the whole Hamilton household. All of them had a hand in the work: Joe had shaved the two men; Kit had helped Mrs. Oakley's maid; the mother had fretted herself weak over the shortcomings of a cook that had been in the family nearly as long as herself, while Berry was stern and dignified in anticipation of the glorious figure he was to make in serving.
When all was ready, peace again settled upon the Hamiltons. Mrs. Hamilton, in the whitest of white aprons, prepared to be on hand to annoy the cook still more; Kit was ready to station herself where she could view the finery; Joe had condescended to promise to be home in time to eat some of the good things, and Berry—Berry was gorgeous in his evening suit with the white waistcoat, as he directed the nimble waiters hither and thither.
A FAREWELL DINNER
Maurice Oakley was not a man of sudden or violent enthusiasms. Conservatism was the quality that had been the foundation of his fortunes at a time when the disruption of the country had involved most of the men of his region in ruin.
Without giving any one ground to charge him with being lukewarm or renegade to his cause, he had yet so adroitly managed his affairs that when peace came he was able quickly to recover much of the ground lost during the war. With a rare genius for adapting himself to new conditions, he accepted the changed order of things with a passive resignation, but with a stern determination to make the most out of any good that might be in it.
It was a favourite remark of his that there must be some good in every system, and it was the duty of the citizen to find out that good and make it pay. He had done this. His house, his reputation, his satisfaction, were all evidences that he had succeeded.
A childless man, he bestowed upon his younger brother, Francis, the enthusiasm he would have given to a son. His wife shared with her husband this feeling for her brother-in-law, and with him played the role of parent, which had otherwise been denied her.
It was true that Francis Oakley was only a half-brother to Maurice, the son of a second and not too fortunate marriage, but there was no halving of the love which the elder man had given to him from childhood up.
At the first intimation that Francis had artistic ability, his brother had placed him under the best masters in America, and later, when the promise of his youth had begun to blossom, he sent him to Paris, although the expenditure just at that time demanded a sacrifice which might have been the ruin of Maurice's own career. Francis's promise had never come to entire fulfilment. He was always trembling on the verge of a great success without quite plunging into it. Despite the joy which his presence gave his brother and sister-in-law, most of his time was spent abroad, where he could find just the atmosphere that suited his delicate, artistic nature. After a visit of two months he was about returning to Paris for a stay of five years. At last he was going to apply himself steadily and try to be less the dilettante.
The company which Maurice Oakley brought together to say good-bye to his brother on this occasion was drawn from the best that this fine old Southern town afforded. There were colonels there at whose titles and the owners' rights to them no one could laugh; there were brilliant women there who had queened it in Richmond, Baltimore, Louisville, and New Orleans, and every Southern capital under the old regime, and there were younger ones there of wit and beauty who were just beginning to hold their court. For Francis was a great favourite both with men and women. He was a handsome man, tall, slender, and graceful. He had the face and brow of a poet, a pallid face framed in a mass of dark hair. There was a touch of weakness in his mouth, but this was shaded and half hidden by a full mustache that made much forgivable to beauty-loving eyes.
It was generally conceded that Mrs. Oakley was a hostess whose guests had no awkward half-hour before dinner. No praise could be higher than this, and to-night she had no need to exert herself to maintain this reputation. Her brother-in-law was the life of the assembly; he had wit and daring, and about him there was just that hint of charming danger that made him irresistible to women. The guests heard the dinner announced with surprise,—an unusual thing, except in this house.
Both Maurice Oakley and his wife looked fondly at the artist as he went in with Claire Lessing. He was talking animatedly to the girl, having changed the general trend of the conversation to a manner and tone directed more particularly to her. While she listened to him, her face glowed and her eyes shone with a light that every man could not bring into them.
As Maurice and his wife followed him with their gaze, the same thought was in their minds, and it had not just come to them, Why could not Francis marry Claire Lessing and settle in America, instead of going back ever and again to that life in the Latin Quarter? They did not believe that it was a bad life or a dissipated one, but from the little that they had seen of it when they were in Paris, it was at least a bit too free and unconventional for their traditions. There were, too, temptations which must assail any man of Francis's looks and talents. They had perfect faith in the strength of his manhood, of course; but could they have had their way, it would have been their will to hedge him about so that no breath of evil invitation could have come nigh to him.
But this younger brother, this half ward of theirs, was an unruly member. He talked and laughed, rode and walked, with Claire Lessing with the same free abandon, the same show of uninterested good comradeship, that he had used towards her when they were boy and girl together. There was not a shade more of warmth or self-consciousness in his manner towards her than there had been fifteen years before. In fact, there was less, for there had been a time, when he was six and Claire three, that Francis, with a boldness that the lover of maturer years tries vainly to attain, had announced to Claire that he was going to marry her. But he had never renewed this declaration when it came time that it would carry weight with it.
They made a fine picture as they sat together to-night. One seeing them could hardly help thinking on the instant that they were made for each other. Something in the woman's face, in her expression perhaps, supplied a palpable lack in the man. The strength of her mouth and chin helped the weakness of his. She was the sort of woman who, if ever he came to a great moral crisis in his life, would be able to save him if she were near. And yet he was going away from her, giving up the pearl that he had only to put out his hand to take.
Some of these thoughts were in the minds of the brother and sister now.
"Five years does seem a long while," Francis was saying, "but if a man accomplishes anything, after all, it seems only a short time to look back upon."
"All time is short to look back upon. It is the looking forward to it that counts. It does n't, though, with a man, I suppose. He's doing something all the while."
"Yes, a man is always doing something, even if only waiting; but waiting is such unheroic business."
"That is the part that usually falls to a woman's lot. I have no doubt that some dark-eyed mademoiselle is waiting for you now."
Francis laughed and flushed hotly. Claire noted the flush and wondered at it. Had she indeed hit upon the real point? Was that the reason that he was so anxious to get back to Paris? The thought struck a chill through her gaiety. She did not want to be suspicious, but what was the cause of that tell-tale flush? He was not a man easily disconcerted; then why so to-night? But her companion talked on with such innocent composure that she believed herself mistaken as to the reason for his momentary confusion.
Someone cried gayly across the table to her: "Oh, Miss Claire, you will not dare to talk with such little awe to our friend when he comes back with his ribbons and his medals. Why, we shall all have to bow to you, Frank!"
"You 're wronging me, Esterton," said Francis. "No foreign decoration could ever be to me as much as the flower of approval from the fair women of my own State."
"Hear!" cried the ladies.
"Trust artists and poets to pay pretty compliments, and this wily friend of mine pays his at my expense."
"A good bit of generalship, that, Frank," an old military man broke in. "Esterton opened the breach and you at once galloped in. That 's the highest art of war."
Claire was looking at her companion. Had he meant the approval of the women, or was it one woman that he cared for? Had the speech had a hidden meaning for her? She could never tell. She could not understand this man who had been so much to her for so long, and yet did not seem to know it; who was full of romance and fire and passion, and yet looked at her beauty with the eyes of a mere comrade. She sighed as she rose with the rest of the women to leave the table.
The men lingered over their cigars. The wine was old and the stories new. What more could they ask? There was a strong glow in Francis Oakley's face, and his laugh was frequent and ringing. Some discussion came up which sent him running up to his room for a bit of evidence. When he came down it was not to come directly to the dining-room. He paused in the hall and despatched a servant to bring his brother to him.
Maurice found him standing weakly against the railing of the stairs. Something in his air impressed his brother strangely.
"What is it, Francis?" he questioned, hurrying to him.
"I have just discovered a considerable loss," was the reply in a grieved voice.
"If it is no worse than loss, I am glad; but what is it?"
"Every cent of money that I had to secure my letter of credit is gone from my bureau."
"What? When did it disappear?"
"I went to my bureau to-night for something and found the money gone; then I remembered that when I opened it two days ago I must have left the key in the lock, as I found it to-night."
"It 's a bad business, but don't let 's talk of it now. Come, let 's go back to our guests. Don't look so cut up about it, Frank, old man. It is n't as bad as it might be, and you must n't show a gloomy face to-night."
The younger man pulled himself together, and re-entered the room with his brother. In a few minutes his gaiety had apparently returned.
When they rejoined the ladies, even their quick eyes could detect in his demeanour no trace of the annoying thing that had occurred. His face did not change until, with a wealth of fervent congratulations, he had bade the last guest good-bye.
Then he turned to his brother. "When Leslie is in bed, come into the library. I will wait for you there," he said, and walked sadly away.
"Poor, foolish Frank," mused his brother, "as if the loss could matter to him."
Frank was very pale when his brother finally came to him at the appointed place. He sat limply in his chair, his eyes fixed upon the floor.
"Come, brace up now, Frank, and tell me about it."
At the sound of his brother's voice he started and looked up as though he had been dreaming.
"I don't know what you 'll think of me, Maurice," he said; "I have never before been guilty of such criminal carelessness."
"Don't stop to accuse yourself. Our only hope in this matter lies in prompt action. Where was the money?"
"In the oak cabinet and lying in the bureau drawer. Such a thing as a theft seemed so foreign to this place that I was never very particular about the box. But I did not know until I went to it to-night that the last time I had opened it I had forgotten to take the key out. It all flashed over me in a second when I saw it shining there. Even then I did n't suspect anything. You don't know how I felt to open that cabinet and find all my money gone. It 's awful."
"Don't worry. How much was there in all?"
"Nine hundred and eighty-six dollars, most of which, I am ashamed to say, I had accepted from you."
"You have no right to talk that way, Frank; you know I do not begrudge a cent you want. I have never felt that my father did quite right in leaving me the bulk of the fortune; but we won't discuss that now. What I want you to understand, though, is that the money is yours as well as mine, and you are always welcome to it."
The artist shook his head. "No, Maurice," he said, "I can accept no more from you. I have already used up all my own money and too much of yours in this hopeless fight. I don't suppose I was ever cut out for an artist, or I 'd have done something really notable in this time, and would not be a burden upon those who care for me. No, I 'll give up going to Paris and find some work to do."
"Frank, Frank, be silent. This is nonsense, Give up your art? You shall not do it. You shall go to Paris as usual. Leslie and I have perfect faith in you. You shall not give up on account of this misfortune. What are the few paltry dollars to me or to you?"
"Nothing, nothing, I know. It is n't the money, it 's the principle of the thing."
"Principle be hanged! You go back to Paris to-morrow, just as you had planned. I do not ask it, I command it."
The younger man looked up quickly.
"Pardon me, Frank, for using those words and at such a time. You know how near my heart your success lies, and to hear you talk of giving it all up makes me forget myself. Forgive me, but you 'll go back, won't you?"
"You are too good, Maurice," said Frank impulsively, "and I will go back, and I 'll try to redeem myself."
"There is no redeeming of yourself to do, my dear boy; all you have to do is to mature yourself. We 'll have a detective down and see what we can do in this matter."
Frank gave a scarcely perceptible start. "I do so hate such things," he said; "and, anyway, what 's the use? They 'll never find out where the stuff went to."
"Oh, you need not be troubled in this matter. I know that such things must jar on your delicate nature. But I am a plain hard-headed business man, and I can attend to it without distaste."
"But I hate to shove everything unpleasant off on you, It 's what I 've been doing all my life."
"Never mind that. Now tell me, who was the last person you remember in your room?"
"Oh, Esterton was up there awhile before dinner. But he was not alone two minutes."
"Why, he would be out of the question anyway. Who else?"
"Hamilton was up yesterday."
"Yes, for a while. His boy, Joe, shaved me, and Jack was up for a while brushing my clothes."
"Then it lies between Jack and Joe?"
"Neither one was left alone, though."
"Then only Hamilton and Esterton have been alone for any time in your room since you left the key in your cabinet?"
"Those are the only ones of whom I know anything. What others went in during the day, of course, I know nothing about. It could n't have been either Esterton or Hamilton."
"Not Esterton, no."
"And Hamilton is beyond suspicion."
"No servant is beyond suspicion."
"I would trust Hamilton anywhere," said Frank stoutly, "and with anything."
"That 's noble of you, Frank, and I would have done the same, but we must remember that we are not in the old days now. The negroes are becoming less faithful and less contented, and more 's the pity, and a deal more ambitious, although I have never had any unfaithfulness on the part of Hamilton to complain of before."
"Then do not condemn him now."
"I shall not condemn any one until I have proof positive of his guilt or such clear circumstantial evidence that my reason is satisfied."
"I do not believe that you will ever have that against old Hamilton."
"This spirit of trust does you credit, Frank, and I very much hope that you may be right. But as soon as a negro like Hamilton learns the value of money and begins to earn it, at the same time he begins to covet some easy and rapid way of securing it. The old negro knew nothing of the value of money. When he stole, he stole hams and bacon and chickens. These were his immediate necessities and the things he valued. The present laughs at this tendency without knowing the cause. The present negro resents the laugh, and he has learned to value other things than those which satisfy his belly."
Frank looked bored.
"But pardon me for boring you. I know you want to go to bed. Go and leave everything to me."
The young man reluctantly withdrew, and Maurice went to the telephone and rung up the police station.
As Maurice had said, he was a plain, hard-headed business man, and it took very few words for him to put the Chief of Police in possession of the principal facts of the case. A detective was detailed to take charge of the case, and was started immediately, so that he might be upon the ground as soon after the commission of the crime as possible.
When he came he insisted that if he was to do anything he must question the robbed man and search his room at once. Oakley protested, but the detective was adamant. Even now the presence in the room of a man uninitiated into the mysteries of criminal methods might be destroying the last vestige of a really important clue. The master of the house had no alternative save to yield. Together they went to the artist's room. A light shone out through the crack under the door.
"I am sorry to disturb you again, Frank, but may we come in?"
"Who is with you?"
"I did not know he was to come to-night."
"The chief thought it better."
"All right in a moment."
There was a sound of moving around, and in a short time the young fellow, partly undressed, opened the door.
To the detective's questions he answered in substance what he had told before. He also brought out the cabinet. It was a strong oak box, uncarven, but bound at the edges with brass. The key was still in the lock, where Frank had left it on discovering his loss. They raised the lid. The cabinet contained two compartments, one for letters and a smaller one for jewels and trinkets.
"When you opened this cabinet, your money was gone?"
"Were any of your papers touched?"
"How about your jewels?"
"I have but few and they were elsewhere."
The detective examined the room carefully, its approaches, and the hall-ways without. He paused knowingly at a window that overlooked the flat top of a porch.
"Do you ever leave this window open?"
"It is almost always so."
"Is this porch on the front of the house?"
"No, on the side."
"What else is out that way?"
Frank and Maurice looked at each other. The younger man hesitated and put his hand to his head. Maurice answered grimly, "My butler's cottage is on that side and a little way back."
"Uh huh! and your butler is, I believe, the Hamilton whom the young gentleman mentioned some time ago."
Frank's face was really very white now. The detective nodded again.
"I think I have a clue," he said simply. "I will be here again to-morrow morning."
"But I shall be gone," said Frank.
"You will hardly be needed, anyway."
The artist gave a sigh of relief. He hated to be involved in unpleasant things. He went as far as the outer door with his brother and the detective. As he bade the officer good-night and hurried up the hall, Frank put his hand to his head again with a convulsive gesture, as if struck by a sudden pain.
"Come, come, Frank, you must take a drink now and go to bed," said Oakley.
"I am completely unnerved."
"I know it, and I am no less shocked than you. But we 've got to face it like men."
They passed into the dining-room, where Maurice poured out some brandy for his brother and himself. "Who would have thought it?" he asked, as he tossed his own down.
"Not I. I had hoped against hope up until the last that it would turn out to be a mistake."
"Nothing angers me so much as being deceived by the man I have helped and trusted. I should feel the sting of all this much less if the thief had come from the outside, broken in, and robbed me, but this, after all these years, is too low."
"Don't be hard on a man, Maurice; one never knows what prompts him to a deed. And this evidence is all circumstantial."
"It is plain enough for me. You are entirely too kind-hearted, Frank. But I see that this thing has worn you out. You must not stand here talking. Go to bed, for you must be fresh for to-morrow morning's journey to New York."
Frank Oakley turned away towards his room. His face was haggard, and he staggered as he walked. His brother looked after him with a pitying and affectionate gaze.
"Poor fellow," he said, "he is so delicately constructed that he cannot stand such shocks as these;" and then he added: "To think of that black hound's treachery! I 'll give him all that the law sets down for him."
He found Mrs. Oakley asleep when he reached the room, but he awakened her to tell her the story. She was horror-struck. It was hard to have to believe this awful thing of an old servant, but she agreed with him that Hamilton must be made an example of when the time came. Before that, however, he must not know that he was suspected.
They fell asleep, he with thoughts of anger and revenge, and she grieved and disappointed.
FROM A CLEAR SKY
The inmates of the Oakley house had not been long in their beds before Hamilton was out of his and rousing his own little household.
"You, Joe," he called to his son, "git up f'om daih an' come right hyeah. You got to he'p me befo' you go to any shop dis mo'nin'. You, Kitty, stir yo' stumps, miss. I know yo' ma 's a-dressin' now. Ef she ain't, I bet I 'll be aftah huh in a minute, too. You all layin' 'roun', snoozin' w'en you all des' pint'ly know dis is de mo'nin' Mistah Frank go 'way f'om hyeah."
It was a cool Autumn morning, fresh and dew-washed. The sun was just rising, and a cool clear breeze was blowing across the land. The blue smoke from the "house," where the fire was already going, whirled fantastically over the roofs like a belated ghost. It was just the morning to doze in comfort, and so thought all of Berry's household except himself. Loud was the complaining as they threw themselves out of bed. They maintained that it was an altogether unearthly hour to get up. Even Mrs. Hamilton added her protest, until she suddenly remembered what morning it was, when she hurried into her clothes and set about getting the family's breakfast.
The good-humour of all of them returned when they were seated about their table with some of the good things of the night before set out, and the talk ran cheerily around.
"I do declaih," said Hamilton, "you all 's as bad as dem white people was las' night. De way dey waded into dat food was a caution." He chuckled with delight at the recollection.
"I reckon dat 's what dey come fu'. I was n't payin' so much 'tention to what dey eat as to de way dem women was dressed. Why, Mis' Jedge Hill was des' mo'n go'geous."
"Oh, yes, ma, an' Miss Lessing was n't no ways behin' her," put in Kitty.
Joe did not condescend to join in the conversation, but contented himself with devouring the good things and aping the manners of the young men whom he knew had been among last night's guests.
"Well, I got to be goin'," said Berry, rising. "There 'll be early breakfas' at de 'house' dis mo'nin', so 's Mistah Frank kin ketch de fus' train."
He went out cheerily to his work. No shadow of impending disaster depressed his spirits. No cloud obscured his sky. He was a simple, easy man, and he saw nothing in the manner of the people whom he served that morning at breakfast save a natural grief at parting from each other. He did not even take the trouble to inquire who the strange white man was who hung about the place.
When it came time for the young man to leave, with the privilege of an old servitor Berry went up to him to bid him good-bye. He held out his hand to him, and with a glance at his brother, Frank took it and shook it cordially. "Good-bye, Berry," he said. Maurice could hardly restrain his anger at the sight, but his wife was moved to tears at her brother-in-law's generosity.
The last sight they saw as the carriage rolled away towards the station was Berry standing upon the steps waving a hearty farewell and god-speed.
"How could you do it, Frank?" gasped his brother, as soon as they had driven well out of hearing.
"Hush, Maurice," said Mrs. Oakley gently; "I think it was very noble of him."
"Oh, I felt sorry for the poor fellow," was Frank's reply. "Promise me you won't be too hard on him, Maurice. Give him a little scare and let him go. He 's possibly buried the money, anyhow."
"I shall deal with him as he deserves."
The young man sighed and was silent the rest of the way.
"Whether I fail or succeed, you will always think well of me, Maurice?" he said in parting; "and if I don't come up to your expectations, well—forgive me—that 's all."
His brother wrung his hand. "You will always come up to my expectations, Frank," he said. "Won't he, Leslie?"
"He will always be our Frank, our good, generous-hearted, noble boy. God bless him!"
The young fellow bade them a hearty good-bye, and they, knowing what his feelings must be, spared him the prolonging of the strain. They waited in the carriage, and he waved to them as the train rolled out of the station.
"He seems to be sad at going," said Mrs. Oakley.
"Poor fellow, the affair of last night has broken him up considerably, but I 'll make Berry pay for every pang of anxiety that my brother has suffered."
"Don't be revengeful, Maurice; you know what brother Frank asked of you."
"He is gone and will never know what happens, so I may be as revengeful as I wish."
The detective was waiting on the lawn when Maurice Oakley returned. They went immediately to the library, Oakley walking with the firm, hard tread of a man who is both exasperated and determined, and the officer gliding along with the cat-like step which is one of the attributes of his profession.
"Well?" was the impatient man's question as soon as the door closed upon them.
"I have some more information that may or may not be of importance."
"Out with it; maybe I can tell."
"First, let me ask if you had any reason to believe that your butler had any resources of his own, say to the amount of three or four hundred dollars?"
"Certainly not. I pay him thirty dollars a month, and his wife fifteen dollars, and with keeping up his lodges and the way he dresses that girl, he can't save very much."
"You know that he has money in the bank?"
"Well, he has. Over eight hundred dollars."
"What? Berry? It must be the pickings of years."
"And yesterday it was increased by five hundred more."
"How was your brother's money, in bills?"
"It was in large bills and gold, with some silver."
"Berry's money was almost all in bills of a small denomination and silver."
"A poor trick; it could easily have been changed."
"Not such a sum without exciting comment."
"He may have gone to several places."
"But he had only a day to do it in."
"Then some one must have been his accomplice."
"That remains to be proven."
"Nothing remains to be proven. Why, it 's as clear as day that the money he has is the result of a long series of peculations, and that this last is the result of his first large theft."
"That must be made clear to the law."
"It shall be."
"I should advise, though, no open proceedings against this servant until further evidence to establish his guilt is found."
"If the evidence satisfies me, it must be sufficient to satisfy any ordinary jury. I demand his immediate arrest."
"As you will, sir. Will you have him called here and question him, or will you let me question him at once?"
Oakley struck the bell, and Berry himself answered it.
"You 're just the man we want," said Oakley, shortly.
Berry looked astonished.
"Shall I question him," asked the officer, "or will you?"
"I will. Berry, you deposited five hundred dollars at the bank yesterday?"
"Well, suh, Mistah Oakley," was the grinning reply, "ef you ain't de beatenes' man to fin' out things I evah seen."
The employer half rose from his chair. His face was livid with anger. But at a sign from the detective he strove to calm himself.
"You had better let me talk to Berry, Mr. Oakley," said the officer.
Oakley nodded. Berry was looking distressed and excited. He seemed not to understand it at all.
"Berry," the officer pursued, "you admit having deposited five hundred dollars in the bank yesterday?"
"Sut'ny. Dey ain't no reason why I should n't admit it, 'ceptin' erroun' ermong dese jealous niggahs."
"Uh huh! well, now, where did you get this money?"
"Why, I wo'ked fu' it, o' co'se, whaih you s'pose I got it? 'T ain't drappin' off trees, I reckon, not roun' dis pa't of de country."
"You worked for it? You must have done a pretty big job to have got so much money all in a lump?"
"But I did n't git it in a lump. Why, man, I 've been savin' dat money fu mo'n fo' yeahs."
"More than four years? Why did n't you put it in the bank as you got it?"
"Why, mos'ly it was too small, an' so I des' kep' it in a ol' sock. I tol' Fannie dat some day ef de bank did n't bus' wid all de res' I had, I 'd put it in too. She was allus sayin' it was too much to have layin' 'roun' de house. But I des' tol' huh dat no robber was n't goin' to bothah de po' niggah down in de ya'd wid de rich white man up at de house. But fin'lly I listened to huh an' sposited it yistiddy."
"You 're a liar! you 're a liar, you black thief!" Oakley broke in impetuously. "You have learned your lesson well, but you can't cheat me. I know where that money came from."
"Calm yourself, Mr. Oakley, calm yourself."
"I will not calm myself. Take him away. He shall not stand here and lie to me."
Berry had suddenly turned ashen.
"You say you know whaih dat money come f'om? Whaih?"
"You stole it, you thief, from my brother Frank's room."
"Stole it! My Gawd, Mistah Oakley, you believed a thing lak dat aftah all de yeahs I been wid you?"
"You 've been stealing all along."
"Why, what shell I do?" said the servant helplessly. "I tell you, Mistah Oakley, ask Fannie. She 'll know how long I been a-savin' dis money."
"I 'll ask no one."
"I think it would be better to call his wife, Oakley."
"Well, call her, but let this matter be done with soon."
Fannie was summoned, and when the matter was explained to her, first gave evidences of giving way to grief, but when the detective began to question her, she calmed herself and answered directly just as her husband had.
"Well posted," sneered Oakley. "Arrest that man."
Berry had begun to look more hopeful during Fannie's recital, but now the ashen look came back into his face. At the word "arrest" his wife collapsed utterly, and sobbed on her husband's shoulder.
"Send the woman away."
"I won't go," cried Fannie stoutly; "I 'll stay right hyeah by my husband. You sha'n't drive me away f'om him."
Berry turned to his employer. "You b'lieve dat I stole f'om dis house aftah all de yeahs I 've been in it, aftah de caih I took of yo' money an' yo' valybles, aftah de way I 've put you to bed f'om many a dinnah, an' you woke up to fin' all yo' money safe? Now, can you b'lieve dis?"
His voice broke, and he ended with a cry.
"Yes, I believe it, you thief, yes. Take him away."
Berry's eyes were bloodshot as he replied, "Den, damn you! damn you! ef dat 's all dese yeahs counted fu', I wish I had a-stoled it."
Oakley made a step forward, and his man did likewise, but the officer stepped between them.
"Take that damned hound away, or, by God! I 'll do him violence!"
The two men stood fiercely facing each other, then the handcuffs were snapped on the servant's wrist.
"No, no," shrieked Fannie, "you must n't, you must n't. Oh, my Gawd! he ain 't no thief. I 'll go to Mis' Oakley. She nevah will believe it." She sped from the room.
The commotion had called a crowd of curious servants into the hall. Fannie hardly saw them as she dashed among them, crying for her mistress. In a moment she returned, dragging Mrs. Oakley by the hand.
"Tell 'em, oh, tell 'em, Miss Leslie, dat you don't believe it. Don't let 'em 'rest Berry."
"Why, Fannie, I can't do anything. It all seems perfectly plain, and Mr. Oakley knows better than any of us, you know."
Fannie, her last hope gone, flung herself on the floor, crying, "O Gawd! O Gawd! he 's gone fu' sho'!"
Her husband bent over her, the tears dropping from his eyes. "Nevah min', Fannie," he said, "nevah min'. Hit 's boun' to come out all right."
She raised her head, and seizing his manacled hands pressed them to her breast, wailing in a low monotone, "Gone! gone!"
They disengaged her hands, and led Berry away.
"Take her out," said Oakley sternly to the servants; and they lifted her up and carried her away in a sort of dumb stupor that was half a swoon.
They took her to her little cottage, and laid her down until she could come to herself and the full horror of her situation burst upon her.
THE JUSTICE OF MEN
The arrest of Berry Hamilton on the charge preferred by his employer was the cause of unusual commotion in the town. Both the accuser and the accused were well known to the citizens, white and black,—Maurice Oakley as a solid man of business, and Berry as an honest, sensible negro, and the pink of good servants. The evening papers had a full story of the crime, which closed by saying that the prisoner had amassed a considerable sum of money, it was very likely from a long series of smaller peculations.
It seems a strange irony upon the force of right living, that this man, who had never been arrested before, who had never even been suspected of wrong-doing, should find so few who even at the first telling doubted the story of his guilt. Many people began to remember things that had looked particularly suspicious in his dealings. Some others said, "I did n't think it of him." There were only a few who dared to say, "I don't believe it of him."
The first act of his lodge, "The Tribe of Benjamin," whose treasurer he was, was to have his accounts audited, when they should have been visiting him with comfort, and they seemed personally grieved when his books were found to be straight. The A. M. E. church, of which he had been an honest and active member, hastened to disavow sympathy with him, and to purge itself of contamination by turning him out. His friends were afraid to visit him and were silent when his enemies gloated. On every side one might have asked, Where is charity? and gone away empty.
In the black people of the town the strong influence of slavery was still operative, and with one accord they turned away from one of their own kind upon whom had been set the ban of the white people's displeasure. If they had sympathy, they dared not show it. Their own interests, the safety of their own positions and firesides, demanded that they stand aloof from the criminal. Not then, not now, nor has it ever been true, although it has been claimed, that negroes either harbour or sympathise with the criminal of their kind. They did not dare to do it before the sixties. They do not dare to do it now. They have brought down as a heritage from the days of their bondage both fear and disloyalty. So Berry was unbefriended while the storm raged around him. The cell where they had placed him was kind to him, and he could not hear the envious and sneering comments that went on about him. This was kind, for the tongues of his enemies were not.
"Tell me, tell me," said one, "you need n't tell me dat a bird kin fly so high dat he don' have to come down some time. An' w'en he do light, honey, my Lawd, how he flop!"
"Mistah Rich Niggah," said another. "He wanted to dress his wife an' chillen lak white folks, did he? Well, he foun' out, he foun' out. By de time de jedge git thoo wid him he won't be hol'in' his haid so high."
"Wy, dat gal o' his'n," broke in old Isaac Brown indignantly, "w'y, she would n' speak to my gal, Minty, when she met huh on de street. I reckon she come down off'n huh high hoss now."
The fact of the matter was that Minty Brown was no better than she should have been, and did not deserve to be spoken to. But none of this was taken into account either by the speaker or the hearers. The man was down, it was time to strike.
The women too joined their shrill voices to the general cry, and were loud in their abuse of the Hamiltons and in disparagement of their high-toned airs.
"I knowed it, I knowed it," mumbled one old crone, rolling her bleared and jealous eyes with glee. "W'enevah you see niggahs gittin' so high dat dey own folks ain' good enough fu' 'em, look out."
"W'y, la, Aunt Chloe I knowed it too. Dem people got so owdacious proud dat dey would n't walk up to de collection table no mo' at chu'ch, but allus set an' waited twell de basket was passed erroun'."
"Hit 's de livin' trufe, an' I 's been seein' it all 'long. I ain't said nuffin', but I knowed what 'uz gwine to happen. Ol' Chloe ain't lived all dese yeahs fu' nuffin', an' ef she got de gif' o' secon' sight, 't ain't fu' huh to say."
The women suddenly became interested in this half assertion, and the old hag, seeing that she had made the desired impression, lapsed into silence.
The whites were not neglecting to review and comment on the case also. It had been long since so great a bit of wrong-doing in a negro had given them cause for speculation and recrimination.
"I tell you," said old Horace Talbot, who was noted for his kindliness towards people of colour, "I tell you, I pity that darky more than I blame him. Now, here 's my theory." They were in the bar of the Continental Hotel, and the old gentleman sipped his liquor as he talked. "It 's just like this: The North thought they were doing a great thing when they come down here and freed all the slaves. They thought they were doing a great thing, and I 'm not saying a word against them. I give them the credit for having the courage of their convictions. But I maintain that they were all wrong, now, in turning these people loose upon the country the way they did, without knowledge of what the first principle of liberty was. The natural result is that these people are irresponsible. They are unacquainted with the ways of our higher civilisation, and it 'll take them a long time to learn. You know Rome was n't built in a day. I know Berry, and I 've known him for a long while, and a politer, likelier darky than him you would have to go far to find. And I have n't the least doubt in the world that he took that money absolutely without a thought of wrong, sir, absolutely. He saw it. He took it, and to his mental process, that was the end of it. To him there was no injury inflicted on any one, there was no crime committed. His elemental reasoning was simply this: This man has more money than I have; here is some of his surplus,—I 'll just take it. Why, gentlemen, I maintain that that man took that money with the same innocence of purpose with which one of our servants a few years ago would have appropriated a stray ham."
"I disagree with you entirely, Mr. Talbot," broke in Mr. Beachfield Davis, who was a mighty hunter.—"Make mine the same, Jerry, only add a little syrup.—I disagree with you. It 's simply total depravity, that 's all. All niggers are alike, and there 's no use trying to do anything with them. Look at that man, Dodson, of mine. I had one of the finest young hounds in the State. You know that white pup of mine, Mr. Talbot, that I bought from Hiram Gaskins? Mighty fine breed. Well, I was spendin' all my time and patience trainin' that dog in the daytime. At night I put him in that nigger's care to feed and bed. Well, do you know, I came home the other night and found that black rascal gone? I went out to see if the dog was properly bedded, and by Jove, the dog was gone too. Then I got suspicious. When a nigger and a dog go out together at night, one draws certain conclusions. I thought I had heard bayin' way out towards the edge of the town. So I stayed outside and watched. In about an hour here came Dodson with a possum hung over his shoulder and my dog trottin' at his heels. He 'd been possum huntin' with my hound—with the finest hound in the State, sir. Now, I appeal to you all, gentlemen, if that ain't total depravity, what is total depravity?"
"Not total depravity, Beachfield, I maintain, but the very irresponsibility of which I have spoken. Why, gentlemen, I foresee the day when these people themselves shall come to us Southerners of their own accord and ask to be re-enslaved until such time as they shall be fit for freedom." Old Horace was nothing if not logical.
"Well, do you think there 's any doubt of the darky's guilt?" asked Colonel Saunders hesitatingly. He was the only man who had ever thought of such a possibility. They turned on him as if he had been some strange, unnatural animal.
"Any doubt!" cried Old Horace.
"Any doubt!" exclaimed Mr. Davis.
"Any doubt?" almost shrieked the rest. "Why, there can be no doubt. Why, Colonel, what are you thinking of? Tell us who has got the money if he has n't? Tell us where on earth the nigger got the money he 's been putting in the bank? Doubt? Why, there is n't the least doubt about it."
"Certainly, certainly," said the Colonel, "but I thought, of course, he might have saved it. There are several of those people, you know, who do a little business and have bank accounts."
"Yes, but they are in some sort of business. This man makes only thirty dollars a month. Don't you see?"
The Colonel saw, or said he did. And he did not answer what he might have answered, that Berry had no rent and no board to pay. His clothes came from his master, and Kitty and Fannie looked to their mistress for the larger number of their supplies. He did not call to their minds that Fannie herself made fifteen dollars a month, and that for two years Joe had been supporting himself. These things did not come up, and as far as the opinion of the gentlemen assembled in the Continental bar went, Berry was already proven guilty.
As for the prisoner himself, after the first day when he had pleaded "Not guilty" and been bound over to the Grand Jury, he had fallen into a sort of dazed calm that was like the stupor produced by a drug. He took little heed of what went on around him. The shock had been too sudden for him, and it was as if his reason had been for the time unseated. That it was not permanently overthrown was evidenced by his waking to the most acute pain and grief whenever Fannie came to him. Then he would toss and moan and give vent to his sorrow in passionate complaints.
"I did n't tech his money, Fannie, you know I did n't. I wo'ked fu' every cent of dat money, an' I saved it myself. Oh, I 'll nevah be able to git a job ag'in. Me in de lock-up—me, aftah all dese yeahs!"
Beyond this, apparently, his mind could not go. That his detention was anything more than temporary never seemed to enter his mind. That he would be convicted and sentenced was as far from possibility as the skies from the earth. If he saw visions of a long sojourn in prison, it was only as a nightmare half consciously experienced and which with the struggle must give way before the waking.
Fannie was utterly hopeless. She had laid down whatever pride had been hers and gone to plead with Maurice Oakley for her husband's freedom, and she had seen his hard, set face. She had gone upon her knees before his wife to cite Berry's long fidelity.
"Oh, Mis' Oakley," she cried, "ef he did steal de money, we 've got enough saved to mek it good. Let him go! let him go!"
"Then you admit that he did steal?" Mrs. Oakley had taken her up sharply.
"Oh, I did n't say dat; I did n't mean dat."
"That will do, Fannie. I understand perfectly. You should have confessed that long ago."
"But I ain't confessin'! I ain't! He did n't——"
"You may go."
The stricken woman reeled out of her mistress's presence, and Mrs. Oakley told her husband that night, with tears in her eyes, how disappointed she was with Fannie,—that the woman had known it all along, and had only just confessed. It was just one more link in the chain that was surely and not too slowly forging itself about Berry Hamilton.
Of all the family Joe was the only one who burned with a fierce indignation. He knew that his father was innocent, and his very helplessness made a fever in his soul. Dandy as he was, he was loyal, and when he saw his mother's tears and his sister's shame, something rose within him that had it been given play might have made a man of him, but, being crushed, died and rotted, and in the compost it made all the evil of his nature flourished. The looks and gibes of his fellow-employees at the barber-shop forced him to leave his work there. Kit, bowed with shame and grief, dared not appear upon the streets, where the girls who had envied her now hooted at her. So the little family was shut in upon itself away from fellowship and sympathy.
Joe went seldom to see his father. He was not heartless; but the citadel of his long desired and much vaunted manhood trembled before the sight of his father's abject misery. The lines came round his lips, and lines too must have come round his heart. Poor fellow, he was too young for this forcing process, and in the hot-house of pain he only grew an acrid, unripe cynic.
At the sitting of the Grand Jury Berry was indicted. His trial followed soon, and the town turned out to see it. Some came to laugh and scoff, but these, his enemies, were silenced by the spectacle of his grief. In vain the lawyer whom he had secured showed that the evidence against him proved nothing. In vain he produced proof of the slow accumulation of what the man had. In vain he pleaded the man's former good name. The judge and the jury saw otherwise. Berry was convicted. He was given ten years at hard labour.
He hardly looked as if he could live out one as he heard his sentence. But Nature was kind and relieved him of the strain. With a cry as if his heart were bursting, he started up and fell forward on his face unconscious. Some one, a bit more brutal than the rest, said, "It 's five dollars' fine every time a nigger faints," but no one laughed. There was something too portentous, too tragic in the degradation of this man.
Maurice Oakley sat in the court-room, grim and relentless. As soon as the trial was over, he sent for Fannie, who still kept the cottage in the yard.
"You must go," he said. "You can't stay here any longer. I want none of your breed about me."
And Fannie bowed her head and went away from him in silence.
All the night long the women of the Hamilton household lay in bed and wept, clinging to each other in their grief. But Joe did not go to sleep. Against all their entreaties, he stayed up. He put out the light and sat staring into the gloom with hard, burning eyes.
What particularly irritated Maurice Oakley was that Berry should to the very last keep up his claim of innocence. He reiterated it to the very moment that the train which was bearing him away pulled out of the station. There had seldom been seen such an example of criminal hardihood, and Oakley was hardened thereby to greater severity in dealing with the convict's wife. He began to urge her more strongly to move, and she, dispirited and humiliated by what had come to her, looked vainly about for the way to satisfy his demands. With her natural protector gone, she felt more weak and helpless than she had thought it possible to feel. It was hard enough to face the world. But to have to ask something of it was almost more than she could bear.
With the conviction of her husband the last five hundred dollars had been confiscated as belonging to the stolen money, but their former deposit remained untouched. With this she had the means at her disposal to tide over their present days of misfortune. It was not money she lacked, but confidence. Some inkling of the world's attitude towards her, guiltless though she was, reached her and made her afraid.
Her desperation, however, would not let her give way to fear, so she set forth to look for another house. Joe and Kit saw her go as if she were starting on an expedition into a strange country. In all their lives they had known no home save the little cottage in Oakley's yard. Here they had toddled as babies and played as children and been happy and care-free. There had been times when they had complained and wanted a home off by themselves, like others whom they knew. They had not failed, either, to draw unpleasant comparisons between their mode of life and the old plantation quarters system. But now all this was forgotten, and there were only grief and anxiety that they must leave the place and in such a way.
Fannie went out with little hope in her heart, and a short while after she was gone Joe decided to follow her and make an attempt to get work.
"I 'll go an' see what I kin do, anyway, Kit. 'T ain't much use, I reckon, trying to get into a bahbah shop where they shave white folks, because all the white folks are down on us. I 'll try one of the coloured shops."
This was something of a condescension for Berry Hamilton's son. He had never yet shaved a black chin or put shears to what he termed "naps," and he was proud of it. He thought, though, that after the training he had received from the superior "Tonsorial Parlours" where he had been employed, he had but to ask for a place and he would be gladly accepted.
It is strange how all the foolish little vaunting things that a man says in days of prosperity wax a giant crop around him in the days of his adversity. Berry Hamilton's son found this out almost as soon as he had applied at the first of the coloured shops for work.
"Oh, no, suh," said the proprietor, "I don't think we got anything fu' you to do; you 're a white man's bahbah. We don't shave nothin' but niggahs hyeah, an' we shave 'em in de light o' day an' on de groun' flo'."
"W'y, I hyeah you say dat you could n't git a paih of sheahs thoo a niggah's naps. You ain't been practisin' lately, has you?" came from the back of the shop, where a grinning negro was scraping a fellow's face.
"Oh, yes, you 're done with burr-heads, are you? But burr-heads are good enough fu' you now."
"I think," the proprietor resumed, "that I hyeahed you say you was n't fond o' grape pickin'. Well, Josy, my son, I would n't begin it now, 'specially as anothah kin' o' pickin' seems to run in yo' fambly."
Joe Hamilton never knew how he got out of that shop. He only knew that he found himself upon the street outside the door, tears of anger and shame in his eyes, and the laughs and taunts of his tormentors still ringing in his ears.
It was cruel, of course it was cruel. It was brutal. But only he knew how just it had been. In his moments of pride he had said all those things, half in fun and half in earnest, and he began to wonder how he could have been so many kinds of a fool for so long without realising it.
He had not the heart to seek another shop, for he knew that what would be known at one would be equally well known at all the rest. The hardest thing that he had to bear was the knowledge that he had shut himself out of all the chances that he now desired. He remembered with a pang the words of an old negro to whom he had once been impudent, "Nevah min', boy, nevah min', you 's bo'n, but you ain't daid!"
It was too true. He had not known then what would come. He had never dreamed that anything so terrible could overtake him. Even in his straits, however, desperation gave him a certain pluck. He would try for something else for which his own tongue had not disqualified him. With Joe, to think was to do. He went on to the Continental Hotel, where there were almost always boys wanted to "run the bells." The clerk looked him over critically. He was a bright, spruce-looking young fellow, and the man liked his looks.
"Well, I guess we can take you on," he said. "What 's your name?"
"Joe," was the laconic answer. He was afraid to say more.
"Well, Joe, you go over there and sit where you see those fellows in uniform, and wait until I call the head bellman."
Young Hamilton went over and sat down on a bench which ran along the hotel corridor and where the bellmen were wont to stay during the day awaiting their calls. A few of the blue-coated Mercuries were there. Upon Joe's advent they began to look askance at him and to talk among themselves. He felt his face burning as he thought of what they must be saying. Then he saw the head bellman talking to the clerk and looking in his direction. He saw him shake his head and walk away. He could have cursed him. The clerk called to him.
"I did n't know," he said,—"I did n't know that you were Berry Hamilton's boy. Now, I 've got nothing against you myself. I don't hold you responsible for what your father did, but I don't believe our boys would work with you. I can't take you on."
Joe turned away to meet the grinning or contemptuous glances of the bellmen on the seat. It would have been good to be able to hurl something among them. But he was helpless.
He hastened out of the hotel, feeling that every eye was upon him, every finger pointing at him, every tongue whispering, "There goes Joe Hamilton, whose father went to the penitentiary the other day."
What should he do? He could try no more. He was proscribed, and the letters of his ban were writ large throughout the town, where all who ran might read. For a while he wandered aimlessly about and then turned dejectedly homeward. His mother had not yet come.
"Did you get a job?" was Kit's first question.
"No," he answered bitterly, "no one wants me now."
"No one wants you? Why, Joe—they—they don't think hard of us, do they?"
"I don't know what they think of ma and you, but they think hard of me, all right."
"Oh, don't you worry; it 'll be all right when it blows over."
"Yes, when it all blows over; but when 'll that be?"
"Oh, after a while, when we can show 'em we 're all right."
Some of the girl's cheery hopefulness had come back to her in the presence of her brother's dejection, as a woman always forgets her own sorrow when some one she loves is grieving. But she could not communicate any of her feeling to Joe, who had been and seen and felt, and now sat darkly waiting his mother's return. Some presentiment seemed to tell him that, armed as she was with money to pay for what she wanted and asking for nothing without price, she would yet have no better tale to tell than he.
None of these forebodings visited the mind of Kit, and as soon as her mother appeared on the threshold she ran to her, crying, "Oh, where are we going to live, ma?"
Fannie looked at her for a moment, and then answered with a burst of tears, "Gawd knows, child, Gawd knows."
The girl stepped back astonished. "Why, why!" and then with a rush of tenderness she threw her arms about her mother's neck. "Oh, you 're tired to death," she said; "that 's what 's the matter with you. Never mind about the house now. I 've got some tea made for you, and you just take a cup."
Fannie sat down and tried to drink her tea, but she could not. It stuck in her throat, and the tears rolled down her face and fell into the shaking cup. Joe looked on silently. He had been out and he understood.
"I 'll go out to-morrow and do some looking around for a house while you stay at home an' rest, ma."
Her mother looked up, the maternal instinct for the protection of her daughter at once aroused. "Oh, no, not you, Kitty," she said.
Then for the first time Joe spoke: "You 'd just as well tell Kitty now, ma, for she 's got to come across it anyhow."
"What you know about it? Whaih you been to?"
"I 've been out huntin' work. I 've been to Jones's bahbah shop an' to the Continental Hotel." His light-brown face turned brick red with anger and shame at the memory of it. "I don't think I 'll try any more."
Kitty was gazing with wide and saddening eyes at her mother.
"Were they mean to you too, ma?" she asked breathlessly.
"Mean? Oh Kitty! Kitty! you don't know what it was like. It nigh killed me. Thaih was plenty of houses an' owned by people I 've knowed fu' yeahs, but not one of 'em wanted to rent to me. Some of 'em made excuses 'bout one thing er t' other, but de res' come right straight out an' said dat we 'd give a neighbourhood a bad name ef we moved into it. I 've almos' tramped my laigs off. I 've tried every decent place I could think of, but nobody wants us."
The girl was standing with her hands clenched nervously before her. It was almost more than she could understand.
"Why, we ain't done anything," she said. "Even if they don't know any better than to believe that pa was guilty, they know we ain't done anything."
"I 'd like to cut the heart out of a few of 'em," said Joe in his throat.
"It ain't goin' to do no good to look at it that a-way, Joe," his mother replied. "I know hit 's ha'd, but we got to do de bes' we kin."
"What are we goin' to do?" cried the boy fiercely. "They won't let us work. They won't let us live anywhaih. Do they want us to live on the levee an' steal, like some of 'em do?"
"What are we goin' to do?" echoed Kitty helplessly. "I 'd go out ef I thought I could find anythin' to work at."
"Don't you go anywhaih, child. It 'ud only be worse. De niggah men dat ust to be bowin' an' scrapin' to me an' tekin' off dey hats to me laughed in my face. I met Minty—an' she slurred me right in de street. Dey 'd do worse fu' you."
In the midst of the conversation a knock came at the door. It was a messenger from the "House," as they still called Oakley's home, and he wanted them to be out of the cottage by the next afternoon, as the new servants were coming and would want the rooms.
The message was so curt, so hard and decisive, that Fannie was startled out of her grief into immediate action.
"Well, we got to go," she said, rising wearily.
"But where are we goin'?" wailed Kitty in affright. "There 's no place to go to. We have n't got a house. Where 'll we go?"
"Out o' town someplace as fur away from this damned hole as we kin git." The boy spoke recklessly in his anger. He had never sworn before his mother before.
She looked at him in horror. "Joe, Joe," she said, "you 're mekin' it wuss. You 're mekin' it ha'dah fu' me to baih when you talk dat a-way. What you mean? Whaih you think Gawd is?"
Joe remained sullenly silent. His mother's faith was too stalwart for his comprehension. There was nothing like it in his own soul to interpret it.
"We 'll git de secon'-han' dealah to tek ouah things to-morrer, an' then we 'll go away some place, up No'th maybe."
"Let 's go to New York," said Joe.
They had heard of New York as a place vague and far away, a city that, like Heaven, to them had existed by faith alone. All the days of their lives they had heard of it, and it seemed to them the centre of all the glory, all the wealth, and all the freedom of the world. New York. It had an alluring sound. Who would know them there? Who would look down upon them?
"It 's a mighty long ways off fu' me to be sta'tin' at dis time o' life."
"We want to go a long ways off."
"I wonder what pa would think of it if he was here," put in Kitty.
"I guess he 'd think we was doin' the best we could."
"Well, den, Joe," said his mother, her voice trembling with emotion at the daring step they were about to take, "you set down an' write a lettah to yo' pa, an' tell him what we goin' to do, an' to-morrer—to-morrer—we 'll sta't."
Something akin to joy came into the boy's heart as he sat down to write the letter. They had taunted him, had they? They had scoffed at him. But he was going where they might never go, and some day he would come back holding his head high and pay them sneer for sneer and jibe for jibe.
The same night the commission was given to the furniture dealer who would take charge of their things and sell them when and for what he could.
From his window the next morning Maurice Oakley watched the wagon emptying the house. Then he saw Fannie come out and walk about her little garden, followed by her children. He saw her as she wiped her eyes and led the way to the side gate.
"Well, they 're gone," he said to his wife. "I wonder where they 're going to live?"
"Oh, some of their people will take them in," replied Mrs. Oakley languidly.
Despite the fact that his mother carried with her the rest of the money drawn from the bank, Joe had suddenly stepped into the place of the man of the family. He attended to all the details of their getting away with a promptness that made it seem untrue that he had never been more than thirty miles from his native town. He was eager and excited. As the train drew out of the station, he did not look back upon the place which he hated, but Fannie and her daughter let their eyes linger upon it until the last house, the last chimney, and the last spire faded from their sight, and their tears fell and mingled as they were whirled away toward the unknown.
IN NEW YORK
To the provincial coming to New York for the first time, ignorant and unknown, the city presents a notable mingling of the qualities of cheeriness and gloom. If he have any eye at all for the beautiful, he cannot help experiencing a thrill as he crosses the ferry over the river filled with plying craft and catches the first sight of the spires and buildings of New York. If he have the right stuff in him, a something will take possession of him that will grip him again every time he returns to the scene and will make him long and hunger for the place when he is away from it. Later, the lights in the busy streets will bewilder and entice him. He will feel shy and helpless amid the hurrying crowds. A new emotion will take his heart as the people hasten by him,—a feeling of loneliness, almost of grief, that with all of these souls about him he knows not one and not one of them cares for him. After a while he will find a place and give a sigh of relief as he settles away from the city's sights behind his cosey blinds. It is better here, and the city is cruel and cold and unfeeling. This he will feel, perhaps, for the first half-hour, and then he will be out in it all again. He will be glad to strike elbows with the bustling mob and be happy at their indifference to him, so that he may look at them and study them. After it is all over, after he has passed through the first pangs of strangeness and homesickness, yes, even after he has got beyond the stranger's enthusiasm for the metropolis, the real fever of love for the place will begin to take hold upon him. The subtle, insidious wine of New York will begin to intoxicate him. Then, if he be wise, he will go away, any place,—yes, he will even go over to Jersey. But if he be a fool, he will stay and stay on until the town becomes all in all to him; until the very streets are his chums and certain buildings and corners his best friends. Then he is hopeless, and to live elsewhere would be death. The Bowery will be his romance, Broadway his lyric, and the Park his pastoral, the river and the glory of it all his epic, and he will look down pityingly on all the rest of humanity.
It was the afternoon of a clear October day that the Hamiltons reached New York. Fannie had some misgivings about crossing the ferry, but once on the boat these gave way to speculations as to what they should find on the other side. With the eagerness of youth to take in new impressions, Joe and Kitty were more concerned with what they saw about them than with what their future would hold, though they might well have stopped to ask some such questions. In all the great city they knew absolutely no one, and had no idea which way to go to find a stopping-place.
They looked about them for some coloured face, and finally saw one among the porters who were handling the baggage. To Joe's inquiry he gave them an address, and also proffered his advice as to the best way to reach the place. He was exceedingly polite, and he looked hard at Kitty. They found the house to which they had been directed, and were a good deal surprised at its apparent grandeur. It was a four-storied brick dwelling on Twenty-seventh Street. As they looked from the outside, they were afraid that the price of staying in such a place would be too much for their pockets. Inside, the sight of the hard, gaudily upholstered instalment-plan furniture did not disillusion them, and they continued to fear that they could never stop at this fine place. But they found Mrs. Jones, the proprietress, both gracious and willing to come to terms with them.
As Mrs. Hamilton—she began to be Mrs. Hamilton now, to the exclusion of Fannie—would have described Mrs. Jones, she was a "big yellow woman." She had a broad good-natured face and a tendency to run to bust.
"Yes," she said, "I think I could arrange to take you. I could let you have two rooms, and you could use my kitchen until you decided whether you wanted to take a flat or not. I has the whole house myself, and I keeps roomers. But latah on I could fix things so 's you could have the whole third floor ef you wanted to. Most o' my gent'men 's railroad gent'men, they is. I guess it must 'a' been Mr. Thomas that sent you up here."
"He was a little bright man down at de deepo."
"Yes, that 's him. That 's Mr. Thomas. He 's always lookin' out to send some one here, because he 's been here three years hisself an' he kin recommend my house."
It was a relief to the Hamiltons to find Mrs. Jones so gracious and home-like. So the matter was settled, and they took up their abode with her and sent for their baggage.
With the first pause in the rush that they had experienced since starting away from home, Mrs. Hamilton began to have time for reflection, and their condition seemed to her much better as it was. Of course, it was hard to be away from home and among strangers, but the arrangement had this advantage,—that no one knew them or could taunt them with their past trouble. She was not sure that she was going to like New York. It had a great name and was really a great place, but the very bigness of it frightened her and made her feel alone, for she knew that there could not be so many people together without a deal of wickedness. She did not argue the complement of this, that the amount of good would also be increased, but this was because to her evil was the very present factor in her life.
Joe and Kit were differently affected by what they saw about them. The boy was wild with enthusiasm and with a desire to be a part of all that the metropolis meant. In the evening he saw the young fellows passing by dressed in their spruce clothes, and he wondered with a sort of envy where they could be going. Back home there had been no place much worth going to, except church and one or two people's houses. But these young fellows seemed to show by their manners that they were neither going to church nor a family visiting. In the moment that he recognised this, a revelation came to him,—the knowledge that his horizon had been very narrow, and he felt angry that it was so. Why should those fellows be different from him? Why should they walk the streets so knowingly, so independently, when he knew not whither to turn his steps? Well, he was in New York, and now he would learn. Some day some greenhorn from the South should stand at a window and look out envying him, as he passed, red-cravated, patent-leathered, intent on some goal. Was it not better, after all, that circumstances had forced them thither? Had it not been so, they might all have stayed home and stagnated. Well, thought he, it 's an ill wind that blows nobody good, and somehow, with a guilty under-thought, he forgot to feel the natural pity for his father, toiling guiltless in the prison of his native State.
Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad. The first sign of the demoralisation of the provincial who comes to New York is his pride at his insensibility to certain impressions which used to influence him at home. First, he begins to scoff, and there is no truth in his views nor depth in his laugh. But by and by, from mere pretending, it becomes real. He grows callous. After that he goes to the devil very cheerfully.
No such radical emotions, however, troubled Kit's mind. She too stood at the windows and looked down into the street. There was a sort of complacent calm in the manner in which she viewed the girls' hats and dresses. Many of them were really pretty, she told herself, but for the most part they were not better than what she had had down home. There was a sound quality in the girl's make-up that helped her to see through the glamour of mere place and recognise worth for itself. Or it may have been the critical faculty, which is prominent in most women, that kept her from thinking a five-cent cheese-cloth any better in New York than it was at home. She had a certain self-respect which made her value herself and her own traditions higher than her brother did his.
When later in the evening the porter who had been kind to them came in and was introduced as Mr. William Thomas, young as she was, she took his open admiration for her with more coolness than Joe exhibited when Thomas offered to show him something of the town some day or night.
Mr. Thomas was a loquacious little man with a confident air born of an intense admiration of himself. He was the idol of a number of servant-girls' hearts, and altogether a decidedly dashing back-area-way Don Juan.
"I tell you, Miss Kitty," he burst forth, a few minutes after being introduced, "they ain't no use talkin', N' Yawk 'll give you a shakin' up 'at you won't soon forget. It 's the only town on the face of the earth. You kin bet your life they ain't no flies on N' Yawk. We git the best shows here, we git the best concerts—say, now, what 's the use o' my callin' it all out?—we simply git the best of everything."
"Great place," said Joe wisely, in what he thought was going to be quite a man-of-the-world manner. But he burned with shame the next minute because his voice sounded so weak and youthful. Then too the oracle only said "Yes" to him, and went on expatiating to Kitty on the glories of the metropolis.
"D'jever see the statue o' Liberty? Great thing, the statue o' Liberty. I 'll take you 'round some day. An' Cooney Island—oh, my, now that 's the place; and talk about fun! That 's the place for me."
"La, Thomas," Mrs. Jones put in, "how you do run on! Why, the strangers 'll think they 'll be talked to death before they have time to breathe."
"Oh, I guess the folks understan' me. I 'm one o' them kin' o' men 'at believe in whooping things up right from the beginning. I 'm never strange with anybody. I 'm a N' Yawker, I tell you, from the word go. I say, Mis' Jones, let 's have some beer, an' we 'll have some music purty soon. There 's a fellah in the house 'at plays 'Rag-time' out o' sight."
Mr. Thomas took the pail and went to the corner. As he left the room, Mrs. Jones slapped her knee and laughed until her bust shook like jelly.
"Mr. Thomas is a case, sho'," she said; "but he likes you all, an' I 'm mighty glad of it, fu' he 's mighty curious about the house when he don't like the roomers."
Joe felt distinctly flattered, for he found their new acquaintance charming. His mother was still a little doubtful, and Kitty was sure she found the young man "fresh."
He came in pretty soon with his beer, and a half-dozen crabs in a bag.
"Thought I 'd bring home something to chew. I always like to eat something with my beer."
Mrs. Jones brought in the glasses, and the young man filled one and turned to Kitty.
"No, thanks," she said with a surprised look.
"What, don't you drink beer? Oh, come now, you 'll get out o' that."
"Kitty don't drink no beer," broke in her mother with mild resentment. "I drinks it sometimes, but she don't. I reckon maybe de chillen better go to bed."
Joe felt as if the "chillen" had ruined all his hopes, but Kitty rose.
The ingratiating "N' Yawker" was aghast.
"Oh, let 'em stay," said Mrs. Jones heartily; "a little beer ain't goin' to hurt 'em. Why, sakes, I know my father gave me beer from the time I could drink it, and I knows I ain't none the worse fu' it."
"They 'll git out o' that, all right, if they live in N' Yawk," said Mr. Thomas, as he poured out a glass and handed it to Joe. "You neither?"
"Oh, I drink it," said the boy with an air, but not looking at his mother.
"Joe," she cried to him, "you must ricollect you ain't at home. What 'ud yo' pa think?" Then she stopped suddenly, and Joe gulped his beer and Kitty went to the piano to relieve her embarrassment.
"Yes, that 's it, Miss Kitty, sing us something," said the irrepressible Thomas, "an' after while we 'll have that fellah down that plays 'Rag-time.' He 's out o' sight, I tell you."
With the pretty shyness of girlhood, Kitty sang one or two little songs in the simple manner she knew. Her voice was full and rich. It delighted Mr. Thomas.
"I say, that 's singin' now, I tell you," he cried. "You ought to have some o' the new songs. D' jever hear 'Baby, you got to leave'? I tell you, that 's a hot one. I 'll bring you some of 'em. Why, you could git a job on the stage easy with that voice o' yourn. I got a frien' in one o' the comp'nies an' I 'll speak to him about you."
"You ought to git Mr. Thomas to take you to the th'atre some night. He goes lots."
"Why, yes, what 's the matter with to-morrer night? There 's a good coon show in town. Out o' sight. Let 's all go."
"I ain't nevah been to nothin' lak dat, an' I don't know," said Mrs. Hamilton.
"Aw, come, I 'll git the tickets an' we 'll all go. Great singin', you know. What d' you say?"
The mother hesitated, and Joe filled the breach.
"We 'd all like to go," he said. "Ma, we' ll go if you ain't too tired."
"Tired? Pshaw, you 'll furgit all about your tiredness when Smithkins gits on the stage. Y' ought to hear him sing, 'I bin huntin' fu' wo'k'! You 'd die laughing."
Mrs. Hamilton made no further demur, and the matter was closed.
Awhile later the "Rag-time" man came down and gave them a sample of what they were to hear the next night. Mr. Thomas and Mrs. Jones two-stepped, and they sent a boy after some more beer. Joe found it a very jolly evening, but Kit's and the mother's hearts were heavy as they went up to bed.
"Say," said Mr. Thomas when they had gone, "that little girl 's a peach, you bet; a little green, I guess, but she 'll ripen in the sun."
AN EVENING OUT
Fannie Hamilton, tired as she was, sat long into the night with her little family discussing New York,—its advantages and disadvantages, its beauty and its ugliness, its morality and immorality. She had somewhat receded from her first position, that it was better being here in the great strange city than being at home where the very streets shamed them. She had not liked the way that their fellow lodger looked at Kitty. It was bold, to say the least. She was not pleased, either, with their new acquaintance's familiarity. And yet, he had said no more than some stranger, if there could be such a stranger, would have said down home. There was a difference, however, which she recognised. Thomas was not the provincial who puts every one on a par with himself, nor was he the metropolitan who complacently patronises the whole world. He was trained out of the one and not up to the other. The intermediate only succeeded in being offensive. Mrs. Jones' assurance as to her guest's fine qualities did not do all that might have been expected to reassure Mrs. Hamilton in the face of the difficulties of the gentleman's manner.
She could not, however, lay her finger on any particular point that would give her the reason for rejecting his friendly advances. She got ready the next evening to go to the theatre with the rest. Mr. Thomas at once possessed himself of Kitty and walked on ahead, leaving Joe to accompany his mother and Mrs. Jones,—an arrangement, by the way, not altogether to that young gentleman's taste. A good many men bowed to Thomas in the street, and they turned to look enviously after him. At the door of the theatre they had to run the gantlet of a dozen pairs of eyes. Here, too, the party's guide seemed to be well known, for some one said, before they passed out of hearing, "I wonder who that little light girl is that Thomas is with to-night? He 's a hot one for you."
Mrs. Hamilton had been in a theatre but once before in her life, and Joe and Kit but a few times oftener. On those occasions they had sat far up in the peanut gallery in the place reserved for people of colour. This was not a pleasant, cleanly, nor beautiful locality, and by contrast with it, even the garishness of the cheap New York theatre seemed fine and glorious.