GENTLES AND COMMONS.
Dr. Sevier sat in the great easy-chair under the drop-light of his library table trying to read a book. But his thought was not on the page. He expired a long breath of annoyance, and lifted his glance backward from the bottom of the page to its top.
Why must his mind keep going back to that little cottage in St. Mary street? What good reason was there? Would they thank him for his solicitude? Indeed! He almost smiled his contempt of the supposition. Why, when on one or two occasions he had betrayed a least little bit of kindly interest,—what? Up had gone their youthful vivacity like an umbrella. Oh, yes!—like all young folks—their affairs were intensely private. Once or twice he had shaken his head at the scantiness of all their provisions for life. Well? They simply and unconsciously stole a hold upon one another's hand or arm, as much as to say, "To love is enough." When, gentlemen of the jury, it isn't enough!
"Pshaw!" The word escaped him audibly. He drew partly up from his half recline, and turned back a leaf of the book to try once more to make out the sense of it.
But there was Mary, and there was her husband. Especially Mary. Her image came distinctly between his eyes and the page. There she was, just as on his last visit,—a superfluous one—no charge,—sitting and plying her needle, unaware of his approach, gently moving her rocking-chair, and softly singing, "Flow on, thou shining river,"—the song his own wife used to sing. "O child, child! do you think it's always going to be 'shining'?" They shouldn't be so contented. Was pride under that cloak? Oh, no, no! But even if the content was genuine, it wasn't good. Why, they oughtn't to be able to be happy so completely out of their true sphere. It showed insensibility. But, there again,—Richling wasn't insensible, much less Mary.
The Doctor let his book sink, face downward, upon his knee.
"They're too big to be playing in the sand." He took up the book again. "'Tisn't my business to tell them so." But before he got the volume fairly before his eyes his professional bell rang, and he tossed the book upon the table.
"Well, why don't you bring him in?" he asked, in a tone of reproof, of a servant who presented a card; and in a moment the visitor entered.
He was a person of some fifty years of age, with a patrician face, in which it was impossible to tell where benevolence ended and pride began. His dress was of fine cloth, a little antique in cut, and fitting rather loosely on a form something above the medium height, of good width, but bent in the shoulders, and with arms that had been stronger. Years, it might be, or possibly some unflinching struggle with troublesome facts, had given many lines of his face a downward slant. He apologized for the hour of his call, and accepted with thanks the chair offered him.
"You are not a resident of the city?" asked Dr. Sevier.
"I am from Kentucky." The voice was rich, and the stranger's general air one of rather conscious social eminence.
"Yes?" said the Doctor, not specially pleased, and looked at him closer. He wore a black satin neck-stock, and dark-blue buttoned gaiters. His hair was dyed brown. A slender frill adorned his shirt-front.
"Mrs."—the visitor began to say, not giving the name, but waving his index-finger toward his card, which Dr. Sevier had laid upon the table, just under the lamp,—"my wife, Doctor, seems to be in a very feeble condition. Her physicians have advised her to try the effects of a change of scene, and I have brought her down to your busy city, sir."
The Doctor assented. The stranger resumed:—
"Its hurry and energy are a great contrast to the plantation life, sir."
"They're very unlike," the physician admitted.
"This chafing of thousands of competitive designs," said the visitor, "this great fretwork of cross purposes, is a decided change from the quiet order of our rural life. Hmm! There everything is under the administration of one undisputed will, and is executed by the unquestioning obedience of our happy and contented slave peasantry. I prefer the country. But I thought this was just the change that would arouse and electrify an invalid who has really no tangible complaint."
"Has the result been unsatisfactory?"
"Entirely so. I am unexpectedly disappointed." The speaker's thought seemed to be that the climate of New Orleans had not responded with that hospitable alacrity which was due so opulent, reasonable, and universally obeyed a guest.
There was a pause here, and Dr. Sevier looked around at the book which lay at his elbow. But the visitor did not resume, and the Doctor presently asked:—
"Do you wish me to see your wife?"
"I called to see you alone first," said the other, "because there might be questions to be asked which were better answered in her absence."
"Then you think you know the secret of her illness, do you?"
"I do. I think, indeed I may say I know, it is—bereavement."
The Doctor compressed his lips and bowed.
The stranger drooped his head somewhat, and, resting his elbows on the arms of his chair, laid the tips of his thumbs and fingers softly together.
"The truth is, sir, she cannot recover from the loss of our son."
"An infant?" asked the Doctor. His bell rang again as he put the question.
"No, sir; a young man,—one whom I had thought a person of great promise; just about to enter life."
"When did he die?"
"He has been dead nearly a year. I"— The speaker ceased as the mulatto waiting-man appeared at the open door, with a large, simple, German face looking easily over his head from behind.
"Toctor," said the owner of this face, lifting an immense open hand, "Toctor, uf you bleace, Toctor, you vill bleace ugscooce me."
The Doctor frowned at the servant for permitting the interruption. But the gentleman beside him said:—
"Let him come in, sir; he seems to be in haste, sir, and I am not,—I am not, at all."
"Come in," said the physician.
The new-comer stepped into the room. He was about six feet three inches in height, three feet six in breadth, and the same in thickness. Two kindly blue eyes shone softly in an expanse of face that had been clean-shaven every Saturday night for many years, and that ended in a retreating chin and a dewlap. The limp, white shirt-collar just below was without a necktie, and the waist of his pantaloons, which seemed intended to supply this deficiency, did not quite, but only almost reached up to the unoccupied blank. He removed from his respectful head a soft gray hat, whitened here and there with flour.
"Yentlemen," he said, slowly, "you vill ugscooce me to interruptet you,—yentlemen."
"Do you wish to see me?" asked Dr. Sevier.
The German made an odd gesture of deferential assent, lifting one open hand a little in front of him to the level of his face, with the wrist bent forward and the fingers pointing down.
"Uf you bleace, Toctor, I toose; undt tat's te fust time I effer tit vanted a toctor. Undt you mus' ugscooce me, Toctor, to callin' on you, ovver I vish you come undt see mine"—
To the surprise of all, tears gushed from his eyes.
"Mine poor vife, Toctor!" He turned to one side, pointed his broad hand toward the floor, and smote his forehead.
"I yoost come in fun mine paykery undt comin' into mine howse, fen—I see someting"—he waved his hand downward again—"someting—layin' on te—floor—face pleck ans a nigger's; undt fen I look to see who udt iss,—udt is Mississ Reisen! Toctor, I vish you come right off! I couldn't shtayndt udt you toandt come right avay!"
"I'll come," said the Doctor, without rising; "just write your name and address on that little white slate yonder."
"Toctor," said the German, extending and dipping his hat, "I'm ferra much a-velcome to you, Toctor; undt tat's yoost fot te pottekerra by mine corner sayt you vould too. He sayss, 'Reisen,' he sayss, 'you yoost co to Toctor Tsewier.'" He bent his great body over the farther end of the table and slowly worked out his name, street, and number. "Dtere udt iss, Toctor; I put udt town on teh schlate; ovver, I hope you ugscooce te hayndtwriding."
"Very well. That's right. That's all."
The German lingered. The Doctor gave a bow of dismission.
"That's all, I say. I'll be there in a moment. That's all. Dan, order my carriage!"
"Yentlemen, you vill ugscooce me?"
The German withdrew, returning each gentleman's bow with a faint wave of the hat.
During this interview the more polished stranger had sat with bowed head, motionless and silent, lifting it only once and for a moment at the German's emotional outburst. Then the upward and backward turned face was marked with a commiseration partly artificial, but also partly natural. He now looked up at the Doctor.
"I shall have to leave you," said the Doctor.
"Certainly, sir," replied the other; "by all means!" The willingness was slightly overdone and the benevolence of tone was mixed with complacency. "By all means," he said again; "this is one of those cases where it is only a proper grace in the higher to yield place to the lower." He waited for a response, but the Doctor merely frowned into space and called for his boots. The visitor resumed:—
"I have a good deal of feeling, sir, for the unlettered and the vulgar. They have their station, but they have also—though doubtless in smaller capacity than we—their pleasures and pains."
Seeing the Doctor ready to go, he began to rise.
"I may not be gone long," said the physician, rather coldly; "if you choose to wait"—
"I thank you; n-no-o"—The visitor stopped between a sitting and a rising posture.
"Here are books," said the Doctor, "and the evening papers,—'Picayune,' 'Delta,' 'True Delta.'" It seemed for a moment as though the gentleman might sink into his seat again. "And there's the 'New York Herald.'"
"No, sir!" said the visitor quickly, rising and smoothing himself out; "nothing from that quarter, if you please." Yet he smiled. The Doctor did not notice that, while so smiling, he took his card from the table. There was something familiar in the stranger's face which the Doctor was trying to make out. They left the house together. Outside the street door the physician made apologetic allusion to their interrupted interview.
"Shall I see you at my office to-morrow? I would be happy"—
The stranger had raised his hat. He smiled again, as pleasantly as he could, which was not delightful, and said, after a moment's hesitation:—
It chanced one evening about this time—the vernal equinox had just passed—that from some small cause Richling, who was generally detained at the desk until a late hour, was home early. The air was soft and warm, and he stood out a little beyond his small front door-step, lifting his head to inhale the universal fragrance, and looking in every moment, through the unlighted front room, toward a part of the diminutive house where a mild rattle of domestic movements could be heard, and whence he had, a little before, been adroitly requested to absent himself. He moved restlessly on his feet, blowing a soft tune.
Presently he placed a foot on the step and a hand on the door-post, and gave a low, urgent call.
A distant response indicated that his term of suspense was nearly over. He turned about again once or twice, and a moment later Mary appeared in the door, came down upon the sidewalk, looked up into the moonlit sky and down the empty, silent street, then turned and sat down, throwing her wrists across each other in her lap, and lifting her eyes to her husband's with a smile that confessed her fatigue.
The moon was regal. It cast its deep contrasts of clear-cut light and shadow among the thin, wooden, unarchitectural forms and weed-grown vacancies of the half-settled neighborhood, investing the matter-of-fact with mystery, and giving an unexpected charm to the unpicturesque. It was—as Richling said, taking his place beside his wife—midspring in March. As he spoke he noticed she had brought with her the odor of flowers. They were pinned at her throat.
"Where did you get them?" he asked, touching them with his fingers.
Her face lighted up.
How could he guess? As far as he knew neither she nor he had made an acquaintance in the neighborhood. He shook his head, and she replied:—
"You're a queer girl," he said, when they had laughed.
"You let these common people take to you so."
She smiled, with a faint air of concern.
"You don't dislike it, do you?" she asked.
"Oh, no," he said, indifferently, and spoke of other things.
And thus they sat, like so many thousands and thousands of young pairs in this wide, free America, offering the least possible interest to the great human army round about them, but sharing, or believing they shared, in the fruitful possibilities of this land of limitless bounty, fondling their hopes and recounting the petty minutiae of their daily experiences. Their converse was mainly in the form of questions from Mary and answers from John.
"And did he say that he would?" etc. "And didn't you insist that he should?" etc. "I don't understand how he could require you to," etc., etc. Looking at everything from John's side, as if there never could be any other, until at last John himself laughed softly when she asked why he couldn't take part of some outdoor man's work, and give him part of his own desk-work in exchange, and why he couldn't say plainly that his work was too sedentary.
Then she proposed a walk in the moonlight, and insisted she was not tired; she wanted it on her own account. And so, when Richling had gone into the house and returned with some white worsted gauze for her head and neck and locked the door, they were ready to start.
They were tarrying a moment to arrange this wrapping when they found it necessary to move aside from where they stood in order to let two persons pass on the sidewalk.
These were a man and woman, who had at least reached middle age. The woman wore a neatly fitting calico gown; the man, a short pilot-coat. His pantaloons were very tight and pale. A new soft hat was pushed forward from the left rear corner of his closely cropped head, with the front of the brim turned down over his right eye. At each step he settled down with a little jerk alternately on this hip and that, at the same time faintly dropping the corresponding shoulder. They passed. John and Mary looked at each other with a nod of mirthful approval. Why? Because the strangers walked silently hand-in-hand.
It was a magical night. Even the part of town where they were, so devoid of character by day, had become all at once romantic with phantasmal lights and glooms, echoes and silences. Along the edge of a wide chimney-top on one blank, new hulk of a house, that nothing else could have made poetical, a mocking-bird hopped and ran back and forth, singing as if he must sing or die. The mere names of the streets they traversed suddenly became sweet food for the fancy. Down at the first corner below they turned into one that had been an old country road, and was still named Felicity.
Richling called attention to the word painted on a board. He merely pointed to it in playful silence, and then let his hand sink and rest on hers as it lay in his elbow. They were walking under the low boughs of a line of fig-trees that overhung a high garden wall. Then some gay thought took him; but when his downward glance met the eyes uplifted to meet his they were grave, and there came an instantaneous tenderness into the exchange of looks that would have been worse than uninteresting to you or me. But the next moment she brightened up, pressed herself close to him, and caught step. They had not owned each other long enough to have settled into sedate possession, though they sometimes thought they had done so. There was still a tingling ecstasy in one another's touch and glance that prevented them from quite behaving themselves when under the moon.
For instance, now, they began, though in cautious undertone, to sing. Some person approached them, and they hushed. When the stranger had passed, Mary began again another song, alone:—
"Oh, don't you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?"
"Hush!" said John, softly.
She looked up with an air of mirthful inquiry, and he added:—
"That was the name of Dr. Sevier's wife."
"But he doesn't hear me singing."
"No; but it seems as if he did."
And they sang no more.
They entered a broad, open avenue, with a treeless, grassy way in the middle, up which came a very large and lumbering street-car, with smokers' benches on the roof, and drawn by tandem horses.
"Here we turn down," said Richling, "into the way of the Naiads." (That was the street's name.) "They're not trying to get me away."
He looked down playfully. She was clinging to him with more energy than she knew.
"I'd better hold you tight," she answered. Both laughed. The nonsense of those we love is better than the finest wit on earth. They walked on in their bliss. Shall we follow? Fie!
They passed down across three or four of a group of parallel streets named for the nine muses. At Thalia they took the left, went one square, and turned up by another street toward home.
Their conversation had flagged. Silence was enough. The great earth was beneath their feet, firm and solid; the illimitable distances of the heavens stretched above their heads and before their eyes. Here was Mary at John's side, and John at hers; John her property and she his, and time flowing softly, shiningly on. Yea, even more. If one might believe the names of the streets, there were Naiads on the left and Dryads on the right; a little farther on, Hercules; yonder corner the dark trysting-place of Bacchus and Melpomene; and here, just in advance, the corner where Terpsichore crossed the path of Apollo.
They came now along a high, open fence that ran the entire length of a square. Above it a dense rank of bitter orange-trees overhung the sidewalk, their dark mass of foliage glittering in the moonlight. Within lay a deep, old-fashioned garden. Its white shell-walks gleamed in many directions. A sweet breath came from its parterres of mingled hyacinths and jonquils that hid themselves every moment in black shadows of lagustrums and laurestines. Here, in severe order, a pair of palms, prim as mediaeval queens, stood over against each other; and in the midst of the garden, rising high against the sky, appeared the pillared veranda and immense, four-sided roof of an old French colonial villa, as it stands unchanged to-day.
The two loiterers slackened their pace to admire the scene. There was much light shining from the house. Mary could hear voices, and, in a moment, words. The host was speeding his parting guests.
"The omnibus will put you out only one block from the hotel," some one said.
* * *
Dr. Sevier, returning home from a visit to a friend in Polymnia street, had scarcely got well seated in the omnibus before he witnessed from its window a singular dumb show. He had handed his money up to the driver as they crossed Euterpe street, had received the change and deposited his fare as they passed Terpsichore, and was just sitting down when the only other passenger in the vehicle said, half-rising:—
"Hello! there's going to be a shooting scrape!"
A rather elderly man and woman on the sidewalk, both of them extremely well dressed, and seemingly on the eve of hailing the omnibus, suddenly transferred their attention to a younger couple a few steps from them, who appeared to have met them entirely by accident. The elderly lady threw out her arms toward the younger man with an expression on her face of intensest mental suffering. She seemed to cry out; but the deafening rattle of the omnibus, as it approached them, intercepted the sound. All four of the persons seemed, in various ways, to experience the most violent feelings. The young man more than once moved as if about to start forward, yet did not advance; his companion, a small, very shapely woman, clung to him excitedly and pleadingly. The older man shook a stout cane at the younger, talking furiously as he did so. He held the elderly lady to him with his arm thrown about her, while she now cast her hands upward, now covered her face with them, now wrung them, clasped them, or extended one of them in seeming accusation against the younger person of her own sex. In a moment the omnibus was opposite the group. The Doctor laid his hand on his fellow-passenger's arm.
"Don't get out. There will be no shooting."
The young man on the sidewalk suddenly started forward, with his companion still on his farther arm, and with his eyes steadily fixed on those of the elder and taller man, a clenched fist lifted defensively, and with a tense, defiant air walked hurriedly and silently by within easy sweep of the uplifted staff. At the moment when the slight distance between the two men began to increase, the cane rose higher, but stopped short in its descent and pointed after the receding figure.
"I command you to leave this town, sir!"
Dr. Sevier looked. He looked with all his might, drawing his knee under him on the cushion and leaning out. The young man had passed. He still moved on, turning back as he went a face full of the fear that men show when they are afraid of their own violence; and, as the omnibus clattered away, he crossed the street at the upper corner and disappeared in the shadows.
"That's a very strange thing," said the other passenger to Dr. Sevier, as they resumed the corner seats by the door.
"It certainly is!" replied the Doctor, and averted his face. For when the group and he were nearest together and the moon shone brightly upon the four, he saw, beyond all question, that the older man was his visitor of a few evenings before and that the younger pair were John and Mary Richling.
"SHE'S ALL THE WORLD."
Excellent neighborhood, St. Mary street, and Prytania was even better. Everybody was very retired though, it seemed. Almost every house standing in the midst of its shady garden,—sunny gardens are a newer fashion of the town,—a bell-knob on the gate-post, and the gate locked. But the Richlings cared nothing for this; not even what they should have cared. Nor was there any unpleasantness in another fact.
"Do you let this window stand wide this way when you are at work here, all day?" asked the husband. The opening alluded to was on Prytania street, and looked across the way to where the asylumed widows of "St Anna's" could glance down into it over their poor little window-gardens.
"Why, yes, dear!" Mary looked up from her little cane rocker with that thoughtful contraction at the outer corners of her eyes and that illuminated smile that between them made half her beauty. And then, somewhat more gravely and persuasively: "Don't you suppose they like it? They must like it. I think we can do that much for them. Would you rather I'd shut it?"
For answer John laid his hand on her head and gazed into her eyes.
"Take care," she whispered; "they'll see you."
He let his arm drop in amused despair.
"Why, what's the window open for? And, anyhow, they're all abed and asleep these two hours."
They did like it, those aged widows. It fed their hearts' hunger to see the pretty unknown passing and repassing that open window in the performance of her morning duties, or sitting down near it with her needle, still crooning her soft morning song,—poor, almost as poor as they, in this world's glitter; but rich in hope and courage, and rich beyond all count in the content of one who finds herself queen of ever so little a house, where love is.
"Love is enough!" said the widows.
And certainly she made it seem so. The open window brought, now and then, a moisture to the aged eyes, yet they liked it open.
But, without warning one day, there was a change. It was the day after Dr. Sevier had noticed that queer street quarrel. The window was not closed, but it sent out no more light. The song was not heard, and many small, faint signs gave indication that anxiety had come to be a guest in the little house. At evening the wife was seen in her front door and about its steps, watching in a new, restless way for her husband's coming; and when he came it could be seen, all the way from those upper windows, where one or two faces appeared now and then, that he was troubled and care-worn. There were two more days like this one; but at the end of the fourth the wife read good tidings in her husband's countenance. He handed her a newspaper, and pointed to a list of departing passengers.
"They're gone!" she exclaimed.
He nodded, and laid off his hat. She cast her arms about his neck, and buried her head in his bosom. You could almost have seen Anxiety flying out at the window. By morning the widows knew of a certainty that the cloud had melted away.
In the counting-room one evening, as Richling said good-night with noticeable alacrity, one of his employers, sitting with his legs crossed over the top of a desk, said to his partner:—
"Richling works for his wages."
"That's all," replied the other; "he don't see his interests in ours any more than a tinsmith would, who comes to mend the roof."
The first one took a meditative puff or two from his cigar, tipped off its ashes, and responded:—
"Common fault. He completely overlooks his immense indebtedness to the world at large, and his dependence on it. He's a good fellow, and bright; but he actually thinks that he and the world are starting even."
"His wife's his world," said the other, and opened the Bills Payable book. Who will say it is not well to sail in an ocean of love? But the Richlings were becalmed in theirs, and, not knowing it, were satisfied.
Day in, day out, the little wife sat at her window, and drove her needle. Omnibuses rumbled by; an occasional wagon or cart set the dust a-flying; the street venders passed, crying the praises of their goods and wares; the blue sky grew more and more intense as weeks piled up upon weeks; but the empty repetitions, and the isolation, and, worst of all, the escape of time,—she smiled at all, and sewed on and crooned on, in the sufficient thought that John would come, each time, when only hours enough had passed away forever.
Once she saw Dr. Sevier's carriage. She bowed brightly, but he—what could it mean?—he lifted his hat with such austere gravity. Dr. Sevier was angry. He had no definite charge to make, but that did not lessen his displeasure. After long, unpleasant wondering, and long trusting to see Richling some day on the street, he had at length driven by this way purposely to see if they had indeed left town, as they had been so imperiously commanded to do.
This incident, trivial as it was, roused Mary to thought; and all the rest of the day the thought worked with energy to dislodge the frame of mind that she had acquired from her husband.
When John came home that night and pressed her to his bosom she was silent. And when he held her off a little and looked into her eyes, and she tried to better her smile, those eyes stood full to the lashes and she looked down.
"What's the matter?" asked he, quickly.
"Nothing!" She looked up again, with a little laugh.
He took a chair and drew her down upon his lap.
"What's the matter with my girl?"
"I don't know."
"How,—you don't know?"
"Why, I simply don't. I can't make out what it is. If I could I'd tell you; but I don't know at all." After they had sat silent a few moments:—
"I wonder"—she began.
"You wonder what?" asked he, in a rallying tone.
"I wonder if there's such a thing as being too contented."
Richling began to hum, with a playful manner:—
"'And she's all the world to me.'
Is that being too"—
"Stop!" said Mary. "That's it." She laid her hand upon his shoulder. "You've said it. That's what I ought not to be!"
"Why, Mary, what on earth"— His face flamed up "John, I'm willing to be more than all the rest of the world to you. I always must be that. I'm going to be that forever. And you"—she kissed him passionately—"you're all the world to me! But I've no right to be all the world to you. And you mustn't allow it. It's making it too small!"
"Mary, what are you saying?"
"Don't, John. Don't speak that way. I'm not saying anything. I'm only trying to say something, I don't know what."
"Neither do I," was the mock-rueful answer.
"I only know," replied Mary, the vision of Dr. Sevier's carriage passing before her abstracted eyes, and of the Doctor's pale face bowing austerely within it, "that if you don't take any part or interest in the outside world it'll take none in you; do you think it will?"
"And who cares if it doesn't?" cried John, clasping her to his bosom.
"I do," she replied. "Yes, I do. I've no right to steal you from the rest of the world, or from the place in it that you ought to fill. John"—
"That's my name."
"Why can't I do something to help you?"
John lifted his head unnecessarily.
"Well, then, let's think of something we can do, without just waiting for the wind to blow us along,—I mean," she added appeasingly, "I mean without waiting to be employed by others."
"Oh, yes; but that takes capital!"
"Yes, I know; but why don't you think up something,—some new enterprise or something,—and get somebody with capital to go in with you?"
He shook his head.
"You're out of your depth. And that wouldn't make so much difference, but you're out of mine. It isn't enough to think of something; you must know how to do it. And what do I know how to do? Nothing! Nothing that's worth doing!"
"I know one thing you could do."
"You could be a professor in a college."
John smiled bitterly.
"Without antecedents?" he asked.
Their eyes met; hers dropped, and both voices were silent. Mary drew a soft sigh. She thought their talk had been unprofitable. But it had not. John laid hold of work from that day on in a better and wiser spirit.
THE BOUGH BREAKS.
By some trivial chance, she hardly knew what, Mary found herself one day conversing at her own door with the woman whom she and her husband had once smiled at for walking the moonlit street with her hand in willing and undisguised captivity. She was a large and strong, but extremely neat, well-spoken, and good-looking Irish woman, who might have seemed at ease but for a faintly betrayed ambition.
She praised with rather ornate English the good appearance and convenient smallness of Mary's house; said her own was the same size. That person with whom she sometimes passed "of a Sundeh"—yes, and moonlight evenings—that was her husband. He was "ferst ingineeur" on a steam-boat. There was a little, just discernible waggle in her head as she stated things. It gave her decided character.
"Ah! engineer," said Mary.
"Ferst ingineeur," repeated the woman; "you know there bees ferst ingineeurs, an' secon' ingineeurs, an' therd ingineeurs. Yes." She unconsciously fanned herself with a dust-pan that she had just bought from a tin peddler.
She lived only some two or three hundred yards away, around the corner, in a tidy little cottage snuggled in among larger houses in Coliseum street. She had had children, but she had lost them; and Mary's sympathy when she told her of them—the girl and two boys—won the woman as much as the little lady's pretty manners had dazed her. It was not long before she began to drop in upon Mary in the hour of twilight, and sit through it without speaking often, or making herself especially interesting in any way, but finding it pleasant, notwithstanding.
"John," said Mary,—her husband had come in unexpectedly,—"our neighbor, Mrs. Riley."
John's bow was rather formal, and Mrs. Riley soon rose and said good-evening.
"John," said the wife again, laying her hands on his shoulders as she tiptoed to kiss him, "what troubles you?" Then she attempted a rallying manner: "Don't my friends suit you?"
He hesitated only an instant, and said:—
"Oh, yes, that's all right!"
"Well, then, I don't see why you look so."
"I've finished the task I was to do."
"What! you haven't"—
"I'm out of employment."
They went and sat down on the little hair-cloth sofa that Mrs. Riley had just left.
"I thought they said they would have other work for you."
"They said they might have; but it seems they haven't."
"And it's just in the opening of summer, too," said Mary; "why, what right"—
"Oh!"—a despairing gesture and averted gaze—"they've a perfect right if they think best. I asked them that myself at first—not too politely, either; but I soon saw I was wrong."
They sat without speaking until it had grown quite dark. Then John said, with a long breath, as he rose:—
"It passes my comprehension."
"What passes it?" asked Mary, detaining him by one hand.
"The reason why we are so pursued by misfortunes."
"But, John," she said, still holding him, "is it misfortune? When I know so well that you deserve to succeed, I think maybe it's good fortune in disguise, after all. Don't you think it's possible? You remember how it was last time, when A., B., & Co. failed. Maybe the best of all is to come now!" She beamed with courage. "Why, John, it seems to me I'd just go in the very best of spirits, the first thing to-morrow, and tell Dr. Sevier you are looking for work. Don't you think it might"—
"I've been there."
"Have you? What did he say?"
"He wasn't in."
* * *
There was another neighbor, with whom John and Mary did not get acquainted. Not that it was more his fault than theirs; it may have been less. Unfortunately for the Richlings there was in their dwelling no toddling, self-appointed child commissioner to find his way in unwatched moments to the play-ground of some other toddler, and so plant the good seed of neighbor acquaintanceship.
This neighbor passed four times a day. A man of fortune, aged a hale sixty or so, who came and stood on the corner, and sometimes even rested a foot on Mary's door-step, waiting for the Prytania omnibus, and who, on his returns, got down from the omnibus step a little gingerly, went by Mary's house, and presently shut himself inside a very ornamental iron gate, a short way up St. Mary street. A child would have made him acquainted. Even as it was, they did not escape his silent notice. It was pleasant for him, from whose life the early dew had been dried away by a well-risen sun, to recall its former freshness by glimpses of this pair of young beginners. It was like having a bird's nest under his window.
John, stepping backward from his door one day, saying a last word to his wife, who stood on the threshold, pushed against this neighbor as he was moving with somewhat cumbersome haste to catch the stage, turned quickly, and raised his hat.
The other uncovered his bald head and circlet of white, silken locks, and hurried on to the conveyance.
"President of one of the banks down-town," whispered John.
That is the nearest they ever came to being acquainted. And even this accident might not have occurred had not the man of snowy locks been glancing at Mary as he passed instead of at his omnibus.
As he sat at home that evening he remarked:—
"Very pretty little woman that, my dear, that lives in the little house at the corner; who is she?"
The lady responded, without lifting her eyes from the newspaper in which she was interested; she did not know. The husband mused and twirled his penknife between a finger and thumb.
"They seem to be starting at the bottom," he observed.
"Yes; much the same as we did."
"I haven't noticed them particularly."
"They're worth noticing," said the banker.
He threw one fat knee over the other, and laid his head on the back of his easy-chair.
The lady's eyes were still on her paper, but she asked:—
"Would you like me to go and see them?"
"No, no—unless you wish."
She dropped the paper into her lap with a smile and a sigh.
"Don't propose it. I have so much going to do"— She paused, removed her glasses, and fell to straightening the fringe of the lamp-mat. "Of course, if you think they're in need of a friend; but from your description"—
"No," he answered, quickly, "not at all. They've friends, no doubt. Everything about them has a neat, happy look. That's what attracted my notice. They've got friends, you may depend." He ceased, took up a pamphlet, and adjusted his glasses. "I think I saw a sofa going in there to-day as I came to dinner. A little expansion, I suppose."
"It was going out," said the only son, looking up from a story-book.
But the banker was reading. He heard nothing, and the word was not repeated. He did not divine that a little becalmed and befogged bark, with only two lovers in her, too proud to cry "Help!" had drifted just yonder upon the rocks, and, spar by spar and plank by plank, was dropping into the smooth, unmerciful sea.
Before the sofa went there had gone, little by little, some smaller valuables.
"You see," said Mary to her husband, with the bright hurry of a wife bent upon something high-handed, "we both have to have furniture; we must have it; and I don't have to have jewelry. Don't you see?"
"Now, John!" There could be but one end to the debate; she had determined that. The first piece was a bracelet. "No, I wouldn't pawn it," she said. "Better sell it outright at once."
But Richling could not but cling to hope and to the adornments that had so often clasped her wrists and throat or pinned the folds upon her bosom. Piece by piece he pawned them, always looking out ahead with strained vision for the improbable, the incredible, to rise to his relief.
"Is nothing going to happen, Mary?"
Yes; nothing happened—except in the pawn-shop.
So, all the sooner, the sofa had to go.
"It's no use talking about borrowing," they both said. Then the bureau went. Then the table. Then, one by one, the chairs. Very slyly it was all done, too. Neighbors mustn't know. "Who lives there?" is a question not asked concerning houses as small as theirs; and a young man, in a well-fitting suit of only too heavy goods, removing his winter hat to wipe the standing drops from his forehead; and a little blush-rose woman at his side, in a mist of cool muslin and the cunningest of millinery,—these, who always paused a moment, with a lost look, in the vestibule of the sepulchral-looking little church on the corner of Prytania and Josephine streets, till the sexton ushered them in, and who as often contrived, with no end of ingenuity, despite the little woman's fresh beauty, to get away after service unaccosted by the elders,—who could imagine that these were from so deep a nook in poverty's vale?
There was one person who guessed it: Mrs. Riley, who was not asked to walk in any more when she called at the twilight hour. She partly saw and partly guessed the truth, and offered what each one of the pair had been secretly hoping somebody, anybody, would offer—a loan. But when it actually confronted them it was sweetly declined.
"Wasn't it kind?" said Mary; and John said emphatically, "Yes." Very soon it was their turn to be kind to Mrs. Riley. They attended her husband's funeral. He had been killed by an explosion. Mrs. Riley beat upon the bier with her fists, and wailed in a far-reaching voice:—
"O Mike, Mike! Me jew'l, me jew'l! Why didn't ye wait to see the babe that's unborn?"
And Mary wept. And when she and John reentered their denuded house she fell upon his neck with fresh tears, and kissed him again and again, and could utter no word, but knew he understood. Poverty was so much better than sorrow! She held him fast, and he her, while he tenderly hushed her, lest a grief, the very opposite of Mrs. Riley's, should overtake her.
HARD SPEECHES AND HIGH TEMPER.
Dr. Sevier found occasion, one morning, to speak at some length, and very harshly, to his book-keeper. He had hardly ceased when John Richling came briskly in.
"Doctor," he said, with great buoyancy, "how do you do?"
The physician slightly frowned.
"Good-morning, Mr. Richling."
Richling was tamed in an instant; but, to avoid too great a contrast of manner, he retained a semblance of sprightliness, as he said:—
"This is the first time I have had this pleasure since you were last at our house, Doctor."
"Did you not see me one evening, some time ago, in the omnibus?" asked Dr. Sevier.
"Why, no," replied the other, with returning pleasure; "was I in the same omnibus?"
"You were on the sidewalk."
"No-o," said Richling, pondering. "I've seen you in your carriage several times, but you"—
"I didn't see you."
Richling was stung. The conversation failed. He recommenced it in a tone pitched intentionally too low for the alert ear of Narcisse.
"Doctor, I've simply called to say to you that I'm out of work and looking for employment again."
"Um—hum," said the Doctor, with a cold fulness of voice that hurt Richling afresh. "You'll find it hard to get anything this time of year," he continued, with no attempt at undertone; "it's very hard for anybody to get anything these days, even when well recommended."
Richling smiled an instant. The Doctor did not, but turned partly away to his desk, and added, as if the smile had displeased him:—
"Well, maybe you'll not find it so."
Richling turned fiery red.
"Whether I do or not," he said, rising, "my affairs sha'n't trouble anybody. Good-morning!"
He started out.
"How's Mrs. Richling?" asked the Doctor.
"She's well," responded Richling, putting on his hat and disappearing in the corridor. Each footstep could be heard as he went down the stairs.
"He's a fool!" muttered the physician.
He looked up angrily, for Narcisse stood before him.
"Well, Doctah," said the Creole, hurriedly arranging his coat-collar, and drawing his handkerchief, "I'm goin' ad the poss-office."
"See here, sir!" exclaimed the Doctor, bringing his fist down upon the arm of his chair, "every time you've gone out of this office for the last six months you've told me you were going to the post-office; now don't you ever tell me that again!"
The young man bowed with injured dignity and responded:—
"All a-ight, seh."
He overtook Richling just outside the street entrance. Richling had halted there, bereft of intention, almost of outward sense, and choking with bitterness. It seemed to him as if in an instant all his misfortunes, disappointments, and humiliations, that never before had seemed so many or so great, had been gathered up into the knowledge of that hard man upstairs, and, with one unmerciful downward wrench, had received his seal of approval. Indignation, wrath, self-hatred, dismay, in undefined confusion, usurped the faculties of sight and hearing and motion.
"Mistoo Itchlin," said Narcisse, "I 'ope you fine you'seff O.K., seh, if you'll egscuse the slang expwession."
Richling started to move away, but checked himself.
"I'm well, sir, thank you, sir; yes, sir, I'm very well."
"I billieve you, seh. You ah lookin' well."
Narcisse thrust his hands into his pockets, and turned upon the outer sides of his feet, the embodiment of sweet temper. Richling found him a wonderful relief at the moment. He quit gnawing his lip and winking into vacancy, and felt a malicious good-humor run into all his veins.
"I dunno 'ow 'tis, Mistoo Itchlin," said Narcisse, "but I muz tell you the tooth; you always 'ave to me the appe'ance ligue the chile of p'ospe'ity."
"Eh?" said Richling, hollowing his hand at his ear,—"child of"—
"Yes—yes," replied the deaf man vaguely, "I—have a relative of that name."
"Oh!" exclaimed the Creole, "thass good faw luck! Mistoo Itchlin, look' like you a lil mo' hawd to yeh—but egscuse me. I s'pose you muz be advancing in business, Mistoo Itchlin. I say I s'pose you muz be gittin' along!"
"I? Yes; yes, I must."
"I'm 'appy to yeh it!" said Narcisse.
His innocent kindness was a rebuke. Richling began to offer a cordial parting salutation, but Narcisse said:—
"You goin' that way? Well, I kin go that way."
"I was goin' ad the poss-office, but"—he waved his hand and curled his lip. "Mistoo Itchlin, in fact, if you yeh of something suitable to me I would like to yeh it. I am not satisfied with that pless yondeh with Doctah Seveeah. I was compel this mawnin', biffo you came in, to 'epoove 'im faw 'is 'oodness. He called me a jackass, in fact. I woon allow that. I 'ad to 'epoove 'im. 'Doctah Seveeah,' says I, 'don't you call me a jackass ag'in!' An' 'e din call it me ag'in. No, seh. But 'e din like to 'ush up. Thass the rizz'n 'e was a lil miscutteous to you. Me, I am always polite. As they say, 'A nod is juz as good as a kick f'om a bline hoss.' You are fon' of maxim, Mistoo Itchlin? Me, I'm ve'y fon' of them. But they's got one maxim what you may 'ave 'eard—I do not fine that maxim always come t'ue. 'Ave you evva yeah that maxim, 'A fool faw luck'? That don't always come t'ue. I 'ave discove'd that."
"No," responded Richling, with a parting smile, "that doesn't always come true."
Dr. Sevier denounced the world at large, and the American nation in particular, for two days. Within himself, for twenty-four hours, he grumly blamed Richling for their rupture; then for twenty-four hours reproached himself, and, on the morning of the third day knocked at the door, corner of St. Mary and Prytania.
No one answered. He knocked again. A woman in bare feet showed herself at the corresponding door-way in the farther half of the house.
"Nobody don't live there no more, sir," she said.
"Where have they gone?"
"Well, reely, I couldn't tell you, sir. Because, reely, I don't know nothing about it. I haint but jest lately moved in here myself, and I don't know nothing about nobody around here scarcely at all."
The Doctor shut himself again in his carriage and let himself be whisked away, in great vacuity of mind.
"They can't blame anybody but themselves," was, by-and-by, his rallying thought. "Still"—he said to himself after another vacant interval, and said no more. The thought that whether they could blame others or not did not cover all the ground, rested heavily on him.
THE CRADLE FALLS.
In the rear of the great commercial centre of New Orleans, on that part of Common street where it suddenly widens out, broad, unpaved, and dusty, rises the huge dull-brown structure of brick, famed, well-nigh as far as the city is known, as the Charity Hospital.
Twenty-five years ago, when the emigrant ships used to unload their swarms of homeless and friendless strangers into the streets of New Orleans to fall a prey to yellow-fever or cholera, that solemn pile sheltered thousands on thousands of desolate and plague-stricken Irish and Germans, receiving them unquestioned, until at times the very floors were covered with the sick and dying, and the sawing and hammering in the coffin-shop across the inner court ceased not day or night. Sombre monument at once of charity and sin! For, while its comfort and succor cost the houseless wanderer nothing, it lived and grew, and lives and grows still, upon the licensed vices of the people,—drinking, harlotry, and gambling.
The Charity Hospital of St. Charles—such is its true name—is, however, no mere plague-house. Whether it ought to be, let doctors decide. How good or necessary such modern innovations as "ridge ventilation," "movable bases," the "pavilion plan," "trained nurses," etc., may be, let the Auxiliary Sanitary Association say. There it stands as of old, innocent of all sins that may be involved in any of these changes, rising story over story, up and up: here a ward for poisonous fevers, and there a ward for acute surgical cases; here a story full of simple ailments, and there a ward specially set aside for women.
In 1857 this last was Dr. Sevier's ward. Here, at his stated hour one summer morning in that year, he tarried a moment, yonder by that window, just where you enter the ward and before you come to the beds. He had fallen into discourse with some of the more inquiring minds among the train of students that accompanied him, and waited there to finish and cool down to a physician's proper temperature. The question was public sanitation.
He was telling a tall Arkansan, with high-combed hair, self-conscious gloves, and very broad, clean-shaven lower jaw, how the peculiar formation of delta lands, by which they drain away from the larger watercourses, instead of into them, had made the swamp there in the rear of the town, for more than a century, "the common dumping-ground and cesspool of the city, sir!"
Some of the students nodded convincedly to the speaker; some looked askance at the Arkansan, who put one forearm meditatively under his coat-tail; some looked through the window over the regions alluded to, and some only changed their pose and looked around for a mirror.
The Doctor spoke on. Several of his hearers were really interested in the then unusual subject, and listened intelligently as he pointed across the low plain at hundreds of acres of land that were nothing but a morass, partly filled in with the foulest refuse of a semi-tropical city, and beyond it where still lay the swamp, half cleared of its forest and festering in the sun—"every drop of its waters, and every inch of its mire," said the Doctor, "saturated with the poisonous drainage of the town!"
"I happen," interjected a young city student; but the others bent their ear to the Doctor, who continued:—
"Why, sir, were these regions compactly built on, like similar areas in cities confined to narrow sites, the mortality, with the climate we have, would be frightful."
"I happen to know," essayed the city student; but the Arkansan had made an interrogatory answer to the Doctor, that led him to add:—
"Why, yes; you see the houses here on these lands are little, flimsy, single ground-story affairs, loosely thrown together, and freely exposed to sun and air."
"I hap—," said the city student.
"And yet," exclaimed the Doctor, "Malaria is king!"
He paused an instant for his hearers to take in the figure.
"Doctor, I happen to"—
Some one's fist from behind caused the speaker to turn angrily, and the Doctor resumed:—
"Go into any of those streets off yonder,—Treme, Prieur, Marais. Why, there are often ponds under the houses! The floors of bedrooms are within a foot or two of these ponds! The bricks of the surrounding pavements are often covered with a fine, dark moss! Water seeps up through the sidewalks! That's his realm, sir! Here and there among the residents—every here and there—you'll see his sallow, quaking subjects dragging about their work or into and out of their beds, until a fear of a fatal ending drives them in here. Congestion? Yes, sometimes congestion pulls them under suddenly, and they're gone before they know it. Sometimes their vitality wanes slowly, until Malaria beckons in Consumption."
"Why, Doctor," said the city student, ruffling with pride of his town, "there are plenty of cities as bad as this. I happen to know, for instance"—
Dr. Sevier turned away in quiet contempt.
"It will not improve our town to dirty others, or to clean them, either."
He moved down the ward, while two or three members among the moving train, who never happened to know anything, nudged each other joyfully.
The group stretched out and came along, the Doctor first and the young men after, some of one sort, some of another,—the dull, the frivolous, the earnest, the kind, the cold,—following slowly, pausing, questioning, discoursing, advancing, moving from each clean, slender bed to the next, on this side and on that, down and up the long sanded aisles, among the poor, sick women.
Among these, too, there was variety. Some were stupid and ungracious, hardened and dulled with long penury as some in this world are hardened and dulled with long riches. Some were as fat as beggars; some were old and shrivelled; some were shrivelled and young; some were bold; some were frightened; and here and there was one almost fair.
Down at the far end of one aisle was a bed whose occupant lay watching the distant, slowly approaching group with eyes of unspeakable dread. There was not a word or motion, only the steadfast gaze. Gradually the throng drew near. The faces of the students could be distinguished. This one was coarse; that one was gentle; another was sleepy; another trivial and silly; another heavy and sour; another tender and gracious. Presently the tones of the Doctor's voice could be heard, soft, clear, and without that trumpet quality that it had beyond the sick-room. How slowly, yet how surely, they came! The patient's eyes turned away toward the ceiling; they could not bear the slowness of the encounter. They closed; the lips moved in prayer. The group came to the bed that was only the fourth away; then to the third; then to the second. There they pause some minutes. Now the Doctor approaches the very next bed. Suddenly he notices this patient. She is a small woman, young, fair to see, and, with closed eyes and motionless form, is suffering an agony of consternation. One startled look, a suppressed exclamation, two steps forward,—the patient's eyes slowly open. Ah, me! It is Mary Richling.
"Good-morning, madam," said the physician, with a cold and distant bow; and to the students, "We'll pass right along to the other side," and they moved into the next aisle.
"I am a little pressed for time this morning," he presently remarked, as the students showed some unwillingness to be hurried. As soon as he could he parted with them and returned to the ward alone.
As he moved again down among the sick, straight along this time, turning neither to right nor left, one of the Sisters of Charity—the hospital and its so-called nurses are under their oversight—touched his arm. He stopped impatiently.
"Well, Sister"—(bowing his ear).
"I—I—the—the"—His frown had scared away her power of speech.
"Well, what is it, Sister?"
"The—the last patient down on this side"—
He was further displeased. "I'll attend to the patients, Sister," he said; and then, more kindly, "I'm going there now. No, you stay here, if you please." And he left her behind.
He came and stood by the bed. The patient gazed on him.
"Mrs. Richling," he softly began, and had to cease.
She did not speak or move; she tried to smile, but her eyes filled, her lips quivered.
"My dear madam," exclaimed the physician, in a low voice, "what brought you here?"
The answer was inarticulate, but he saw it on the moving lips.
"Want," said Mary.
"But your husband?" He stooped to catch the husky answer.
"Home?" He could not understand. "Not gone to—back—up the river?"
She slowly shook her head: "No, home. In Prieur street."
Still her words were riddles. He could not see how she had come to this. He stood silent, not knowing how to utter his thought. At length he opened his lips to speak, hesitated an instant, and then asked:—
"Mrs. Richling, tell me plainly, has your husband gone wrong?"
Her eyes looked up a moment, upon him, big and staring, and suddenly she spoke:—
"O Doctor! My husband go wrong? John go wrong?" The eyelids closed down, the head rocked slowly from side to side on the flat hospital pillow, and the first two tears he had ever seen her shed welled from the long lashes and slipped down her cheeks.
"My poor child!" said the Doctor, taking her hand in his. "No, no! God forgive me! He hasn't gone wrong; he's not going wrong. You'll tell me all about it when you're stronger."
The Doctor had her removed to one of the private rooms of the pay-ward, and charged the Sisters to take special care of her. "Above all things," he murmured, with a beetling frown, "tell that thick-headed nurse not to let her know that this is at anybody's expense. Ah, yes; and when her husband comes, tell him to see me at my office as soon as he possibly can."
As he was leaving the hospital gate he had an afterthought. "I might have left a note." He paused, with his foot on the carriage-step. "I suppose they'll tell him,"—and so he got in and drove off, looking at his watch.
On his second visit, although he came in with a quietly inspiring manner, he had also, secretly, the feeling of a culprit. But, midway of the room, when the young head on the pillow turned its face toward him, his heart rose. For the patient smiled. As he drew nearer she slid out her feeble hand. "I'm glad I came here," she murmured.
"Yes," he replied; "this room is much better than the open ward."
"I didn't mean this room," she said. "I meant the whole hospital."
"The whole hospital!" He raised his eyebrows, as to a child.
"Ah! Doctor," she responded, her eyes kindling, though moist.
"What, my child?"
She smiled upward to his bent face.
"The poor—mustn't be ashamed of the poor, must they?"
The Doctor only stroked her brow, and presently turned and addressed his professional inquiries to the nurse. He went away. Just outside the door he asked the nurse:—
"Hasn't her husband been here?"
"Yes," was the reply, "but she was asleep, and he only stood there at the door and looked in a bit. He trembled," the unintelligent woman added, for the Doctor seemed waiting to hear more,—"he trembled all over; and that's all he did, excepting his saying her name over to himself like, over and over, and wiping of his eyes."
"And nobody told him anything?"
"Oh, not a word, sir!" came the eager answer.
"You didn't tell him to come and see me?"
The woman gave a start, looked dismayed, and began:—
"N-no, sir; you didn't tell"—
"Um—hum," growled the Doctor. He took out a card and wrote on it. "Now see if you can remember to give him that."
As the day faded away it began to rain. The next morning the water was coming down in torrents. Richling, looking out from a door in Prieur street, found scant room for one foot on the inner edge of the sidewalk; all the rest was under water. By noon the sidewalks were completely covered in miles of streets. By two in the afternoon the flood was coming into many of the houses. By three it was up at the door-sill on which he stood. There it stopped.
He could do nothing but stand and look. Skiffs, canoes, hastily improvised rafts, were moving in every direction, carrying the unsightly chattels of the poor out of their overflowed cottages to higher ground. Barrels, boxes, planks, hen-coops, bridge lumber, piles of straw that waltzed solemnly as they went, cord-wood, old shingles, door-steps, floated here and there in melancholy confusion; and down upon all still drizzled the slackening rain. At length it ceased.
Richling still stood in the door-way, the picture of mute helplessness. Yes, there was one other thing he could do; he could laugh. It would have been hard to avoid it sometimes, there were such ludicrous sights,—such slips and sprawls into the water; so there he stood in that peculiar isolation that deaf people content themselves with, now looking the picture of anxious waiting, now indulging a low, deaf man's chuckle when something made the rowdies and slatterns of the street roar.
Presently he noticed, at a distance up the way, a young man in a canoe, passing, much to their good-natured chagrin, a party of three in a skiff, who had engaged him in a trial of speed. From both boats a shower of hilarious French was issuing. At the nearest corner the skiff party turned into another street and disappeared, throwing their lingual fireworks to the last. The canoe came straight on with the speed of a fish. Its dexterous occupant was no other than Narcisse.
There was a grace in his movement that kept Richling's eyes on him, when he would rather have withdrawn into the house. Down went the paddle always on the same side, noiselessly, in front; on darted the canoe; backward stretched the submerged paddle and came out of the water edgewise at full reach behind, with an almost imperceptible swerving motion that kept the slender craft true to its course. No rocking; no rush of water before or behind; only the one constant glassy ripple gliding on either side as silently as a beam of light. Suddenly, without any apparent change of movement in the sinewy wrists, the narrow shell swept around in a quarter circle, and Narcisse sat face to face with Richling.
Each smiled brightly at the other. The handsome Creole's face was aglow with the pure delight of existence.
"Well, Mistoo Itchlin, 'ow you enjoyin' that watah? As fah as myseff am concerned, 'I am afloat, I am afloat on the fee-us 'olling tide.' I don't think you fine that stweet pwetty dusty to-day, Mistoo Itchlin?"
"It don't inflame my eyes to-day," he said.
"You muz egscuse my i'ony, Mistoo Itchlin; I can't 'ep that sometime'. It come natu'al to me, in fact. I was on'y speaking i'oniously juz now in calling allusion to that dust; because, of co'se, theh is no dust to-day, because the g'ound is all covvud with watah, in fact. Some people don't understand that figgah of i'ony."
"I don't understand as much about it myself as I'd like to," said Richling.
"Me, I'm ve'y fon' of it," responded the Creole. "I was making seve'al i'onies ad those fwen' of mine juz now. We was 'unning a 'ace. An' thass anotheh thing I am fon' of. I would 'ather 'un a 'ace than to wuck faw a livin'. Ha! ha! ha! I should thing so! Anybody would, in fact. But thass the way with me—always making some i'onies." He stopped with a sudden change of countenance, and resumed gravely: "Mistoo Itchlin, looks to me like you' lookin' ve'y salad." He fanned himself with his hat. "I dunno 'ow 'tis with you, Mistoo Itchlin, but I fine myseff ve'y oppwessive thiz evening."
"I don't find you so," said Richling, smiling broadly.
And he did not. The young Creole's burning face and resplendent wit were a sunset glow in the darkness of this day of overpowering adversity. His presence even supplied, for a moment, what seemed a gleam of hope. Why wasn't there here an opportunity to visit the hospital? He need not tell Narcisse the object of his visit.
"Do you think," asked Richling, persuasively, crouching down upon one of his heels, "that I could sit in that thing without turning it over?"
"In that pee-ogue?" Narcisse smiled the smile of the proficient as he waved his paddle across the canoe. "Mistoo Itchlin,"—the smile passed off,—"I dunno if you'll billiv me, but at the same time I muz tell you the tooth?"—
He paused inquiringly.
"Certainly," said Richling, with evident disappointment.
"Well, it's juz a poss'bil'ty that you'll wefwain fum spillin' out fum yeh till the negs cawneh. Thass the manneh of those who ah not acquainted with the pee-ogue. 'Lost to sight, to memo'y deah'—if you'll egscuse the maxim. Thass Chawles Dickens mague use of that egspwession."
Richling answered with a gay shake of the head. "I'll keep out of it." If Narcisse detected his mortified chagrin, he did not seem to. It was hard; the day's last hope was blown out like a candle in the wind. Richling dared not risk the wetting of his suit of clothes; they were his sole letter of recommendation and capital in trade.
"Well, au 'evoi', Mistoo Itchlin." He turned and moved off—dip, glide, and away.
* * *
Dr. Sevier stamped his wet feet on the pavement of the hospital porch. It was afternoon of the day following that of the rain. The water still covering the streets about the hospital had not prevented his carriage from splashing through it on his double daily round. A narrow and unsteady plank spanned the immersed sidewalk. Three times, going and coming, he had crossed it safely, and this fourth time he had made half the distance well enough; but, hearing distant cheers and laughter, he looked up street; when—splatter!—and the cheers were redoubled.
"Pretty thing to laugh at!" he muttered. Two or three bystanders, leaning on their umbrellas in the lodge at the gate and in the porch, where he stood stamping, turned their backs and smoothed their mouths.
"Hah!" said the tall Doctor, stamping harder. Stamp!—stamp! He shook his leg.—"Bah!" He stamped the other long, slender, wet foot and looked down at it, turning one side and then the other.—"F-fah!"—The first one again.—"Pshaw!"—The other.—Stamp!—stamp!—"Right—into it!—up to my ankles!" He looked around with a slight scowl at one man, who seemed taken with a sudden softening of the spine and knees, and who turned his back quickly and fell against another, who, also with his back turned, was leaning tremulously against a pillar.
But the object of mirth did not tarry. He went as he was to Mary's room, and found her much better—as, indeed, he had done at every visit. He sat by her bed and listened to her story.
"Why, Doctor, you see, we did nicely for a while. John went on getting the same kind of work, and pleasing everybody, of course, and all he lacked was finding something permanent. Still, we passed through one month after another, and we really began to think the sun was coming out, so to speak."
"Well, I thought so, too," put in the Doctor. "I thought if it didn't you'd let me know."
"Why, no, Doctor, we couldn't do that; you couldn't be taking care of well people."
"Well," said the Doctor, dropping that point, "I suppose as the busy season began to wane that mode of livelihood, of course, disappeared."
"Yes,"—a little one-sided smile,—"and so did our money. And then, of course,"—she slightly lifted and waved her hand.
"You had to live," said Dr. Sevier, sincerely.
She smiled again, with abstracted eyes. "We thought we'd like to," she said. "I didn't mind the loss of the things so much,—except the little table we ate from. You remember that little round table, don't you?"
The visitor had not the heart to say no. He nodded.
"When that went there was but one thing left that could go."
"Not your bed?"
"The bedstead; yes."
"You didn't sell your bed, Mrs. Richling?"
The tears gushed from her eyes. She made a sign of assent.
"But then," she resumed, "we made an excellent arrangement with a good woman who had just lost her husband, and wanted to live cheaply, too."
"What amuses you, madam?"
"Nothing great. But I wish you knew her. She's funny. Well, so we moved down-town again. Didn't cost much to move."
She would smile a little in spite of him.
"And then?" said he, stirring impatiently and leaning forward. "What then?"
"Why, then I worked a little harder than I thought,—pulling trunks around and so on,—and I had this third attack."
The Doctor straightened himself up, folded his arms, and muttered:—
"Oh!—oh! Why wasn't I instantly sent for?"
The tears were in her eyes again, but—
"Doctor," she answered, with her odd little argumentative smile, "how could we? We had nothing to pay with. It wouldn't have been just."
"Just!" exclaimed the physician, angrily.
"Doctor," said the invalid, and looked at him.
She made no answer but to look at him still more pleadingly.
"Wouldn't it have been just as fair to let me be generous, madam?" His faint smile was bitter. "For once? Simply for once?"
"We couldn't make that proposition, could we, Doctor?"
He was checkmated.
"Mrs. Richling," he said suddenly, clasping the back of his chair as if about to rise, "tell me,—did you or your husband act this way for anything I've ever said or done?"
"No, Doctor! no, no; never! But"—
"But kindness should seek—not be sought," said the physician, starting up.
"No, Doctor, we didn't look on it so. Of course we didn't. If there's any fault it's all mine. For it was my own proposition to John, that as we had to seek charity we should just be honest and open about it. I said, 'John, as I need the best attention, and as that can be offered free only in the hospital, why, to the hospital I ought to go.'"
She lay still, and the Doctor pondered. Presently he said:—
"And Mr. Richling—I suppose he looks for work all the time?"
"From daylight to dark!"
"Well, the water is passing off. He'll be along by and by to see you, no doubt. Tell him to call, first thing to-morrow morning, at my office." And with that the Doctor went off in his wet boots, committed a series of indiscretions, reached home, and fell ill.
In the wanderings of fever he talked of the Richlings, and in lucid moments inquired for them.
"Yes, yes," answered the sick Doctor's physician, "they're attended to. Yes, all their wants are supplied. Just dismiss them from your mind." In the eyes of this physician the Doctor's life was invaluable, and these patients, or pensioners, an unknown and, most likely, an inconsiderable quantity; two sparrows, as it were, worth a farthing. But the sick man lay thinking. He frowned.
"I wish they would go home."
"I have sent them."
"You have? Home to Milwaukee?"
He soon began to mend. Yet it was weeks before he could leave the house. When one day he reentered the hospital, still pale and faint, he was prompt to express to the Mother-Superior the comfort he had felt in his sickness to know that his brother physician had sent those Richlings to their kindred.
The Sister shook her head. He saw the deception in an instant. As best his strength would allow, he hurried to the keeper of the rolls. There was the truth. Home? Yes,—to Prieur street,—discharged only one week before. He drove quickly to his office.
"Narcisse, you will find that young Mr. Richling living in Prieur street, somewhere between Conti and St. Louis. I don't know the house; you'll have to find it. Tell him I'm in my office again, and to come and see me."
Narcisse was no such fool as to say he knew the house. He would get the praise of finding it quickly.
"I'll do my mose awduous, seh," he said, took down his coat, hung up his jacket, put on his hat, and went straight to the house and knocked. Got no answer. Knocked again, and a third time; but in vain. Went next door and inquired of a pretty girl, who fell in love with him at a glance.
"Yes, but they had moved. She wasn't jess ezac'ly sure where they had moved to, unless-n it was in that little house yondeh between St. Louis and Toulouse; and if they wasn't there she didn't know where they was. People ought to leave words where they's movin' at, but they don't. You're very welcome," she added, as he expressed his thanks; and he would have been welcome had he questioned her for an hour. His parting bow and smile stuck in her heart a six-months.
He went to the spot pointed out. As a Creole he was used to seeing very respectable people living in very small and plain houses. This one was not too plain even for his ideas of Richling, though it was but a little one-street-door-and-window affair, with an alley on the left running back into the small yard behind. He knocked. Again no one answered. He looked down the alley and saw, moving about the yard, a large woman, who, he felt certain, could not be Mrs. Richling.
Two little short-skirted, bare-legged girls were playing near him. He spoke to them in French. Did they know where Monsieu' Itchlin lived? The two children repeated the name, looking inquiringly at each other.
"Non, miche."—"No, sir, they didn't know."
"Qui reste ici?" he asked. "Who lives here?"
"Ici? Madame qui reste la c'est Mizziz Ri-i-i-ly!" said one.
"Yass," said the other, breaking into English and rubbing a musquito off of her well-tanned shank with the sole of her foot, "tis Mizziz Ri-i-i-ly what live there. She jess move een. She's got a lill baby.—Oh! you means dat lady what was in de Chatty Hawspill!"
"No, no! A real, nice lady. She nevva saw that Cha'ity Hospi'l."
The little girls shook their heads. They couldn't imagine a person who had never seen the Charity Hospital.
"Was there nobody else who had moved into any of these houses about here lately?" He spoke again in French. They shook their heads. Two boys came forward and verified the testimony. Narcisse went back with his report: "Moved,—not found."
"I fine that ve'y d'oll, Doctah Seveeah," concluded the unaugmented, hanging up his hat; "some peop' always 'ard to fine. I h-even notiz that sem thing w'en I go to colic' some bill. I dunno 'ow' tis, Doctah, but I assu' you I kin tell that by a man's physio'nomie. Nobody teach me that. 'Tis my own ingeenu'ty 'as made me to discoveh that, in fact."
The Doctor was silent. Presently he drew a piece of paper toward him and, dipping his pen into the ink, began to write:—
"Information wanted of the whereabouts of John Richling"—
"Narcisse," he called, still writing, "I want you to take an advertisement to the 'Picayune' office."
"With the gweatez of pleazheh, seh." The clerk began his usual shifting of costume. "Yesseh! I assu' you, Doctah, that is a p'oposition moze enti'ly to my satizfagtion; faw I am suffe'ing faw a smoke, and deztitute of a ciga'ette! I am aztonizh' 'ow I did that, to egshauz them unconsciouzly, in fact." He received the advertisement in an envelope, whipped his shoes a little with his handkerchief, and went out. One would think to hear him thundering down the stairs, that it was twenty-five cents' worth of ice.
"Hold o—" The Doctor started from his seat, then turned and paced feebly up and down. Who, besides Richling, might see that notice? What might be its unexpected results? Who was John Richling? A man with a secret at the best; and a secret, in Dr. Sevier's eyes, was detestable. Might not Richling be a man who had fled from something? "No! no!" The Doctor spoke aloud. He had promised to think nothing ill of him. Let the poor children have their silly secret. He spoke again: "They'll find out the folly of it by and by." He let the advertisement go; and it went.
Richling had a dollar in his pocket. A man touched him on the shoulder.
But let us see. On the day that John and Mary had sold their only bedstead, Mrs. Riley, watching them, had proposed the joint home. The offer had been accepted with an eagerness that showed itself in nervous laughter. Mrs. Riley then took quarters in Prieur street, where John and Mary, for a due consideration, were given a single neatly furnished back room. The bedstead had brought seven dollars. Richling, on the day after the removal, was in the commercial quarter, looking, as usual, for employment.
The young man whom Dr. Sevier had first seen, in the previous October, moving with a springing step and alert, inquiring glances from number to number in Carondelet street was slightly changed. His step was firm, but something less elastic, and not quite so hurried. His face was more thoughtful, and his glance wanting in a certain dancing freshness that had been extremely pleasant. He was walking in Poydras street toward the river.
As he came near to a certain man who sat in the entrance of a store with the freshly whittled corner of a chair between his knees, his look and bow were grave, but amiable, quietly hearty, deferential, and also self-respectful—and uncommercial: so palpably uncommercial that the sitter did not rise or even shut his knife.
He slightly stared. Richling, in a low, private tone, was asking him for employment.
"What?" turning his ear up and frowning downward.
The application was repeated, the first words with a slightly resentful ring, but the rest more quietly.
The store-keeper stared again, and shook his head slowly.
"No, sir," he said, in a barely audible tone. Richling moved on, not stopping at the next place, or the next, or the next; for he felt the man's stare all over his back until he turned the corner and found himself in Tchoupitoulas street. Nor did he stop at the first place around the corner. It smelt of deteriorating potatoes and up-river cabbages, and there were open barrels of onions set ornamentally aslant at the entrance. He had a fatal conviction that his services would not be wanted in malodorous places.
"Now, isn't that a shame?" asked the chair-whittler, as Richling passed out of sight. "Such a gentleman as that, to be beggin' for work from door to door!"
"He's not beggin' f'om do' to do'," said a second, with a Creole accent on his tongue, and a match stuck behind his ear like a pen. "Beside, he's too much of a gennlemun."
"That's where you and him differs," said the first. He frowned upon the victim of his delicate repartee with make-believe defiance. Number Two drew from an outside coat-pocket a wad of common brown wrapping-paper, tore from it a small, neat parallelogram, dove into an opposite pocket for some loose smoking-tobacco, laid a pinch of it in the paper, and, with a single dexterous turn of the fingers, thumbs above, the rest beneath,—it looks simple, but 'tis an amazing art,—made a cigarette. Then he took down his match, struck it under his short coat-skirt, lighted his cigarette, drew an inhalation through it that consumed a third of its length, and sat there, with his eyes half-closed, and all that smoke somewhere inside of him.
"That young man," remarked a third, wiping a toothpick on his thigh and putting it in his vest-pocket, as he stepped to the front, "don't know how to look fur work. There's one way fur a day-laborer to look fur work, and there's another way fur a gentleman to look fur work, and there's another way fur a—a—a man with money to look fur somethin' to put his money into. It's just like fishing!" He threw both hands outward and downward, and made way for a porter's truck with a load of green meat. The smoke began to fall from Number Two's nostrils in two slender blue streams. Number Three continued:—
"You've got to know what kind o' hooks you want, and what kind o' bait you want, and then, after that, you've"—
Numbers One and Two did not let him finish.
"—Got to know how to fish," they said; "that's so!" The smoke continued to leak slowly from Number Two's nostrils and teeth, though he had not lifted his cigarette the second time.
"Yes, you've got to know how to fish," reaffirmed the third. "If you don't know how to fish, it's as like as not that nobody can tell you what's the matter; an' yet, all the same, you aint goin' to ketch no fish."
"Well, now," said the first man, with an unconvinced swing of his chin, "spunk 'll sometimes pull a man through; and you can't say he aint spunky." Number Three admitted the corollary. Number Two looked up: his chance had come.
"He'd a w'ipped you faw a dime," said he to Number One, took a comforting draw from his cigarette, and felt a great peace.
"I take notice he's a little deaf," said Number Three, still alluding to Richling.
"That'd spoil him for me," said Number One.
Number Three asked why.
"Oh, I just wouldn't have him about me. Didn't you ever notice that a deaf man always seems like a sort o' stranger? I can't bear 'em."
Richling meanwhile moved on. His critics were right. He was not wanting in courage; but no man from the moon could have been more an alien on those sidewalks. He was naturally diligent, active, quick-witted, and of good, though maybe a little too scholarly address; quick of temper, it is true, and uniting his quickness of temper with a certain bashfulness,—an unlucky combination, since, as a consequence, nobody had to get out of its way; but he was generous in fact and in speech, and never held malice a moment. But, besides the heavy odds which his small secret seemed to be against him, stopping him from accepting such valuable friendships as might otherwise have come to him, and besides his slight deafness, he was by nature a recluse, or, at least, a dreamer. Every day that he set foot on Tchoupitoulas, or Carondelet, or Magazine, or Fulton, or Poydras street he came from a realm of thought, seeking service in an empire of matter.
There is a street in New Orleans called Triton Walk. That is what all the ways of commerce and finance and daily bread-getting were to Richling. He was a merman—ashore. It was the feeling rather than the knowledge of this that prompted him to this daily, aimless trudging after mere employment. He had a proper pride; once in a while a little too much; nor did he clearly see his deficiencies; and yet the unrecognized consciousness that he had not the commercial instinct made him willing—as Number Three would have said—to "cut bait" for any fisherman who would let him do it.
He turned without any distinct motive and, retracing his steps to the corner, passed up across Poydras street. A little way above it he paused to look at some machinery in motion. He liked machinery,—for itself rather than for its results. He would have gone in and examined the workings of this apparatus had it not been for the sign above his head, "No Admittance." Those words always seemed painted for him. A slight modification in Richling's character might have made him an inventor. Some other faint difference, and he might have been a writer, a historian, an essayist, or even—there is no telling—a well-fed poet. With the question of food, raiment, and shelter permanently settled, he might have become one of those resplendent flash lights that at intervals dart their beams across the dark waters of the world's ignorance, hardly from new continents, but from the observatory, the study, the laboratory. But he was none of these. There had been a crime committed somewhere in his bringing up, and as a result he stood in the thick of life's battle, weaponless. He gazed upon machinery with childlike wonder; but when he looked around and saw on every hand men,—good fellows who ate in their shirt-sleeves at restaurants, told broad jokes, spread their mouths and smote their sides when they laughed, and whose best wit was to bombard one another with bread-crusts and hide behind the sugar-bowl; men whom he could have taught in every kind of knowledge that they were capable of grasping, except the knowledge of how to get money,—when he saw these men, as it seemed to him, grow rich daily by simply flipping beans into each other's faces, or slapping each other on the back, the wonder of machinery was eclipsed. Do as they did? He? He could no more reach a conviction as to what the price of corn would be to-morrow than he could remember what the price of sugar was yesterday.
He called himself an accountant, gulping down his secret pride with an amiable glow that commanded, instantly, an amused esteem. And, to judge by his evident familiarity with Tonti's beautiful scheme of mercantile records, he certainly—those guessed whose books he had extricated from confusion—had handled money and money values in days before his unexplained coming to New Orleans. Yet a close observer would have noticed that he grasped these tasks only as problems, treated them in their mathematical and enigmatical aspect, and solved them without any appreciation of their concrete values. When they were done he felt less personal interest in them than in the architectural beauty of the store-front, whose window-shutters he had never helped to close without a little heart-leap of pleasure.
But, standing thus, and looking in at the machinery, a man touched him on the shoulder.
"Good-morning," said the man. He wore a pleasant air. It seemed to say, "I'm nothing much, but you'll recognize me in a moment; I'll wait." He was short, square, solid, beardless; in years, twenty-five or six. His skin was dark, his hair almost black, his eyebrows strong. In his mild black eyes you could see the whole Mediterranean. His dress was coarse, but clean; his linen soft and badly laundered. But under all the rough garb and careless, laughing manner was visibly written again and again the name of the race that once held the world under its feet.
"You don't remember me?" he added, after a moment.
"No," said Richling, pleasantly, but with embarrassment. The man waited another moment, and suddenly Richling recalled their earlier meeting. The man, representing a wholesale confectioner in one of the smaller cities up the river, had bought some cordials and syrups of the house whose books Richling had last put in order.
"Why, yes I do, too!" said Richling. "You left your pocket-book in my care for two or three days; your own private money, you said."
"Yes." The man laughed softly. "Lost that money. Sent it to the boss. Boss died—store seized—everything gone." His English was well pronounced, but did not escape a pretty Italian accent, too delicate for the printer's art.
"Oh! that was too bad!" Richling laid his hand upon an awning-post and twined an arm and leg around it as though he were a vine. "I—I forget your name."
"Ristofalo. Raphael Ristofalo. Yours is Richling. Yes, knocked me flat. Not got cent in world." The Italian's low, mellow laugh claimed Richling's admiration.
"Why, when did that happen?" he asked.
"Yes'day," replied the other, still laughing.
"And how are you going to provide for the future?" Richling asked, smiling down into the face of the shorter man. The Italian tossed the future away with the back of his hand.
"I got nothin' do with that." His words were low, but very distinct.
Thereupon Richling laughed, leaning his cheek against the post.
"Must provide for the present," said Raphael Ristofalo. Richling dropped his eyes in thought. The present! He had never been able to see that it was the present which must be provided against, until, while he was training his guns upon the future, the most primitive wants of the present burst upon him right and left like whooping savages.
"Can you lend me dollar?" asked the Italian. "Give you back dollar an' quarter to-morrow."
Richling gave a start and let go the post. "Why, Mr. Risto—falo, I—I—, the fact is, I"—he shook his head—"I haven't much money."
"Dollar will start me," said the Italian, whose feet had not moved an inch since he touched Richling's shoulder. "Be aw righ' to-morrow."
"You can't invest one dollar by itself," said the incredulous Richling.
"Yes. Return her to-morrow."
Richling swung his head from side to side as an expression of disrelish. "I haven't been employed for some time."
"I goin' t'employ myself," said Ristofalo.
Richling laughed again. There was a faint betrayal of distress in his voice as it fell upon the cunning ear of the Italian; but he laughed too, very gently and innocently, and stood in his tracks.
"I wouldn't like to refuse a dollar to a man who needs it," said Richling. He took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. "I've seen the time when it was much easier to lend than it is just now." He thrust his hand down into his pocket and stood gazing at the sidewalk.
The Italian glanced at Richling askance, and with one sweep of the eye from the softened crown of his hat to the slender, white bursted slit in the outer side of either well-polished shoe, took in the beauty of his face and a full understanding of his condition. His hair, somewhat dry, had fallen upon his forehead. His fine, smooth skin was darkened by the exposure of his daily wanderings. His cheek-bones, a trifle high, asserted their place above the softly concave cheeks. His mouth was closed and the lips were slightly compressed; the chin small, gracefully turned, not weak,—not strong. His eyes were abstracted, deep, pensive. His dress told much. The fine plaits of his shirt had sprung apart and been neatly sewed together again. His coat was a little faulty in the set of the collar, as if the person who had taken the garment apart and turned the goods had not put it together again with practised skill. It was without spot and the buttons were new. The edges of his shirt-cuffs had been trimmed with the scissors. Face and vesture alike revealed to the sharp eye of the Italian the woe underneath. "He has a wife," thought Ristofalo.
Richling looked up with a smile. "How can you be so sure you will make, and not lose?"
"I never fail." There was not the least shade of boasting in the man's manner. Richling handed out his dollar. It was given without patronage and taken with simple thanks.
"Where goin' to meet to-morrow morning?" asked Ristofalo. "Here?"
"Oh! I forgot," said Richling. "Yes, I suppose so; and then you'll tell me how you invested it, will you?"
"Yes, but you couldn't do it."
Raphael Ristofalo laughed. "Oh! fifty reason'."
HOW HE DID IT.
Ristofalo and Richling had hardly separated, when it occurred to the latter that the Italian had first touched him from behind. Had Ristofalo recognized him with his back turned, or had he seen him earlier and followed him? The facts were these: about an hour before the time when Richling omitted to apply for employment in the ill-smelling store in Tchoupitoulas street, Mr. Raphael Ristofalo halted in front of the same place,—which appeared small and slovenly among its more pretentious neighbors,—and stepped just inside the door to where stood a single barrel of apples,—a fruit only the earliest varieties of which were beginning to appear in market. These were very small, round, and smooth, and with a rather wan blush confessed to more than one of the senses that they had seen better days. He began to pick them up and throw them down—one, two, three, four, seven, ten; about half of them were entirely sound.
"How many barrel' like this?"
"No got-a no more; dass all," said the dealer. He was a Sicilian. "Lame duck," he added. "Oael de rest gone."