"How much?" asked Ristofalo, still handling the fruit.
The Sicilian came to the barrel, looked in, and said, with a gesture of indifference:—
"'M—doll' an' 'alf."
Ristofalo offered to take them at a dollar if he might wash and sort them under the dealer's hydrant, which could be heard running in the back yard. The offer would have been rejected with rude scorn but for one thing: it was spoken in Italian. The man looked at him with pleased surprise, and made the concession. The porter of the store, in a red worsted cap, had drawn near. Ristofalo bade him roll the barrel on its chine to the rear and stand it by the hydrant.
"I will come back pretty soon," he said, in Italian, and went away.
By and by he returned, bringing with him two swarthy, heavy-set, little Sicilian lads, each with his inevitable basket and some clean rags. A smile and gesture to the store-keeper, a word to the boys, and in a moment the barrel was upturned, and the pair were washing, wiping, and sorting the sound and unsound apples at the hydrant.
Ristofalo stood a moment in the entrance of the store. The question now was where to get a dollar. Richling passed, looked in, seemed to hesitate, went on, turned, and passed again, the other way. Ristofalo saw him all the time and recognized him at once, but appeared not to observe him.
"He will do," thought the Italian. "Be back few minute'," he said, glancing behind him.
"Or-r righ'," said the store-keeper, with a hand-wave of good-natured confidence. He recognized Mr. Raphael Ristofalo's species.
The Italian walked up across Poydras street, saw Richling stop and look at the machinery, approached, and touched him on the shoulder.
On parting with him he did not return to the store where he had left the apples. He walked up Tchoupitoulas street about a mile, and where St. Thomas street branches acutely from it, in a squalid district full of the poorest Irish, stopped at a dirty fruit-stand and spoke in Spanish to its Catalan proprietor. Half an hour later twenty-five cents had changed hands, the Catalan's fruit shelves were bright with small pyramids—sound side foremost—of Ristofalo's second grade of apples, the Sicilian had Richling's dollar, and the Italian was gone with his boys and his better grade of fruit. Also, a grocer had sold some sugar, and a druggist a little paper of some harmless confectioner's dye.
Down behind the French market, in a short, obscure street that runs from Ursulines to Barracks street, and is named in honor of Albert Gallatin, are some old buildings of three or four stories' height, rented, in John Richling's day, to a class of persons who got their livelihood by sub-letting the rooms, and parts of rooms, to the wretchedest poor of New Orleans,—organ-grinders, chimney-sweeps, professional beggars, street musicians, lemon-peddlers, rag-pickers, with all the yet dirtier herd that live by hook and crook in the streets or under the wharves; a room with a bed and stove, a room without, a half-room with or without ditto, a quarter-room with or without a blanket or quilt, and with only a chalk-mark on the floor instead of a partition. Into one of these went Mr. Raphael Ristofalo, the two boys, and the apples. Whose assistance or indulgence, if any, he secured in there is not recorded; but when, late in the afternoon, the Italian issued thence—the boys, meanwhile, had been coming and going—an unusual luxury had been offered the roustabouts and idlers of the steam-boat landings, and many had bought and eaten freely of the very small, round, shiny, sugary, and artificially crimson roasted apples, with neatly whittled white-pine stems to poise them on as they were lifted to the consumer's watering teeth. When, the next morning Richling laughed at the story, the Italian drew out two dollars and a half, and began to take from it a dollar.
"But you have last night's lodging and so forth yet to pay for."
"No. Made friends with Sicilian luggerman. Slept in his lugger." He showed his brow and cheeks speckled with mosquito-bites. "Ate little hard-tack and coffee with him this morning. Don't want much." He offered the dollar with a quarter added. Richling declined the bonus.
"But why not?"
"Oh, I just couldn't do it," laughed Richling; "that's all."
"Well," said the Italian, "lend me that dollar one day more, I return you dollar and half in its place to-morrow."
The lender had to laugh again. "You can't find an odd barrel of damaged apples every day."
"No. No apples to-day. But there's regiment soldiers at lower landing; whole steam-boat load; going to sail this evenin' to Florida. They'll eat whole barrel hard-boil' eggs."—And they did. When they sailed, the Italian's pocket was stuffed with small silver.
Richling received his dollar and fifty cents. As he did so, "I would give, if I had it, a hundred dollars for half your art," he said, laughing unevenly. He was beaten, surpassed, humbled. Still he said, "Come, don't you want this again? You needn't pay me for the use of it."
But the Italian refused. He had outgrown his patron. A week afterward Richling saw him at the Picayune Tier, superintending the unloading of a small schooner-load of bananas. He had bought the cargo, and was reselling to small fruiterers.
"Make fifty dolla' to-day," said the Italian, marking his tally-board with a piece of chalk.
Richling clapped him joyfully on the shoulder, but turned around with inward distress and hurried away. He had not found work.
Events followed of which we have already taken knowledge. Mary, we have seen, fell sick and was taken to the hospital.
"I shall go mad!" Richling would moan, with his dishevelled brows between his hands, and then start to his feet, exclaiming, "I must not! I must not! I must keep my senses!" And so to the commercial regions or to the hospital.
Dr. Sevier, as we know, left word that Richling should call and see him; but when he called, a servant—very curtly, it seemed to him—said the Doctor was not well and didn't want to see anybody. This was enough for a young man who hadn't his senses. The more he needed a helping hand the more unreasonably shy he became of those who might help him.
"Will nobody come and find us?" Yet he would not cry "Whoop!" and how, then, was anybody to come?
Mary returned to the house again (ah! what joys there are in the vale of tribulation!), and grew strong,—stronger, she averred, than ever she had been.
"And now you'll not be cast down, will you?" she said, sliding into her husband's lap. She was in an uncommonly playful mood.
"Not a bit of it," said John. "Every dog has his day. I'll come to the top. You'll see."
"Don't I know that?" she responded, "Look here, now," she exclaimed, starting to her feet and facing him, "I'll recommend you to anybody. I've got confidence in you!" Richling thought she had never looked quite so pretty as at that moment. He leaped from his chair with a laughing ejaculation, caught and swung her an instant from her feet, and landed her again before she could cry out. If, in retort, she smote him so sturdily that she had to retreat backward to rearrange her shaken coil of hair, it need not go down on the record; such things will happen. The scuffle and suppressed laughter were detected even in Mrs. Riley's room.
"Ah!" sighed the widow to herself, "wasn't it Kate Riley that used to get the sweet, haird knocks!" Her grief was mellowing.
Richling went out on the old search, which the advancing summer made more nearly futile each day than the day before.
Stop. What sound was that?
Richling, walking in a commercial street, turned. A member of the firm that had last employed him beckoned him to halt.
"What are you doing now, Richling? Still acting deputy assistant city surveyor pro tem.?"
"Well, see here! Why haven't you been in the store to see us lately? Did I seem a little preoccupied the last time you called?"
"I"—Richling dropped his eyes with an embarrassed smile—"I was afraid I was in the way—or should be."
"Well and suppose you were? A man that's looking for work must put himself in the way. But come with me. I think I may be able to give you a lift."
"How's that?" asked Richling, as they started off abreast.
"There's a house around the corner here that will give you some work,—temporary anyhow, and may be permanent."
So Richling was at work again, hidden away from Dr. Sevier between journal and ledger. His employers asked for references. Richling looked dismayed for a moment, then said, "I'll bring somebody to recommend me," went away, and came back with Mary.
"All the recommendation I've got," said he, with timid elation. There was a laugh all round.
"Well, madam, if you say he's all right, we don't doubt he is!"
"Doctah Seveeah," said Narcisse, suddenly, as he finished sticking with great fervor the postage-stamps on some letters the Doctor had written, and having studied with much care the phraseology of what he had to say, and screwed up his courage to the pitch of utterance, "I saw yo' notiz on the noozpapeh this mornin'."
The unresponding Doctor closed his eyes in unutterable weariness of the innocent young gentleman's prepared speeches.
"Yesseh. 'Tis a beaucheouz notiz. I fine that w'itten with the gweatez accu'acy of diction, in fact. I made a twanslation of that faw my hant. Thaz a thing I am fon' of, twanslation. I dunno 'ow 'tis, Doctah," he continued, preparing to go out,—"I dunno 'ow 'tis, but I thing, you goin' to fine that Mistoo Itchlin ad the en'. I dunno 'ow 'tis. Well, I'm goin' ad the"—
The Doctor looked up fiercely.
"Bank," said Narcisse, getting near the door.
"All right!" grumbled the Doctor, more politely.
"Yesseh—befo' I go ad the poss-office."
A great many other persons had seen the advertisement. There were many among them who wondered if Mr. John Richling could be such a fool as to fall into that trap. There were others—some of them women, alas!—who wondered how it was that nobody advertised for information concerning them, and who wished, yes, "wished to God," that such a one, or such a one, who had had his money-bags locked up long enough, would die, and then you'd see who'd be advertised for. Some idlers looked in vain into the city directory to see if Mr. John Richling were mentioned there. But Richling himself did not see the paper. His employers, or some fellow-clerk, might have pointed it out to him, but—we shall see in a moment.
Time passed. It always does. At length, one morning, as Dr. Sevier lay on his office lounge, fatigued after his attentions to callers, and much enervated by the prolonged summer heat, there entered a small female form, closely veiled. He rose to a sitting posture.
"Good-morning, Doctor," said a voice, hurriedly, behind the veil. "Doctor," it continued, choking,—"Doctor"—
"Why, Mrs. Richling!"
He sprang and gave her a chair. She sank into it.
"Doctor,—O Doctor! John is in the Charity Hospital!"
She buried her face in her handkerchief and sobbed aloud. The Doctor was silent a moment, and then asked:—
"What's the matter with him?"
It seemed as though she must break down again, but the Doctor stopped her savagely.
"Well, my dear madam, don't cry! Come, now, you're making too much of a small matter. Why, what are chills? We'll break them in forty-eight hours. He'll have the best of care. You needn't cry! Certainly this isn't as bad as when you were there."
She was still, but shook her head. She couldn't agree to that.
"Doctor, will you attend him?"
"Mine is a female ward."
"I know; but"—
"Oh—if you wish it—certainly; of course I will. But now, where have you moved, Mrs. Richling? I sent"— He looked up over his desk toward that of Narcisse.
The Creole had been neither deaf nor idle. Hospital? Then those children in Prieur street had told him right. He softly changed his coat and shoes. As the physician looked over the top of the desk Narcisse's silent form, just here at the left, but out of the range of vision, passed through the door and went downstairs with the noiselessness of a moonbeam.
Mary explained the location and arrangement of her residence.
"Yes," she said, "that's the way your clerk must have overlooked us. We live behind—down the alleyway."
"Well, at any rate, madam," said the Doctor, "you are here now, and before you go I want to"— He drew out his pocket-book.
There was a quick gesture of remonstrance and a look of pleading.
"No, no, Doctor, please don't! please don't! Give my poor husband one more chance; don't make me take that. I don't refuse it for pride's sake!"
"I don't know about that," he replied; "why do you do it?"
"For his sake, Doctor. I know just as well what he'd say—we've no right to take it anyhow. We don't know when we could pay it back." Her head sank. She wiped a tear from her hand.
"Why, I don't care if you never pay it back!" The Doctor reddened angrily.
Mary raised her veil.
"Doctor,"—a smile played on her lips,—"I want to say one thing." She was a little care-worn and grief-worn; and yet, Narcisse, you should have seen her; you would not have slipped out.
"Say on, madam," responded the Doctor.
"If we have to ask anybody, Doctor, it will be you. John had another situation, but lost it by his chills. He'll get another. I'm sure he will." A long, broken sigh caught her unawares. Dr. Sevier thrust his pocket-book back into its place, compressing his lips and giving his head an unpersuaded jerk. And yet, was she not right, according to all his preaching? He asked himself that. "Why didn't your husband come to see me, as I requested him to do, Mrs. Richling?"
She explained John's being turned away from the door during the Doctor's illness. "But anyhow, Doctor, John has always been a little afraid of you."
The Doctor's face did not respond to her smile.
"Why, you are not," he said.
"No." Her eyes sparkled, but their softer light quickly returned. She smiled and said:—
"I will ask a favor of you now, Doctor."
They had risen, and she stood leaning sidewise against his low desk and looking up into his face.
"Can you get me some sewing? John says I may take some."
The Doctor was about to order two dozen shirts instanter, but common sense checked him, and he only said:—
"I will. I will find you some. And I shall see your husband within an hour. Good-by." She reached the door. "God bless you!" he added.
"What, sir?" she asked, looking back.
But the Doctor was reading.
A little medicine skilfully prescribed, the proper nourishment, two or three days' confinement in bed, and the Doctor said, as he sat on the edge of Richling's couch:—
"No, you'd better stay where you are to-day; but to-morrow, if the weather is good, you may sit up."
Then Richling, with the unreasonableness of a convalescent, wanted to know why he couldn't just as well go home. But the Doctor said again, no.
"Don't be impatient; you'll have to go anyhow before I would prefer to send you. It would be invaluable to you to pass your entire convalescence here, and go home only when you are completely recovered. But I can't arrange it very well. The Charity Hospital is for sick people."
"And where is the place for convalescents?"
"There is none," replied the physician.
"I shouldn't want to go to it, myself," said Richling, lolling pleasantly on his pillow; "all I should ask is strength to get home, and I'd be off."
The Doctor looked another way.
"The sick are not the wise," he said, abstractedly. "However, in your case, I should let you go to your wife as soon as you safely could." At that he fell into so long a reverie that Richling studied every line of his face again and again.
A very pleasant thought was in the convalescent's mind the while. The last three days had made it plain to him that the Doctor was not only his friend, but was willing that Richling should be his.
At length the physician spoke:—
"Mary is wonderfully like Alice, Richling."
"Yes?" responded Richling, rather timidly. And the Doctor continued:—
"The same age, the same stature, the same features. Alice was a shade paler in her style of beauty, just a shade. Her hair was darker; but otherwise her whole effect was a trifle quieter, even, than Mary's. She was beautiful,—outside and in. Like Mary, she had a certain richness of character—but of a different sort. I suppose I would not notice the difference if they were not so much alike. She didn't stay with me long."
"Did you lose her—here?" asked Richling, hardly knowing how to break the silence that fell, and yet lead the speaker on.
"No. In Virginia." The Doctor was quiet a moment, and then resumed:—
"I looked at your wife when she was last in my office, Richling; she had a little timid, beseeching light in her eyes that is not usual with her—and a moisture, too; and—it seemed to me as though Alice had come back. For my wife lived by my moods. Her spirits rose or fell just as my whim, conscious or unconscious, gave out light or took on shadow." The Doctor was still again, and Richling only indicated his wish to hear more by shifting himself on his elbow.
"Do you remember, Richling, when the girl you had been bowing down to and worshipping, all at once, in a single wedding day, was transformed into your adorer?"
"Yes, indeed," responded the convalescent, with beaming face. "Wasn't it wonderful? I couldn't credit my senses. But how did you—was it the same"—
"It's the same, Richling, with every man who has really secured a woman's heart with her hand. It was very strange and sweet to me. Alice would have been a spoiled child if her parents could have spoiled her; and when I was courting her she was the veriest little empress that ever walked over a man."
"I can hardly imagine," said Richling, with subdued amusement, looking at the long, slender form before him. The Doctor smiled very sweetly.
"Yes." Then, after another meditative pause: "But from the moment I became her husband she lived in continual trepidation. She so magnified me in her timid fancy that she was always looking tremulously to me to see what should be her feeling. She even couldn't help being afraid of me. I hate for any one to be afraid of me."
"Do you, Doctor?" said Richling, with surprise and evident introspection.
Richling felt his own fear changing to love.
"When I married," continued Dr. Sevier, "I had thought Alice was one that would go with me hand in hand through life, dividing its cares and doubling its joys, as they say; I guiding her and she guiding me. But if I had let her, she would have fallen into me as a planet might fall into the sun. I didn't want to be the sun to her. I didn't want her to shine only when I shone on her, and be dark when I was dark. No man ought to want such a thing. Yet she made life a delight to me; only she wanted that development which a better training, or even a harder training, might have given her; that subserving of the emotions to the"—he waved his hand—"I can't philosophize about her. We loved one another with our might, and she's in heaven."
Richling felt an inward start. The Doctor interrupted his intended speech.
"Our short experience together, Richling, is the one great light place in my life; and to me, to-day, sere as I am, the sweet—the sweetest sound—on God's green earth"—the corners of his mouth quivered—"is the name of Alice. Take care of Mary, Richling; she's a priceless treasure. Don't leave the making and sustaining of the home sunshine all to her, any more than you'd like her to leave it all to you."
"I'll not, Doctor; I'll not." Richling pressed the Doctor's hand fervently; but the Doctor drew it away with a certain energy, and rose, saying:—
"Yes, you can sit up to-morrow."
The day that Richling went back to his malarious home in Prieur street Dr. Sevier happened to meet him just beyond the hospital gate. Richling waved his hand. He looked weak and tremulous. "Homeward bound," he said, gayly.
The physician reached forward in his carriage and bade his driver stop. "Well, be careful of yourself; I'm coming to see you in a day or two."
THE SUN AT MIDNIGHT.
Dr. Sevier was daily overtasked. His campaigns against the evils of our disordered flesh had even kept him from what his fellow-citizens thought was only his share of attention to public affairs.
"Why," he cried to a committee that came soliciting his cooeperation, "here's one little unprofessional call that I've been trying every day for two weeks to make—and ought to have made—and must make; and I haven't got a step toward it yet. Oh, no, gentlemen!" He waved their request away.
He was very tired. The afternoon was growing late. He dismissed his jaded horse toward home, walked down to Canal street, and took that yellow Bayou-Road omnibus whose big blue star painted on its corpulent side showed that quadroons, etc., were allowed a share of its accommodation, and went rumbling and tumbling over the cobble-stones of the French quarter.
By and by he got out, walked a little way southward in the hot, luminous shade of low-roofed tenement cottages that closed their window-shutters noiselessly, in sensitive-plant fashion, at his slow, meditative approach, and slightly and as noiselessly reopened them behind him, showing a pair of wary eyes within. Presently he recognized just ahead of him, standing out on the sidewalk, the little house that had been described to him by Mary.
In a door-way that opened upon two low wooden sidewalk steps stood Mrs. Riley, clad in a crisp black and white calico, a heavy, fat babe poised easily in one arm. The Doctor turned directly toward the narrow alley, merely touching his hat to her as he pushed its small green door inward, and disappeared, while she lifted her chin at the silent liberty and dropped her eyelids.
Dr. Sevier went down the cramped, ill-paved passage very slowly and softly. Regarding himself objectively, he would have said the deep shade of his thoughts was due partly, at least, to his fatigue. But that would hardly have accounted for a certain faint glow of indignation that came into them. In truth, he began distinctly to resent this state of affairs in the life of John and Mary Richling. An ill-defined anger beat about in his brain in search of some tangible shortcoming of theirs upon which to thrust the blame of their helplessness. "Criminal helplessness," he called it, mutteringly. He tried to define the idea—or the idea tried to define itself—that they had somehow been recreant to their social caste, by getting down into the condition and estate of what one may call the alien poor. Carondelet street had in some way specially vexed him to-day, and now here was this. It was bad enough, he thought, for men to slip into riches through dark back windows; but here was a brace of youngsters who had glided into poverty, and taken a place to which they had no right to stoop. Treachery,—that was the name for it. And now he must be expected,—the Doctor quite forgot that nobody had asked him to do it,—he must be expected to come fishing them out of their hole, like a rag-picker at a trash barrel.
—"Bringing me into this wretched alley!" he silently thought. His foot slipped on a mossy brick. Oh, no doubt they thought they were punishing some negligent friend or friends by letting themselves down into this sort of thing. Never mind! He recalled the tender, confiding, friendly way in which he had talked to John, sitting on the edge of his hospital bed. He wished, now, he had every word back he had uttered. They might hide away to the full content of their poverty-pride. Poverty-pride: he had invented the term; it was the opposite pole to purse-pride—and just as mean,—no, meaner. There! Must he yet slip down? He muttered an angry word. Well, well, this was making himself a little the cheapest he had ever let himself be made. And probably this was what they wanted! Misery's revenge. Umhum! They sit down in sour darkness, eh! and make relief seek them. It wouldn't be the first time he had caught the poor taking savage comfort in the blush which their poverty was supposed to bring to the cheek of better-kept kinsfolk. True, he didn't know this was the case with the Richlings. But wasn't it? Wasn't it? And have they a dog, that will presently hurl himself down this alley at one's legs? He hopes so. He would so like to kick him clean over the twelve-foot close plank fence that crowded his right shoulder. Never mind! His anger became solemn.
The alley opened into a small, narrow yard, paved with ashes from the gas-works. At the bottom of the yard a rough shed spanned its breadth, and a woman was there, busily bending over a row of wash-tubs.
The Doctor knocked on a door near at hand, then waited a moment, and, getting no response, turned away toward the shed and the deep, wet, burring sound of a wash-board. The woman bending over it did not hear his footfall. Presently he stopped. She had just straightened up, lifting a piece of the washing to the height of her head, and letting it down with a swash and slap upon the board. It was a woman's garment, but certainly not hers. For she was small and slight. Her hair was hidden under a towel. Her skirts were shortened to a pair of dainty ankles by an extra under-fold at the neat, round waist. Her feet were thrust into a pair of sabots. She paused a moment in her work, and, lifting with both smoothly rounded arms, bared nearly to the shoulder, a large apron from her waist, wiped the perspiration from her forehead. It was Mary.
The red blood came up into the Doctor's pale, thin face. This was too outrageous. This was insult! He stirred as if to move forward. He would confront her. Yes, just as she was. He would speak. He would speak bluntly. He would chide sternly. He had the right. The only friend in the world from whom she had not escaped beyond reach,—he would speak the friendly, angry word that would stop this shocking—
But, truly, deeply incensed as he was, and felt it his right to be, hurt, wrung, exasperated, he did not advance. She had reached down and taken from the wash-bench the lump of yellow soap that lay there, and was soaping the garment on the board before her, turning it this way and that. As she did this she began, all to herself and for her own ear, softly, with unconscious richness and tenderness of voice, to sing. And what was her song?
"Oh, don't you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?"
Down drooped the listener's head. Remember? Ah, memory!—The old, heart-rending memory! Sweet Alice!
"Sweet Alice, whose hair was so brown?"
Yes, yes; so brown!—so brown!
"She wept with delight when you gave her a smile, And trembled with fear at your frown."
Ah! but the frown is gone! There is a look of supplication now. Sing no more! Oh, sing no more! Yes, surely, she will stop there!
No. The voice rises gently—just a little—into the higher key, soft and clear as the note of a distant bird, and all unaware of a listener. Oh! in mercy's name—
"In the old church-yard in the valley, Ben Bolt, In a corner obscure and alone, They have fitted a slab of granite so gray, And sweet Alice lies under the stone."
The little toiling figure bent once more across the wash-board and began to rub. He turned, the first dew of many a long year welling from each eye, and stole away, out of the little yard and down the dark, slippery alley, to the street.
Mrs. Riley still stood on the door-sill, holding the child.
"Sur, to you." She bowed with dignity.
"Is Mrs. Richling in?"
There was a shadow of triumph in her faint smile.
"I should like to see her."
Mrs. Riley hoisted her chin. "I dunno if she's a-seein' comp'ny to-day." The voice was amiably important. "Wont ye walk in? Take a seat and sit down, sur, and I'll go and infarm the laydie."
"Thank you," said the Doctor, but continued to stand.
Mrs. Riley started and stopped again.
"Ye forgot to give me yer kyaird, sur." She drew her chin in again austerely.
"Just say Dr. Sevier."
"Certainly, sur; yes, that'll be sufficiend. And dispinse with the kyaird." She went majestically.
The Doctor, left alone, cast his uninterested glance around the smart little bare-floored parlor, upon its new, jig-sawed, gray hair-cloth furniture, and up upon a picture of the Pope. When Mrs. Riley, in a moment, returned he stood looking out the door.
"Mrs. Richling consints to see ye, sur. She'll be in turreckly. Take a seat and sit down." She readjusted the infant on her arm and lifted and swung a hair-cloth arm-chair toward him without visible exertion. "There's no use o' having chayers if ye don't sit on um," she added affably.
The Doctor sat down, and Mrs. Riley occupied the exact centre of the small, wide-eared, brittle-looking sofa, where she filled in the silent moments that followed by pulling down the skirts of the infant's apparel, oppressed with the necessity of keeping up a conversation and with the want of subject-matter. The child stared at the Doctor, and suddenly plunged toward him with a loud and very watery coo.
"Ah-h!" said Mrs. Riley, in ostentatious rebuke. "Mike!" she cried, laughingly, as the action was repeated. "Ye rowdy, air ye go-un to fight the gintleman?"
She laughed sincerely, and the Doctor could but notice how neat and good-looking she was. He condescended to crook his finger at the babe. This seemed to exasperate the so-called rowdy. He planted his pink feet on his mother's thigh and gave a mighty lunge and whoop.
"He's go-un to be a wicked bruiser," said proud Mrs. Riley. "He"—the pronoun stood, this time, for her husband—"he never sah the child. He was kilt with an explosion before the child was barn."
She held the infant on her strong arm as he struggled to throw himself, with wide-stretched jaws, upon her bosom; and might have been devoured by the wicked bruiser had not his attention been diverted by the entrance of Mary, who came in at last, all in fragrant white, with apologies for keeping the Doctor waiting.
He looked down into her uplifted eyes. What a riddle is woman! Had he not just seen this one in sabots? Did she not certainly know, through Mrs. Riley, that he must have seen her so? Were not her skirts but just now hitched up with an under-tuck, and fastened with a string? Had she not just laid off, in hot haste, a suds-bespattered apron and the garments of toil beneath it? Had not a towel been but now unbound from the hair shining here under his glance in luxuriant brown coils? This brightness of eye, that seemed all exhilaration, was it not trepidation instead? And this rosiness, so like redundant vigor, was it not the flush of her hot task? He fancied he saw—in truth he may have seen—a defiance in the eyes as he glanced upon, and tardily dropped, the little water-soaked hand with a bow.
Mary turned to present Mrs. Riley, who bowed and said, trying to hold herself with majesty while Mike drew her head into his mouth: "Sur," then turned with great ceremony to Mary, and adding, "I'll withdrah," withdrew with the head and step of a duchess.
"How is your husband, madam?"
"John?—is not well at all, Doctor; though he would say he was if he were here. He doesn't shake off his chills. He is out, though, looking for work. He'd go as long as he could stand."
She smiled; she almost laughed; but half an eye could see it was only to avoid the other thing.
"Where does he go?"
"Everywhere!" She laughed this time audibly.
"If he went everywhere I should see him," said Dr. Sevier.
"Ah! naturally," responded Mary, playfully. "But he does go wherever he thinks there's work to be found. He doesn't wander clear out among the plantations, of course, where everybody has slaves, and there's no work but slaves' work. And he says it's useless to think of a clerkship this time of year. It must be, isn't it?"
The Doctor made no answer.
There was a footstep in the alley.
"He's coming now," said Mary,—"that's he. He must have got work to-day. He has an acquaintance, an Italian, who promised to have something for him to do very soon. Doctor,"—she began to put together the split fractions of a palm-leaf fan, smiling diffidently at it the while,—"I can't see how it is any discredit to a man not to have a knack for making money?"
She lifted her peculiar look of radiant inquiry.
"It is not, madam."
Mary laughed for joy. The light of her face seemed to spread clear into her locks.
"Well, I knew you'd say so! John blames himself; he can make money, you know, Doctor, but he blames himself because he hasn't that natural gift for it that Mr. Ristofalo has. Why, Mr. Ristofalo is simply wonderful!" She smiled upon her fan in amused reminiscence. "John is always wishing he had his gift."
"My dear madam, don't covet it! At least don't exchange it for anything else."
The Doctor was still in this mood of disapprobation when John entered. The radiancy of the young husband's greeting hid for a moment, but only so long, the marks of illness and adversity. Mary followed him with her smiling eyes as the two men shook hands, and John drew a chair near to her and sat down with a sigh of mingled pleasure and fatigue.
She told him of whom she and their visitor had just been speaking.
"Raphael Ristofalo!" said John, kindling afresh. "Yes; I've been with him all day. It humiliates me to think of him."
Dr. Sevier responded quietly:—
"You've no right to let it humiliate you, sir."
Mary turned to John with dancing eyes, but he passed the utterance as a mere compliment, and said, through his smiles:—
"Just see how it is to-day. I have been overseeing the unloading of a little schooner from Ruatan island loaded with bananas, cocoanuts, and pine-apples. I've made two dollars; he has made a hundred."
Richling went on eagerly to tell about the plain, lustreless man whose one homely gift had fascinated him. The Doctor was entertained. The narrator sparkled and glowed as he told of Ristofalo's appearance, and reproduced his speeches and manner.
"Tell about the apples and eggs," said the delighted Mary.
He did so, sitting on the front edge of his chair-seat, and sprawling his legs now in front and now behind him as he swung now around to his wife and now to the Doctor. Mary laughed softly at every period, and watched the Doctor, to see his slight smile at each detail of the story. Richling enjoyed telling it; he had worked; his earnings were in his pocket; gladness was easy.
"Why, I'm learning more from Raphael Ristofalo than I ever learned from my school-masters: I'm learning the art of livelihood."
He ran on from Ristofalo to the men among whom he had been mingling all day. He mimicked the strange, long swing of their Sicilian speech; told of their swarthy faces and black beards, their rich instinct for color in costume; their fierce conversation and violent gestures; the energy of their movements when they worked, and the profoundness of their repose when they rested; the picturesqueness and grotesqueness of the negroes, too; the huge, flat, round baskets of fruit which the black men carried on their heads, and which the Sicilians bore on their shoulders or the nape of the neck. The "captain" of the schooner was a central figure.
"Doctor," asked Richling, suddenly, "do you know anything about the island of Cozumel?"
"Aha!" thought Mary. So there was something besides the day's earning that elated him.
She had suspected it. She looked at her husband with an expression of the most alert pleasure. The Doctor noticed it.
"No," he said, in reply to Richling's question.
"It stands out in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Yucatan," began Richling.
"Yes, I know that."
"Well, Mary, I've almost promised the schooner captain that we'll go there. He wants to get up a colony."
"Why, John!" She betrayed a look of dismay, glanced at their visitor, tried to say "Have you?" approvingly, and blushed.
The Doctor made no kind of response.
"Now, don't conclude," said John to Mary, coloring too, but smiling. He turned to the physician. "It's a wonderful spot, Doctor."
But the Doctor was still silent, and Richling turned.
"Just to think, Mary, of a place where you can raise all the products of two zones; where health is almost perfect; where the yellow fever has never been; and where there is such beauty as can be only in the tropics and a tropical sea. Why, Doctor, I can't understand why Europeans or Americans haven't settled it long ago."
"I suppose we can find out before we go, can't we?" said Mary, looking timorously back and forth between John and the Doctor.
"The reason is," replied John, "it's so little known. Just one island away out by itself. Three crops of fruit a year. One acre planted in bananas feeds fifty men. All the capital a man need have is an axe to cut down the finest cabinet and dye-woods in the world. The thermometer never goes above ninety nor below forty. You can hire all the labor you want at a few cents a day."
Mary's diligent eye detected a cloud on the Doctor's face. But John, though nettled, pushed on the more rapidly.
"A man can make—easily!—a thousand dollars the first year, and live on two hundred and fifty. It's the place for a poor man."
He looked a little defiant.
"Of course," said Mary, "I know you wouldn't come to an opinion"—she smiled with the same restless glance—"until you had made all the inquiries necessary. It mu—must—be a delightful place. Doctor?"
Her eyes shone blue as the sky.
"I wouldn't send a convict to such a place," said Dr. Sevier.
Richling flamed up.
"Don't you think," he began to say with visible restraint and a faint, ugly twist of the head,—"don't you think it's a better place for a poor man than a great, heartless town?"
"This isn't a heartless town," said the Doctor.
"He doesn't mean it as you do, Doctor," interposed Mary, with alarm. "John, you ought to explain."
"Than a great town," said Richling, "where a man of honest intentions and real desire to live and be useful and independent; who wants to earn his daily bread at any honorable cost, and who can't do it because the town doesn't want his services, and will not have them—can go"— He ceased, with his sentence all tangled.
"No!" the Doctor was saying meanwhile. "No! No! No!"
"Here I go, day after day," persisted Richling, extending his arm and pointing indefinitely through the window.
"No, no, you don't, John," cried Mary, with an effort at gayety; "you don't go by the window, John; you go by the door." She pulled his arm down tenderly.
"I go by the alley," said John. Silence followed. The young pair contrived to force a little laugh, and John made an apologetic move.
"Doctor," he exclaimed, with an air of pleasantry, "the whole town's asleep!—sound asleep, like a negro in the sunshine! There isn't work for one man in fifty!" He ended tremulously. Mary looked at him with dropped face but lifted eyes, handling the fan, whose rent she had made worse.
"Richling, my friend,"—the Doctor had never used that term before,—"what does your Italian money-maker say to the idea?"
Richling gave an Italian shrug and his own pained laugh.
"Exactly! Why, Mr. Richling, you're on an island now,—an island in mid-ocean. Both of you!" He waved his hands toward the two without lifting his head from the back of the easy-chair, where he had dropped it.
"What do you mean, Doctor?"
"Mean? Isn't my meaning plain enough? I mean you're too independent. You know very well, Richling, that you've started out in life with some fanciful feud against the 'world.' What it is I don't know, but I'm sure it's not the sort that religion requires. You've told this world—you remember you said it to me once—that if it will go one road you'll go another. You've forgotten that, mean and stupid and bad as your fellow-creatures are, they're your brothers and sisters, and that they have claims on you as such, and that you have claims on them as such.—Cozumel! You're there now! Has a friend no rights? I don't know your immediate relatives, and I say nothing about them"—
John gave a slight start, and Mary looked at him suddenly.
"But here am I," continued the speaker. "Is it just to me for you to hide away here in want that forces you and your wife—I beg your pardon, madam—into mortifying occupations, when one word to me—a trivial obligation, not worthy to be called an obligation, contracted with me—would remove that necessity, and tide you over the emergency of the hour?"
Richling was already answering, not by words only, but by his confident smile:—
"Yes, sir; yes, it is just: ask Mary."
"Yes, Doctor," interposed the wife. "We went over"—
"We went over it together," said John. "We weighed it well. It is just,—not to ask aid as long as there's hope without it."
The Doctor responded with the quiet air of one who is sure of his position:—
"Yes, I see. But, of course—I know without asking—you left the question of health out of your reckoning. Now, Richling, put the whole world, if you choose, in a selfish attitude"—
"No, no," said Richling and his wife. "Ah, no!" But the Doctor persisted.
"—a purely selfish attitude. Wouldn't it, nevertheless, rather help a well man or woman than a sick one? Wouldn't it pay better?"
"Yes," said the Doctor. "But you're taking the most desperate risks against health and life." He leaned forward in his chair, jerked in his legs, and threw out his long white hands. "You're committing slow suicide."
"Doctor," began Mary; but her husband had the floor.
"Doctor," he said, "can you put yourself in our place? Wouldn't you rather die than beg? Wouldn't you?"
The Doctor rose to his feet as straight as a lance.
"It isn't what you'd rather, sir! You haven't your choice! You haven't your choice at all, sir! When God gets ready for you to die he'll let you know, sir! And you've no right to trifle with his mercy in the meanwhile. I'm not a man to teach men to whine after each other for aid; but every principle has its limitations, Mr. Richling. You say you went over the whole subject. Yes; well, didn't you strike the fact that suicide is an affront to civilization and humanity?"
"Why, Doctor!" cried the other two, rising also. "We're not going to commit suicide."
"No," retorted he, "you're not. That's what I came here to tell you. I'm here to prevent it."
"Doctor," exclaimed Mary, the big tears standing in her eyes, and the Doctor melting before them like wax, "it's not so bad as it looks. I wash—some—because it pays so much better than sewing. I find I'm stronger than any one would believe. I'm stronger than I ever was before in my life. I am, indeed. I don't wash much. And it's only for the present. We'll all be laughing at this, some time, together." She began a small part of the laugh then and there.
"You'll do it no more," the Doctor replied. He drew out his pocket-book. "Mr. Richling, will you please send me through the mail, or bring me, your note for fifty dollars,—at your leisure, you know,—payable on demand?" He rummaged an instant in the pocket-book, and extended his hand with a folded bank-note between his thumb and finger. But Richling compressed his lips and shook his head, and the two men stood silently confronting each other. Mary laid her hand upon her husband's shoulder and leaned against him, with her eyes on the Doctor's face.
"Come, Richling,"—the Doctor smiled,—"your friend Ristofalo did not treat you in this way."
"I never treated Ristofalo so," replied Richling, with a smile tinged with bitterness. It was against himself that he felt bitter; but the Doctor took it differently, and Richling, seeing this, hurried to correct the impression.
"I mean I lent him no such amount as that."
"It was just one-fiftieth of that," said Mary.
"But you gave liberally, without upbraiding," said the Doctor.
"Oh, no, Doctor! no!" exclaimed she, lifting the hand that lay on her husband's near shoulder and reaching it over to the farther one. "Oh! a thousand times no! John never meant that. Did you, John?"
"How could I?" said John. "No!" Yet there was confession in his look. He had not meant it, but he had felt it.
Dr. Sevier sat down, motioned them into their seats, drew the arm-chair close to theirs. Then he spoke. He spoke long, and as he had not spoken anywhere but at the bedside scarce ever in his life before. The young husband and wife forgot that he had ever said a grating word. A soft love-warmth began to fill them through and through. They seemed to listen to the gentle voice of an older and wiser brother. A hand of Mary sank unconsciously upon a hand of John. They smiled and assented, and smiled, and assented, and Mary's eyes brimmed up with tears, and John could hardly keep his down. The Doctor made the whole case so plain and his propositions so irresistibly logical that the pair looked from his eyes to each other's and laughed. "Cozumel!" They did not utter the name; they only thought of it both at one moment. It never passed their lips again. Their visitor brought them to an arrangement. The fifty dollars were to be placed to John's credit on the books kept by Narcisse, as a deposit from Richling, and to be drawn against by him in such littles as necessity might demand. It was to be "secured"—they all three smiled at that word—by Richling's note payable on demand. The Doctor left a prescription for the refractory chills.
As he crossed Canal street, walking in slow meditation homeward at the hour of dusk, a tall man standing against a wall, tin cup in hand,—a full-fledged mendicant of the steam-boiler explosion, tin-proclamation type,—asked his alms. He passed by, but faltered, stopped, let his hand down into his pocket, and looked around to see if his pernicious example was observed. None saw him. He felt—he saw himself—a drivelling sentimentalist. But weak, and dazed, sore wounded of the archers, he turned and dropped a dime into the beggar's cup.
Richling was too restless with the joy of relief to sit or stand. He trumped up an errand around the corner, and hardly got back before he contrived another. He went out to the bakery for some crackers—fresh baked—for Mary; listened to a long story across the baker's counter, and when he got back to his door found he had left the crackers at the bakery. He went back for them and returned, the blood about his heart still running and leaping and praising God.
"The sun at midnight!" he exclaimed, knitting Mary's hands in his. "You're very tired. Go to bed. Me? I can't yet. I'm too restless."
He spent more than an hour chatting with Mrs. Riley, and had never found her so "nice" a person before; so easy comes human fellowship when we have had a stroke of fortune. When he went again to his room there was Mary kneeling by the bedside, with her head slipped under the snowy mosquito net, all in fine linen, white as the moonlight, frilled and broidered, a remnant of her wedding glory gleaming through the long, heavy wefts of her unbound hair.
There was no answer.
"Mary?" he said again, laying his hand upon her head.
The head was slowly lifted. She smiled an infant's smile, and dropped her cheek again upon the bedside. She had fallen asleep at the foot of the Throne.
At that same hour, in an upper chamber of a large, distant house, there knelt another form, with bared, bowed head, but in the garb in which it had come in from the street. Praying? This white thing overtaken by sleep here was not more silent. Yet—yes, praying. But, all the while, the prayer kept running to a little tune, and the words repeating themselves again and again; "Oh, don't you remember sweet Alice—with hair so brown—so brown—so brown? Sweet Alice, with hair so brown?" And God bent his ear and listened.
BORROWER TURNED LENDER.
It was only a day or two later that the Richlings, one afternoon, having been out for a sunset walk, were just reaching Mrs. Riley's door-step again, when they were aware of a young man approaching from the opposite direction with the intention of accosting them. They brought their conversation to a murmurous close.
For it was not what a mere acquaintance could have joined them in, albeit its subject was the old one of meat and raiment. Their talk had been light enough on their starting out, notwithstanding John had earned nothing that day. But it had toned down, or, we might say up, to a sober, though not a sombre, quality. John had in some way evolved the assertion that even the life of the body alone is much more than food and clothing and shelter; so much more, that only a divine provision can sustain it; so much more, that the fact is, when it fails, it generally fails with meat and raiment within easy reach.
Mary devoured his words. His spiritual vision had been a little clouded of late, and now, to see it clear— She closed her eyes for bliss.
"Why, John," she said, "you make it plainer than any preacher I ever heard."
This, very naturally, silenced John. And Mary, hoping to start him again, said:—
"Heaven provides. And yet I'm sure you're right in seeking our food and raiment?" She looked up inquiringly.
"Yes; like the fowls, the provision is made for us through us. The mistake is in making those things the end of our search."
"Why, certainly!" exclaimed Mary, softly. She took fresh hold in her husband's arm; the young man was drawing near.
"It's Narcisse!" murmured John. The Creole pressed suddenly forward with a joyous smile, seized Richling's hand, and, lifting his hat to Mary as John presented him, brought his heels together and bowed from the hips.
"I wuz juz coming at yo' 'ouse, Mistoo Itchlin. Yesseh. I wuz juz sitting in my 'oom afteh dinneh, envelop' in my 'obe de chambre, when all at once I says to myseff, 'Faw distwaction I will go and see Mistoo Itchlin!'"
"Will you walk in?" said the pair.
Mrs. Riley, standing in the door of her parlor, made way by descending to the sidewalk. Her calico was white, with a small purple figure, and was highly starched and beautifully ironed. Purple ribbons were at her waist and throat. As she reached the ground Mary introduced Narcisse. She smiled winningly, and when she said, with a courtesy: "Proud to know ye, sur," Narcisse was struck with the sweetness of her tone. But she swept away with a dramatic tread.
"Will you walk in?" Mary repeated; and Narcisse responded:—
"If you will pummit me yo' attention a few moment'." He bowed again and made way for Mary to precede him.
"Mistoo Itchlin," he continued, going in, "in fact you don't give Misses Witchlin my last name with absolute co'ectness."
"Did I not? Why, I hope you'll pardon"—
"Oh, I'm glad of it. I don' feel lak a pusson is my fwen' whilst they don't call me Nahcisse." He directed his remark particularly to Mary.
"Indeed?" responded she. "But, at the same time, Mr. Richling would have"— She had turned to John, who sat waiting to catch her eye with such intense amusement betrayed in his own that she saved herself from laughter and disgrace only by instant silence.
"Yesseh," said Narcisse to Richling, "'tis the tooth."
He cast his eye around upon the prevailing hair-cloth and varnish.
"Misses Witchlin, I muz tell you I like yo' tas'e in that pawlah."
"It's Mrs. Riley's taste," said Mary.
"'Tis a beaucheouz tas'e," insisted the Creole, contemplatively, gazing at the Pope's vestments tricked out with blue, scarlet, and gilt spangles. "Well, Mistoo Itchlin, since some time I've been stipulating me to do myseff that honoh, seh, to come at yo' 'ouse; well, ad the end I am yeh. I think you fine yoseff not ve'y well those days. Is that nod the case, Mistoo Itchlin?"
"Oh, I'm well enough!" Richling ended with a laugh, somewhat explosively. Mary looked at him with forced gravity as he suppressed it. He had to draw his nose slowly through his thumb and two fingers before he could quite command himself. Mary relieved him by responding:—
"No, Mr. Richling hasn't been well for some time."
Narcisse responded triumphantly:—
"It stwuck me—so soon I pe'ceive you—that you 'ave the ai' of a valedictudina'y. Thass a ve'y fawtunate that you ah 'esiding in a 'ealthsome pawt of the city, in fact."
Both John and Mary laughed and demurred.
"You don't think?" asked the smiling visitor. "Me, I dunno,—I fine one thing. If a man don't die fum one thing, yet, still, he'll die fum something. I 'ave study that out, Mistoo Itchlin. 'To be, aw to not be, thaz the queztion,' in fact. I don't ca'e if you live one place aw if you live anotheh place, 'tis all the same,—you've got to pay to live!"
The Richlings laughed again, and would have been glad to laugh more; but each, without knowing it of the other, was reflecting with some mortification upon the fact that, had they been talking French, Narcisse would have bitten his tongue off before any of his laughter should have been at their expense.
"Indeed you have got to pay to live," said John, stepping to the window and drawing up its painted paper shade. "Yes, and"—
"Ah!" exclaimed Mary, with gentle disapprobation. She met her husband's eye with a smile of protest. "John," she said, "Mr. ——" she couldn't think of the name.
"Nahcisse," said the Creole.
"Will think," she continued, her amusement climbing into her eyes in spite of her, "you're in earnest."
"Well, I am, partly. Narcisse knows, as well as we do that there are two sides to the question." He resumed his seat. "I reckon"—
"Yes," said Narcisse, "and what you muz look out faw, 'tis to git on the soff side."
They all laughed.
"I was going to say," said Richling, "the world takes us as we come, 'sight-unseen.' Some of us pay expenses, some don't."
"Ah!" rejoined Narcisse, looking up at the whitewashed ceiling, "those egspenze'!" He raised his hand and dropped it. "I fine it so diffycul' to defeat those egspenze'! In fact, Mistoo Itchlin, such ah the state of my financial emba'assment that I do not go out at all. I stay in, in fact. I stay at my 'ouse—to light' those egspenze'!"
They were all agreed that expenses could be lightened thus.
"And by making believe you don't want things," said Mary.
"Ah!" exclaimed Narcisse, "I nevvah kin do that!" and Richling gave a laugh that was not without sympathy. "But I muz tell you, Mistoo Itchlin, I am aztonizh at you."
An instant apprehension seized John and Mary. They knew their ill-concealed amusement would betray them, and now they were to be called to account. But no.
"Yesseh," continued Narcisse, "you 'ave the gweatez o'casion to be the subjec' of congwatulation, Mistoo Itchlin, to 'ave the poweh to accum'late money in those hawd time' like the pwesen'!"
The Richlings cried out with relief and amused surprise.
"Why, you couldn't make a greater mistake!"
"Mistaken! Hah! W'en I ged that memo'andum f'om Dr. Seveeah to paz that fifty dollah at yo' cwedit, it burz f'om me, that egsclamation! 'Acchilly! 'ow that Mistoo Itchlin deserve the 'espect to save a lill quantity of money like that!"
The laughter of John and Mary did not impede his rhapsody, nor their protestations shake his convictions.
"Why," said Richling, lolling back, "the Doctor has simply omitted to have you make the entry of"—
But he had no right to interfere with the Doctor's accounts. However, Narcisse was not listening.
"You' compel' to be witch some day, Mistoo Itchlin, ad that wate of p'ogwess; I am convince of that. I can deteg that indisputably in yo' physio'nomie. Me—I can't save a cent! Mistoo Itchlin, you would be aztonizh to know 'ow bad I want some money, in fact; exceb that I am too pwoud to dizclose you that state of my condition!"
He paused and looked from John to Mary, and from Mary to John again.
"Why, I'll declare," said Richling, sincerely, dropping forward with his chin on his hand, "I'm sorry to hear"—
But Narcisse interrupted.
"Diffyculty with me—I am not willing to baw'."
Mary drew a long breath and glanced at her husband. He changed his attitude and, looking upon the floor, said, "Yes, yes." He slowly marked the bare floor with the edge of his shoe-sole. "And yet there are times when duty actually"—
"I believe you, Mistoo Itchlin," said Narcisse, quickly forestalling Mary's attempt to speak. "Ah, Mistoo Itchlin! if I had baw'd money ligue the huncle of my hant!" He waved his hand to the ceiling and looked up through that obstruction, as it were, to the witnessing sky. "But I hade that—to baw'! I tell you 'ow 'tis with me, Mistoo Itchlin; I nevvah would consen' to baw' money on'y if I pay a big inte'es' on it. An' I'm compel' to tell you one thing, Mistoo Itchlin, in fact: I nevvah would leave money with Doctah Seveeah to invez faw me—no!"
Richling gave a little start, and cast his eyes an instant toward his wife. She spoke.
"We'd rather you wouldn't say that to us, Mister ——" There was a commanding smile at one corner of her lips. "You don't know what a friend"—
Narcisse had already apologized by two or three gestures to each of his hearers.
"Misses Itchlin—Mistoo Itchlin,"—he shook his head and smiled skeptically,—"you think you kin admiah Doctah Seveeah mo' than me? 'Tis uzeless to attempt. 'With all 'is fault I love 'im still.'"
Richling and his wife both spoke at once.
"But John and I," exclaimed Mary, electrically, "love him, faults and all!"
She looked from husband to visitor, and from visitor to husband, and laughed and laughed, pushing her small feet back and forth alternately and softly clapping her hands. Narcisse felt her in the centre of his heart. He laughed. John laughed.
"What I mean, Mistoo Itchlin," resumed Narcisse, preferring to avoid Mary's aroused eye,—"what I mean—Doctah Seveeah don't un'stan' that kine of business co'ectly. Still, ad the same time, if I was you I know I would 'ate faw my money not to be makin' me some inte'es'. I tell you what I would do with you, Mistoo Itchlin, in fact: I kin baw' that fifty dollah f'om you myseff."
Richling repressed a smile. "Thank you! But I don't care to invest it."
"Pay you ten pe' cent. a month."
"But we can't spare it," said Richling, smiling toward Mary. "We may need part of it ourselves."
"I tell you, 'eally, Mistoo Itchlin, I nevveh baw' money; but it juz 'appen I kin use that juz at the pwesent."
"Why, John," said Mary, "I think you might as well say plainly that the money is borrowed money."
"That's what it is," responded Richling, and rose to spread the street-door wider open, for the daylight was fading.
"Well, I 'ope you'll egscuse that libbetty," said Narcisse, rising a little more tardily, and slower. "I muz baw' fawty dollah—some place. Give you good secu'ty—give you my note, Mistoo Itchlin, in fact; muz baw fawty—aw thutty-five."
"Why, I'm very sorry," responded Richling, really ashamed that he could not hold his face straight. "I hope you understand"—
"Mistoo Itchlin, 'tis baw'd money. If you had a necessity faw it you would use it. If a fwend 'ave a necessity—'tis anotheh thing—you don't feel that libbetty—you ah 'ight—I honoh you"—
"I don't feel the same liberty."
"Mistoo Itchlin," said Narcisse, with noble generosity, throwing himself a half step forward, "if it was yoze you'd baw' it to me in a minnit!" He smiled with benign delight. "Well, madame,—I bid you good evening, Misses Itchlin. The bes' of fwen's muz pawt, you know." He turned again to Richling with a face all beauty and a form all grace. "I was juz sitting—mistfully—all at once I says to myseff, 'Faw distwaction I'll go an' see Mistoo Itchlin.' I don't know 'ow I juz 'appen'!— Well, au 'evo', Mistoo Itchlin."
Richling followed him out upon the door-step. There Narcisse intimated that even twenty dollars for a few days would supply a stern want. And when Richling was compelled again to refuse, Narcisse solicited his company as far as the next corner. There the Creole covered him with shame by forcing him to refuse the loan of ten dollars, and then of five.
It was a full hour before Richling rejoined his wife. Mrs. Riley had stepped off to some neighbor's door with Mike on her arm. Mary was on the sidewalk.
"John," she said, in a low voice, and with a long anxious look.
"He didn't take the only dollar of your own in the world?"
"Mary, what could I do? It seemed a crime to give, and a crime not to give. He cried like a child; said it was all a sham about his dinner and his robe de chambre. An aunt, two little cousins, an aged uncle at home—and not a cent in the house! What could I do? He says he'll return it in three days."
"And"—Mary laughed distressfully—"you believed him?" She looked at him with an air of tender, painful admiration, half way between a laugh and a cry.
"Come, sit down," he said, sinking upon the little wooden buttress at one side of the door-step.
Tears sprang into her eyes. She shook her head.
"Let's go inside." And in there she told him sincerely, "No, no, no; she didn't think he had done wrong"—when he knew he had.
WEAR AND TEAR.
The arrangement for Dr. Sevier to place the loan of fifty dollars on his own books at Richling's credit naturally brought Narcisse into relation with it.
It was a case of love at first sight. From the moment the record of Richling's "little quantity" slid from the pen to the page, Narcisse had felt himself betrothed to it by destiny, and hourly supplicated the awful fates to frown not upon the amorous hopes of him unaugmented. Richling descended upon him once or twice and tore away from his embrace small fractions of the coveted treasure, choosing, through a diffidence which he mistook for a sort of virtue, the time of day when he would not see Dr. Sevier; and at the third visitation took the entire golden fleece away with him rather than encounter again the always more or less successful courtship of the scorner of loans.
A faithful suitor, however, was not thus easily shaken off. Narcisse became a frequent visitor at the Richlings', where he never mentioned money; that part was left to moments of accidental meeting with Richling in the street, which suddenly began to occur at singularly short intervals.
Mary labored honestly and arduously to dislike him—to hold a repellent attitude toward him. But he was too much for her. It was easy enough when he was absent; but one look at his handsome face, so rife with animal innocence, and despite herself she was ready to reward his displays of sentiment and erudition with laughter that, mean what it might, always pleased and flattered him.
"Can you help liking him?" she would ask John. "I can't, to save my life!"
Had the treasure been earnings, Richling said—and believed—he could firmly have repelled Narcisse's importunities. But coldly to withhold an occasional modest heave-offering of that which was the free bounty of another to him was more than he could do.
"But," said Mary, straightening his cravat, "you intend to pay up, and he—you don't think I'm uncharitable, do you?"
"I'd rather give my last cent than think you so," replied John. "Still,"—laying the matter before her with both open hands,—"if you say plainly not to give him another cent I'll do as you say. The money's no more mine than yours."
"Well, you can have all my share," said Mary, pleasantly.
So the weeks passed and the hoard dwindled.
"What has it got down to, now?" asked John, frowningly, on more than one morning as he was preparing to go out. And Mary, who had been made treasurer, could count it at a glance without taking it out of her purse.
One evening, when Narcisse called, he found no one at home but Mrs. Riley. The infant Mike had been stuffed with rice and milk and laid away to slumber. The Richlings would hardly be back in less than an hour.
"I'm so'y," said Narcisse, with a baffled frown, as he sat down and Mrs. Riley took her seat opposite. "I came to 'epay 'em some moneys which he made me the loan—juz in a fwenly way. And I came to 'epay 'im. The sum-total, in fact—I suppose he nevva mentioned you about that, eh?"
"No, sir; but, still, if"—
"No, and so I can't pay it to you. I'm so'y. Because I know he woon like it, I know, if he fine that you know he's been bawing money to me. Well, Misses Wiley, in fact, thass a ve'y fine gen'leman and lady—that Mistoo and Misses Itchlin, in fact?"
"Well, now, Mr. Narcisse, ye'r about right? She's just too good to live—and he's not much better—ha! ha!" She checked her jesting mood. "Yes, sur, they're very peaceable, quiet people. They're just simply ferst tlass."
"'Tis t'ue," rejoined the Creole, fanning himself with his straw hat and looking at the Pope. "And they handsome and genial, as the lite'ati say on the noozpapeh. Seem like they almoze wedded to each otheh."
"Well, now, sir, that's the trooth!" She threw her open hand down with emphasis.
"And isn't that as man and wife should be?"
"Yo' mighty co'ect, Misses Wiley!" Narcisse gave his pretty head a little shake from side to side as he spoke.
"Ah! Mr. Narcisse,"—she pointed at herself,—"haven't I been a wife? The husband and wife—they'd aht to jist be each other's guairdjian angels! Hairt to hairt sur; sperit to sperit. All the rist is nawthing, Mister Narcisse." She waved her hands. "Min is different from women, sur." She looked about on the ceiling. Her foot noiselessly patted the floor.
"Yes," said Narcisse, "and thass the cause that they dwess them dif'ent. To show the dif'ence, you know."
"Ah! no. It's not the mortial frame, sur; it's the sperit. The sperit of man is not the sperit of woman. The sperit of woman is not the sperit of man. Each one needs the other, sur. They needs each other, sur, to purify and strinthen and enlairge each other's speritu'l life. Ah, sur! Doo not I feel those things, sur?" She touched her heart with one backward-pointed finger, "I doo. It isn't good for min to be alone—much liss for women. Do not misunderstand me, sur; I speak as a widder, sur—and who always will be—ah! yes, I will—ha! ha! ha!" She hushed her laugh as if this were going too far, tossed her head, and continued smiling.
So they talked on. Narcisse did not stay an hour, but there was little of the hour left when he rose to go. They had passed a pleasant time. The Creole, it is true, tried and failed to take the helm of conversation. Mrs. Riley held it. But she steered well. She was still expatiating on the "strinthenin'" spiritual value of the marriage relation when she, too, stood up.
"And that's what Mr. and Madam Richlin's a-doin' all the time. And they do ut to perfiction, sur—jist to perfiction!"
"I doubt it not, Misses Wiley. Well, Misses Wiley, I bid you au 'evoi'. I dunno if you'll pummit me, but I am compel to tell you, Misses Wiley, I nevva yeh anybody in my life with such a educated and talented conve'sation like yo'seff. Misses Wiley, at what univussity did you gwaduate?"
"Well, reely, Mister—eh"—she fanned herself with broad sweeps of her purple bordered palm-leaf—"reely, sur, if I don't furgit the name I—I—I'll be switched! Ha! ha! ha!"
Narcisse joined in the laugh.
"Thaz the way, sometime," he said, and then with sudden gravity: "And, by-the-by, Misses Wiley, speakin' of Mistoo Itchlin,—if you could baw' me two dollahs an' a 'alf juz till tomaw mawnin—till I kin sen' it you fum the office— Because that money I've got faw Mistoo Itchlin is in the shape of a check, and anyhow I'm c'owding me a little to pay that whole sum-total to Mistoo Itchlin. I kin sen' it you firs' thing my bank open tomaw mawnin."
Do you think he didn't get it?
* * *
"What has it got down to now?" John asked again, a few mornings after Narcisse's last visit. Mary told him. He stepped a little way aside, averting his face, dropped his forehead into his hand, and returned.
"I don't see—I don't see, Mary—I"—
"Darling," she replied, reaching and capturing both his hands, "who does see? The rich think they see; but do they, John? Now, do they?"
The frown did not go quite off his face, but he took her head between his hands and kissed her temple.
"You're always trying to lift me," he said.
"Don't you lift me?" she replied, looking up between his hands and smiling.
"You know you do. Don't you remember the day we took that walk, and you said that after all it never is we who provide?" She looked at the button of his coat, which she twirled in her fingers. "That word lifted me."
"But suppose I can't practice the trust I preach?" he said.
"You do trust, though. You have trusted."
"Past tense," said John. He lifted her hands slowly away from him, and moved toward the door of their chamber. He could not help looking back at the eyes that followed him, and then he could not bear their look. "I—I suppose a man mustn't trust too much," he said.
"Can he?" asked Mary, leaning against a table.
"Oh, yes, he can," replied John; but his tone lacked conviction.
"If it's the right kind?"
Her eyes were full of tears.
"I'm afraid mine's not the right kind, then," said John, and passed out into and down the street.
But what a mind he took with him—what torture of questions! Was he being lifted or pulled down? His tastes,—were they rising or sinking? Were little negligences of dress and bearing and in-door attitude creeping into his habits? Was he losing his discriminative sense of quantity, time, distance? Did he talk of small achievements, small gains, and small truths, as though they were great? Had he learned to carp at the rich, and to make honesty the excuse for all penury? Had he these various poverty-marks? He looked at himself outside and inside, and feared to answer. One thing he knew,—that he was having great wrestlings.
He turned his thoughts to Ristofalo. This was a common habit with him. Not only in thought, but in person, he hovered with a positive infatuation about this man of perpetual success.
Lately the Italian had gone out of town, into the country of La Fourche, to buy standing crops of oranges. Richling fed his hope on the possibilities that might follow Ristofalo's return. His friend would want him to superintend the gathering and shipment of those crops—when they should be ripe—away yonder in November. Frantic thought! A man and his wife could starve to death twenty times before then.
Mrs. Riley's high esteem for John and Mary had risen from the date of the Doctor's visit, and the good woman thought it but right somewhat to increase the figures of their room-rent to others more in keeping with such high gentility. How fast the little hoard melted away!
And the summer continued on,—the long, beautiful, glaring, implacable summer; its heat quaking on the low roofs; its fig-trees dropping their shrivelled and blackened leaves and writhing their weird, bare branches under the scorching sun; the long-drawn, frying note of its cicada throbbing through the mid-day heat from the depths of the becalmed oak; its universal pall of dust on the myriad red, sleep-heavy blossoms of the oleander and the white tulips of the lofty magnolia; its twinkling pomegranates hanging their apples of scarlet and gold over the garden wall; its little chameleons darting along the hot fence-tops; its far-stretching, empty streets; its wide hush of idleness; its solitary vultures sailing in the upper blue; its grateful clouds; its hot north winds, its cool south winds; its gasping twilight calms; its gorgeous nights,—the long, long summer lingered on into September.
One evening, as the sun was sinking below the broad, flat land, its burning disk reddened by a low golden haze of suspended dust, Richling passed slowly toward his home, coming from a lower part of the town by way of the quadroon quarter. He was paying little notice, or none, to his whereabouts, wending his way mechanically, in the dejected reverie of weary disappointment, and with voiceless inward screamings and groanings under the weight of those thoughts which had lately taken up their stay in his dismayed mind. But all at once his attention was challenged by a strange, offensive odor. He looked up and around, saw nothing, turned a corner, and found himself at the intersection of Treme and St. Anne streets, just behind the great central prison of New Orleans.
The "Parish Prison" was then only about twenty-five years old; but it had made haste to become offensive to every sense and sentiment of reasonable man. It had been built in the Spanish style,—a massive, dark, grim, huge, four-sided block, the fissure-like windows of its cells looking down into the four public streets which ran immediately under its walls. Dilapidation had followed hard behind ill-building contractors. Down its frowning masonry ran grimy streaks of leakage over peeling stucco and mould-covered brick. Weeds bloomed high aloft in the broken gutters under the scant and ragged eaves. Here and there the pale, debauched face of a prisoner peered shamelessly down through shattered glass or rusted grating; and everywhere in the still atmosphere floated the stifling smell of the unseen loathsomeness within.
Richling paused. As he looked up he noticed a bat dart out from a long crevice under the eaves. Two others followed. Then three—a dozen—a hundred—a thousand—millions. All along the two sides of the prison in view they poured forth in a horrid black torrent,—myriads upon myriads. They filled the air. They came and came. Richling stood and gazed; and still they streamed out in gibbering waves, until the wonder was that anything but a witch's dream could contain them.
The approach of another passer roused him, and he started on. The step gained upon him—closed up with him; and at the moment when he expected to see the person go by, a hand was laid gently on his shoulder.
"Mistoo Itchlin, I 'ope you well, seh!"
BROUGHT TO BAY.
One may take his choice between the two, but there is no escaping both in this life: the creditor—the borrower. Either, but never neither. Narcisse caught step with Richling, and they walked side by side.
"How I learned to mawch, I billong with a fiah comp'ny," said the Creole. "We mawch eve'y yeah on the fou'th of Mawch." He laughed heartily. "Thass a 'ime!—Mawch on the fou'th of Mawch! Thass poetwy, in fact, as you may say in a jesting way—ha! ha! ha!"
"Yes, and it's truth, besides," responded the drearier man.
"Yes!" exclaimed Narcisse, delighted at the unusual coincidence, "at the same time 'tis the tooth! In fact, why should I tell a lie about such a thing like that? 'Twould be useless. Pe'haps you may 'ave notiz, Mistoo Itchlin, thad the noozpapehs opine us fiahmen to be the gau'dians of the city."
"Yes," responded Richling. "I think Dr. Sevier calls you the Mamelukes, doesn't he? But that's much the same, I suppose."
"Same thing," replied the Creole. "We combad the fiah fiend. You fine that building ve'y pitto'esque, Mistoo Itchlin?" He jerked his thumb toward the prison, that was still pouring forth its clouds of impish wings. "Yes? 'Tis the same with me. But I tell you one thing, Mistoo Itchlin, I assu' you, and you will believe me, I would 'atheh be lock' outside of that building than to be lock' inside of the same. 'Cause—you know why? 'Tis ve'y 'umid in that building. An thass a thing w'at I believe, Mistoo Itchlin; I believe w'en a building is v'ey 'umid it is not ve'y 'ealthsome. What is yo' opinion consunning that, Mistoo Itchlin?"
"My opinion?" said Richling, with a smile. "My opinion is that the Parish Prison would not be a good place to raise a family."
"I thing yo' opinion is co'ect," he said, flatteringly; then growing instantly serious, he added, "Yesseh, I think you' about a-'ight, Mistoo Itchlin; faw even if 'twas not too 'umid, 'twould be too confining, in fact,—speshly faw child'en. I dunno; but thass my opinion. If you ah p'oceeding at yo' residence, Mistoo Itchlin, I'll juz continue my p'omenade in yo' society—if not intooding"—
Richling smiled candidly. "Your company's worth all it costs, Narcisse. Excuse me; I always forget your last name—and your first is so appropriate." It was worth all it cost, though Richling could ill afford the purchase. The young Latin's sweet, abysmal ignorance, his infantile amiability, his artless ambition, and heathenish innocence started the natural gladness of Richling's blood to effervescing anew every time they met, and, through the sheer impossibility of confiding any of his troubles to the Creole, made him think them smaller and lighter than they had just before appeared. The very light of Narcisse's countenance and beauty of his form—his smooth, low forehead, his thick, abundant locks, his faintly up-tipped nose and expanded nostrils, his sweet, weak mouth with its impending smile, his beautiful chin and bird's throat, his almond eyes, his full, round arm, and strong thigh—had their emphatic value.
So now, Richling, a moment earlier borne down by the dreadful shadow of the Parish Prison, left it behind him as he walked and laughed and chatted with his borrower. He felt very free with Narcisse, for the reason that would have made a wiser person constrained,—lack of respect for him.
"Mistoo Itchlin, you know," said the Creole, "I like you to call me Nahcisse. But at the same time my las' name is Savillot." He pronounced it Sav-veel-yo. "Thass a somewot Spanish name. That double l got a twist in it."
"Oh, call it Papilio!" laughed Richling.
"Papillon!" exclaimed Narcisse, with delight. "The buttehfly! All a-'ight; you kin juz style me that! 'Cause thass my natu'e, Mistoo Itchlin; I gatheh honey eve'y day fum eve'y opening floweh, as the bahd of A-von wemawk."
So they went on.
Ad infinitum? Ah, no! The end was just as plainly in view to both from the beginning as it was when, at length, the two stepping across the street gutter at the last corner between Richling and home, Narcisse laid his open hand in his companion's elbow, and stopped, saying, as Richling turned and halted with a sudden frown of unwillingness:—
"I tell you 'ow 'tis with me, Mistoo Itchlin, I've p'oject that manneh myseff; in weading a book—w'en I see a beaucheouz idee, I juz take a pencil"—he drew one from his pocket—"check! I check it. So w'en I wead the same book again, then I take notiz I've check that idee and I look to see what I check it faw. 'Ow you like that invention, eh?"
"Very simple," said Richling, with an unpleasant look of expectancy.
"Mistoo Itchlin," resumed the other, "do you not fine me impooving in my p'onouncement of yo' lang-widge? I fine I don't use such bad land-widge like biffo. I am shue you muz' 'ave notiz since some time I always soun' that awer in yo' name. Mistoo Itchlin, will you 'ave that kin'ness to baw me two-an-a-'alf till the lass of that month?"
Richling looked at him a moment in silence, and then broke into a short, grim laugh.
"It's all gone. There's no more honey in this flower." He set his jaw as he ceased speaking. There was a warm red place on either cheek.
"Mistoo Itchlin," said Narcisse, with sudden, quavering fervor, "you kin len' me two dollahs! I gi'e you my honah the moze sacwed of a gen'leman, Mistoo Itchlin, I nevvah hass you ag'in so long I live!" He extended a pacifying hand. "One moment, Mistoo Itchlin,—one moment,—I implo' you, seh! I assu' you, Mistoo Itchlin, I pay you eve'y cent in the worl' on the laz of that month? Mistoo Itchlin, I am in indignan' circumstan's. Mistoo Itchlin, if you know the distwess—Mistoo Itchlin, if you know—'ow bad I 'ate to baw!" The tears stood in his eyes. "It nea'ly kill me to b—" Utterance failed him.
"My friend," began Richling.
"Mistoo Itchlin," exclaimed Narcisse, dashing away the tears and striking his hand on his heart, "I am yo' fwend, seh!"
Richling smiled scornfully. "Well, my good friend, if you had ever kept a single promise made to me I need not have gone since yesterday without a morsel of food."
Narcisse tried to respond.
"Hush!" said Richling, and Narcisse bowed while Richling spoke on. "I haven't a cent to buy bread with to carry home. And whose fault is it? Is it my fault—or is it yours?"
"Mistoo Itchlin, seh"—
"Hush!" cried Richling, again; "if you try to speak before I finish I'll thrash you right here in the street!"
Narcisse folded his arms. Richling flushed and flashed with the mortifying knowledge that his companion's behavior was better than his own.
"If you want to borrow more money of me find me a chance to earn it!" He glanced so suddenly at two or three street lads, who were the only on-lookers, that they shrank back a step.
"Mistoo Itchlin," began Narcisse, once more, in a tone of polite dismay, "you aztonizh me. I assu' you, Mistoo Itchlin"—
Richling lifted his finger and shook it. "Don't you tell me that, sir! I will not be an object of astonishment to you! Not to you, sir! Not to you!" He paused, trembling, his anger and his shame rising together.
Narcisse stood for a moment, silent, undaunted, the picture of amazed friendship and injured dignity, then raised his hat with the solemnity of affronted patience and said:—
"Mistoo Itchlin, seein' as 'tis you, a puffic gen'leman, 'oo is not goin' to 'efuse that satisfagtion w'at a gen'leman, always a-'eady to give a gen'leman,—I bid you—faw the pwesen'—good-evenin', seh!" He walked away.
Richling stood in his tracks dumfounded, crushed. His eyes followed the receding form of the borrower until it disappeared around a distant corner, while the eye of his mind looked in upon himself and beheld, with a shame that overwhelmed anger, the folly and the puerility of his outburst. The nervous strain of twenty-four hours' fast, without which he might not have slipped at all, only sharpened his self-condemnation. He turned and walked to his house, and all the misery that had oppressed him before he had seen the prison, and all that had come with that sight, and all this new shame, sank down upon his heart at once. "I am not a man! I am not a whole man!" he suddenly moaned to himself. "Something is wanting—oh! what is it?"—he lifted his eyes to the sky,—"what is it?"—when in truth, there was little wanting just then besides food.
He passed in at the narrow gate and up the slippery alley. Nearly at its end was the one window of the room he called home. Just under it—it was somewhat above his head—he stopped and listened. A step within was moving busily here and there, now fainter and now plainer; and a voice, the sweetest on earth to him, was singing to itself in its soft, habitual way.
He started round to the door with a firmer tread. It stood open. He halted on the threshold. There was a small table in the middle of the room, and there was food on it. A petty reward of his wife's labor had brought it there.
"Mary," he said, holding her off a little, "don't kiss me yet."
She looked at him with consternation. He sat down, drew her upon his lap, and told her, in plain, quiet voice, the whole matter.
"Don't look so, Mary."
"How?" she asked, in a husky voice and with flashing eye.
"Don't breathe so short and set your lips. I never saw you look so, Mary, darling!"
She tried to smile, but her eyes filled.
"If you had been with me," said John, musingly, "it wouldn't have happened."
"If—if"— Mary sat up as straight as a dart, the corners of her mouth twitching so that she could scarcely shape a word,—"if—if I'd been there, I'd have made you whip him!" She flouted her handkerchief out of her pocket, buried her face in his neck, and sobbed like a child.
"Oh!" exclaimed the tearful John, holding her away by both shoulders, tossing back his hair and laughing as she laughed,—"Oh! you women! You're all of a sort! You want us men to carry your hymn-books and your iniquities, too!"
She laughed again.
"Well, of course!"
And they rose and drew up to the board.
THE DOCTOR DINES OUT.
On the third day after these incidents, again at the sunset hour, but in a very different part of the town, Dr. Sevier sat down, a guest, at dinner. There were flowers; there was painted and monogrammed china; there was Bohemian glass; there was silver of cunning work with linings of gold, and damasked linen, and oak of fantastic carving. There were ladies in summer silks and elaborate coiffures; the hostess, small, slender, gentle, alert; another, dark, flashing, Roman, tall; another, ripe but not drooping, who had been beautiful, now, for thirty years; and one or two others. There were jewels; there were sweet odors. And there were, also, some good masculine heads: Dr. Sevier's, for instance; and the chief guest's,—an iron-gray, with hard lines in the face, and a scar on the near cheek,—a colonel of the regular army passing through from Florida; and one crown, bald, pink, and shining, encircled by a silken fringe of very white hair: it was the banker who lived in St. Mary street. His wife was opposite. And there was much high-bred grace. There were tall windows thrown wide to make the blaze of gas bearable, and two tall mulattoes in the middle distance bringing in and bearing out viands too sumptuous for any but a French nomenclature.
It was what you would call a quiet affair; quite out of season, and difficult to furnish with even this little handful of guests; but it was a proper and necessary attention to the colonel; conversation not too dull, nor yet too bright for ease, but passing gracefully from one agreeable topic to another without earnestness, a restless virtue, or frivolity, which also goes against serenity. Now it touched upon the prospects of young A. B. in the demise of his uncle; now upon the probable seriousness of C. D. in his attentions to E. F.; now upon G.'s amusing mishaps during a late tour in Switzerland, which had—"how unfortunately!"—got into the papers. Now it was concerning the admirable pulpit manners and easily pardoned vocal defects of a certain new rector. Now it turned upon Stephen A. Douglas's last speech; passed to the questionable merits of a new-fangled punch; and now, assuming a slightly explanatory form from the gentlemen to the ladies, showed why there was no need whatever to fear a financial crisis—which came soon afterward.
The colonel inquired after an old gentleman whom he had known in earlier days in Kentucky.
"It's many a year since I met him," he said. "The proudest man I ever saw. I understand he was down here last season."
"He was," replied the host, in a voice of native kindness, and with a smile on his high-fed face. "He was; but only for a short time. He went back to his estate. That is his world. He's there now."
"It used to be considered one of the finest places in the State," said the colonel.
"It is still," rejoined the host. "Doctor, you know him?"
"I think not," said Dr. Sevier; but somehow he recalled the old gentleman in button gaiters, who had called on him one evening to consult him about his sick wife.
"A good man," said the colonel, looking amused; "and a superb gentleman. Is he as great a partisan of the church as he used to be?"
"Greater! Favors an established church of America."
The ladies were much amused. The host's son, a young fellow with sprouting side-whiskers, said he thought he could be quite happy with one of the finest plantations in Kentucky, and let the church go its own gait.
"Humph!" said the father; "I doubt if there's ever a happy breath drawn on the place."
"Why, how is that?" asked the colonel, in a cautious tone.
"Hadn't he heard?" The host was surprised, but spoke low. "Hadn't he heard about the trouble with their only son? Why, he went abroad and never came back!"
Every one listened.
"It's a terrible thing," said the hostess to the ladies nearest her; "no one ever dares ask the family what the trouble is,—they have such odd, exclusive ideas about their matters being nobody's business. All that can be known is that they look upon him as worse than dead and gone forever."
"And who will get the estate?" asked the banker.
"The two girls. They're both married."
"They're very much like their father," said the hostess, smiling with gentle significance.
"Very much," echoed the host, with less delicacy. "Their mother is one of those women who stand in terror of their husband's will. Now, if he were to die and leave her with a will of her own she would hardly know what to do with it—I mean with her will—or the property either."
The hostess protested softly against so harsh a speech, and the son, after one or two failures, got in his remark:—
"Maybe the prodigal would come back and be taken in."
But nobody gave this conjecture much attention. The host was still talking of the lady without a will.
"Isn't she an invalid?" Dr. Sevier had asked.
"Yes; the trip down here last season was on her account,—for change of scene. Her health is wretched."
"I'm distressed that I didn't call on her," said the hostess; "but they went away suddenly. My dear, I wonder if they really did encounter the young man here?"
"Pshaw!" said the husband, softly, smiling and shaking his head, and turned the conversation.
In time it settled down with something like earnestness for a few minutes upon a subject which the rich find it easy to discuss without the least risk of undue warmth. It was about the time when one of the graciously murmuring mulattoes was replenishing the glasses, that remark in some way found utterance to this effect,—that the company present could congratulate themselves on living in a community where there was no poor class.
"Poverty, of course, we see; but there is no misery, or nearly none," said the ambitious son of the host.
Dr. Sevier differed with him. That was one of the Doctor's blemishes as a table guest: he would differ with people.
"There is misery," he said; "maybe not the gaunt squalor and starvation of London or Paris or New York; the climate does not tolerate that,—stamps it out before it can assume dimensions; but there is at least misery of that sort that needs recognition and aid from the well-fed."
The lady who had been beautiful so many years had somewhat to say; the physician gave attention, and she spoke:—
"If sister Jane were here, she would be perfectly triumphant to hear you speak so, Doctor." She turned to the hostess, and continued: "Jane is quite an enthusiast, you know; a sort of Dorcas, as husband says, modified and readapted. Yes, she is for helping everybody."
"Whether help is good for them or not," said the lady's husband, a very straight and wiry man with a garrote collar.
"It's all one," laughed the lady. "Our new rector told her plainly, the other day, that she was making a great mistake; that she ought to consider whether assistance assists. It was really amusing. Out of the pulpit and off his guard, you know, he lisps a little; and he said she ought to consider whether 'aththithtanth aththithtth.'"
There was a gay laugh at this, and the lady was called a perfect and cruel mimic.
"'Aththithtanth aththithtth!'" said two or three to their neighbors, and laughed again.
"What did your sister say to that?" asked the banker, bending forward his white, tonsured head, and smiling down the board.
"She said she didn't care; that it kept her own heart tender, anyhow. 'My dear madam,' said he, 'your heart wants strengthening more than softening.' He told her a pound of inner resource was more true help to any poor person than a ton of assistance."
The banker commended the rector. The hostess, very sweetly, offered her guarantee that Jane took the rebuke in good part.
"She did," replied the time-honored beauty; "she tried to profit by it. But husband, here, has offered her a wager of a bonnet against a hat that the rector will upset her new schemes. Her idea now is to make work for those whom nobody will employ."
"Jane," said the kind-faced host, "really wants to do good for its own sake."
"I think she's even a little Romish in her notions," said Jane's wiry brother-in-law. "I talked to her as plainly as the rector. I told her, 'Jane, my dear, all this making of work for the helpless poor is not worth one-fiftieth part of the same amount of effort spent in teaching and training those same poor to make their labor intrinsically marketable.'"
"Yes," said the hostess; "but while we are philosophizing and offering advice so wisely, Jane is at work—doing the best she knows how. We can't claim the honor even of making her mistakes."
"'Tisn't a question of honors to us, madam," said Dr. Sevier; "it's a question of results to the poor."
The brother-in-law had not finished. He turned to the Doctor.
"Poverty, Doctor, is an inner condition"—
"Sometimes," interposed the Doctor.
"Yes, generally," continued the brother-in-law, with some emphasis. "And to give help you must, first of all, 'inquire within'—within your beneficiary."
"Not always, sir," replied the Doctor; "not if they're sick, for instance." The ladies bowed briskly and applauded with their eyes. "And not always if they're well," he added. His last words softened off almost into soliloquy.
The banker spoke forcibly:—
"Yes, there are two quite distinct kinds of poverty. One is an accident of the moment; the other is an inner condition of the individual"—
"Of course it is," said sister Jane's brother-in-law, who felt it a little to have been contradicted on the side of kindness by the hard-spoken Doctor. "Certainly! it's a deficiency of inner resources or character, and what to do with it is no simple question."
"That's what I was about to say," resumed the banker; "at least, when the poverty is of that sort. And what discourages kind people is that that's the sort we commonly see. It's a relief to meet the other, Doctor, just as it's a relief to a physician to encounter a case of simple surgery."
"And—and," said the brother-in-law, "what is your rule about plain almsgiving to the difficult sort?"
"My rule," replied the banker, "is, don't do it. Debt is slavery, and there is an ugly kink in human nature that disposes it to be content with slavery. No, sir; gift-making and gift-taking are twins of a bad blood." The speaker turned to Dr. Sevier for approval; but, though the Doctor could not gainsay the fraction of a point, he was silent. A lady near the hostess stirred softly both under and above the board. In her private chamber she would have yawned. Yet the banker spoke again:—
"Help the old, I say. You are pretty safe there. Help the sick. But as for the young and strong,—now, no man could be any poorer than I was at twenty-one,—I say be cautious how you smooth that hard road which is the finest discipline the young can possibly get."
"If it isn't too hard," chirped the son of the host.
"Too hard? Well, yes, if it isn't too hard. Still I say, hands off; you needn't turn your back, however." Here the speaker again singled out Dr. Sevier. "Watch the young man out of one corner of your eye; but make him swim!"
"Ah-h!" said the ladies.
"No, no," continued the banker; "I don't say let him drown; but I take it, Doctor, that your alms, for instance, are no alms if they put the poor fellow into your debt and at your back."
"To whom do you refer?" asked Dr. Sevier. Whereat there was a burst of laughter, which was renewed when the banker charged the physician with helping so many persons, "on the sly," that he couldn't tell which one was alluded to unless the name were given.
"Doctor," said the hostess, seeing it was high time the conversation should take a new direction, "they tell me you have closed your house and taken rooms at the St. Charles."