An Outcast/Chapter XXV
The two lone revellers remain at the pier-table, moody and hectic. Mr. Snivel drops into a sound sleep, his head resting on the marble. Weak-minded, jealous, contentious—with all the attendants natural to one who leads an unsettled life, sits George Mullholland, his elbow resting on the table, and his head poised thoughtfully in his hand. "I will have revenge—sweet revenge; yes, I will have revenge to-night!" he mutters, and sets his teeth firmly.
In Anna's chamber all is hushed into stillness. The silvery moonbeams play softly through the half-closed windows, lighting up and giving an air of enchantment to the scene. Curtains hang, mist-like, from massive cornices in gilt. Satin drapery, mysteriously underlaid with lace, and floating in bewitching chasteness over a fairy-like bed, makes more voluptuous that ravishing form calmly sleeping—half revealed among the snowy sheets, and forming a picture before which fancy soars, passion unbends itself, and sentiment is led away captive. With such exquisite forms strange nature excites our love;—that love that like a little stream meanders capriciously through our feelings, refreshing life, purifying our thoughts, exciting our ambition, and modulating our actions. That love, too, like a quicksand, too often proves a destroyer to the weak-minded.
Costly chairs, of various styles carved in black walnut, stand around the chamber: lounges covered with chastely-designed tapestry are seen half concealed by the gorgeous window curtains. The foot falls upon a soft, Turkey carpet; the ceiling—in French white, and gilt mouldings—is set off with two Cupids in a circle, frescoed by a skilled hand. On a lounge, concealed in an alcove masked by curtains pending from the hands of a fairy in bronze, and nearly opposite Anna's bed, the old Judge sleeps in his judicial dignity. To-day he sentenced three rogues to the whipping-post, and two wretched negroes—one for raising his hand to a white man—to the gallows.
Calmly Anna continues to sleep, the lights in the girandoles shedding a mysterious paleness over the scene. To the eye that scans only the exterior of life, how dazzling! Like a refulgent cloud swelling golden in the evening sky, how soon it passes away into darkness and disappointment! Suddenly there appears, like a vision in the chamber, the stately figure of a female. Advancing slowly to the bed-side, for a minute she stands contemplating the sleeping beauty before her. A dark, languishing eye, an aquiline nose, beautifully-cut mouth, and a finely-oval face, is revealed by the shadow in which she stands. "How willingly," she mutters, raising the jewelled fingers of her right hand to her lips, as her eyes become liquid with emotion, and her every action betokens one whose very soul is goaded with remorse, "would I exchange all these worldly pleasures for one single day in peace of mind." She lays aside her mantle, and keeps her eyes fixed upon the object before her. A finely-rounded shoulder and exactly-developed bust is set off with a light satin bodice or corsage, cut low, opening shawl-fashion at the breast, and relieved with a stomacher of fine Brussels lace. Down the edges are rows of small, unpolished pearls, running into points. A skirt of orange-colored brocade, trimmed with tulle, and surrounded with three flounces, falls, cloud-like, from her girdle, which is set with cameos and unpolished pearls. With her left hand she raises slightly her skirts, revealing the embroidered gimps of a white taffeta underskirt, flashing in the moonlight. Small, unpolished pearls ornament the bands of her short sleeves; on her fingers are rings, set with diamonds and costly emeralds; and her wrists are clasped with bracelets of diamonds, shedding a modest lustre over her marble-like arms.
"Can this be my child? Has this crime that so like a demon haunts me—that curses me even in my dreams, driven her, perhaps against her will, to seek this life of shame?" She takes the sleeper's hand gently in her own, as the tears gush down her cheeks.
The sleeper startles, half raises herself from her pillow, parts her black, silky hair, that lays upon her gently-swelling bosom, and throws it carelessly down her shoulders, wildly setting her great black orbs on the strange figure before her. "Hush, hush!" says the speaker, "I am a friend. One who seeks you for a good purpose. Give me your confidence—do not betray me! I need not tell you by what means I gained access to you."
A glow of sadness flashes across Anna's countenance. With a look of suspicion she scans the mysterious figure from head to foot. "It is the Judge's wife!" she says within herself. "Some one has betrayed me to her; and, as is too often the case, she seeks revenge of the less guilty party." But the figure before her is in full dress, and one seeking revenge would have disguised herself. "Why, and who is it, that seeks me in this mysterious manner?" whispers Anna, holding her delicate hand in the shadow, over her eyes. "I seek you in the hope of finding something to relieve my troubled spirit, I am a mother who has wronged her child—I have no peace of mind—my heart is lacerated—"
"Are you, then, my mother?" interrupts Anna, with a look of scorn.
"That I would answer if I could. You have occupied my thoughts day and night. I have traced your history up to a certain period. ("What I know of my own, I would fain not contemplate," interrupts Anna.) Beyond that, all is darkness. And yet there are circumstances that go far to prove you the child I seek. Last night I dreamed I saw a gate leading to a dungeon, that into the dungeon I was impelled against my will. While there I was haunted with the figure of a woman of the name of Mag Munday—a maniac, and in chains! My heart bled at the sight, for she, I thought, was the woman in whose charge I left the child I seek. I spoke—I asked her what had become of the child! She pointed with her finger, told me to go seek you here, and vanished as I awoke. I spent the day in unrest, went to the ball to-night, but found no pleasure in its gay circle. Goaded in my conscience, I left the ball-room, and with the aid of a confidant am here."
"I recognize—yes, my lady, I recognize you! You think me your abandoned child, and yet you are too much the slave of society to seek me as a mother ought to do. I am the supposed victim of your crime; you are the favored and flattered ornament of society. Our likenesses have been compared many times:—I am glad we have met. Go, woman, go! I would not, outcast as I am, deign to acknowledge the mother who could enjoy the luxuries of life and see her child a wretch."
"Woman! do not upbraid me. Spare, oh! spare my troubled heart this last pang," (she grasps convulsively at Anna's hand, then shrinks back in fright.) "Tell me! oh, tell me!" she pursues, the tears coursing down her cheeks—
Anna Bonard interrupts by saying, peremptorily, she has nothing to tell one so guilty. To be thus rebuked by an abandoned woman, notwithstanding she might be her own child, wounded her feelings deeply. It was like poison drying up her very blood. Tormented with the thought of her error, (for she evidently labored under the smart of an error in early life,) her very existence now seemed a burden to her. Gloomy and motionless she stood, as if hesitating how best to make her escape.
"Woman! I will not betray your coming here. But you cannot give me back my virtue; you cannot restore me untainted to the world—the world never forgives a fallen woman. Her own sex will be first to lacerate her heart with her shame." These words were spoken with such biting sarcasm, that the Judge, whose nap the loudness of Anna's voice had disturbed, protruded his flushed face and snowy locks from out the curtains of the alcove. "The gay Madame Montford, as I am a Christian," he exclaims in the eagerness of the moment, and the strange figure vanishes out of the door.
"A fashionable, but very mysterious sort of person," pursues the Judge, confusedly. "Ah! ha,—her case, like many others, is the want of a clear conscience. Snivel has it in hand. A great knave, but a capital lawyer, that Snivel—"
The Judge is interrupted in his remarks by the entrance of Mr. Snivel, who, with hectic face, and flushed eyes, comes rushing into the chamber. "Hollo!—old boy, there's a high bid on your head to-night. Ready to do you a bit of a good turn, you see." Mr. Snivel runs his fingers through his hair, and works his shoulders with an air of exultation. "If," he continues, "that weak-minded fellow—that Mullholland we have shown some respect to, hasn't got a pistol! He's been furbishing it up while in the parlor, and swears he will seriously damage you with it. Blasted assurance, those Northerners have. Won't fight, can't make 'em gentlemen; and if you knock 'em down they don't understand enough of chivalry to resent it. They shout to satisfy their fear and not to maintain their honor. Keep an eye out!"
The Judge, in a tone of cool indifference, says he has no fears of the renegade, and will one of these days have the pleasure of sending him to the whipping-post.
"As to that, Judge," interposes Mr. Snivel, "I have already prepared the preliminaries. I gave him the trifle you desired—to-morrow I will nail him at the Keno crib." With this the Judge and the Justice each take an affectionate leave of the frail girl, and, as it is now past one o'clock in the morning, an hour much profaned in Charleston, take their departure.
Armed with a revolver Mullholland has taken up his position in the street, where he awaits the coming of his adversaries. In doubt and anxiety, he reflects and re-reflects, recurs to the associations of his past life, and hesitates. Such reflections only bring more vividly to his mind the wrong he feels himself the victim of, and has no power to resent except with violence. His contemplations only nerve him to revenge.
A click, and the door cautiously opens, as if some votary of crime was about to issue forth in quest of booty. The hostess' head protrudes suddenly from the door, she scans first up and then down the street, then withdraws it. The Judge and Mr. Snivel, each in turn, shake the landlady by the hand, and emerge into the street. They have scarce stepped upon the sidepath when the report of a pistol resounds through the air. The ball struck a lamp-post, glanced, passed through the collar of Judge Sleepyhorn's coat, and brushed Mr. Snivel's fashionable whiskers. Madame Ashley, successor to Madame Flamingo, shrieks and alarms the house, which is suddenly thrown into a state of confusion. Acting upon the maxim of discretion being the better part of valor, the Judge and the Justice beat a hasty retreat into the house, and secrete themselves in a closet at the further end of the back-parlor.
As if suddenly moved by some strange impulse, Madame Ashley runs from room to room, screaming at the very top of her voice, and declaring that she saw the assassin enter her house. Females rush from their rooms and into the great parlor, where they form groups of living statuary, strange and grotesque. Anxious faces—faces half painted, faces hectic of dissipation, faces waning and sallow, eyes glassy and lascivious, dishevelled hair floating over naked shoulders;—the flashing of bewitching drapery, the waving and flitting of embroidered underskirts, the tripping of pretty feet and prettier ankles, the gesticulating and swaying of half-draped bodies—such is the scene occasioned by the bench and the bar.
Madame Ashley, having inherited of Madame Flamingo the value of a scrupulous regard for the good reputation of her house, must needs call in the watch to eject the assassin, whom she swears is concealed somewhere on the premises. Mr. Sergeant Stubbs, a much respected detective, and reputed one of the very best officers of the guard, inasmuch as he never troubles his head about other people's business, and is quite content to let every one fight their own battles,—provided they give him a "nip" of whiskey when they are through, lights his lantern and goes bobbing into every room in the house. We must here inform the reader that the cause of the emeute was kept a profound secret between the judicial gentry. Madame Ashley, at the same time, is fully convinced the ball was intended for her, while Anna lays in a terrible fright in her chamber.
"Ho," says Mr. Stubbs, starting back suddenly as he opened the door of the closet in which the two gentlemen had concealed themselves. "I see! I see!—beg your pardon, gentlemen!" Mr. Stubbs whispers, and bows, and shuts the door quickly.
"An infernal affair this, Judge! D—n me if I wouldn't as soon be in the dock. It will all get out to-morrow," interposes Mr. Snivel, facetiously.
"Blast these improper associations!" the high functionary exclaims, fussily shrugging his shoulders, and wiping the sweat from his forehead. "I love the girl, though, I confess it!"
"Nothing more natural. A man without gallantry is like a pilgrim in the South-West Pass. You can't resist this charming creature. In truth it's a sort of longing weakness, which even the scales of justice fail to bring to a balance."
Mr. Stubbs fails to find the assassin, and enters Madame Ashley's chamber, the door of which leads into the hall. Here Mr. Stubbs's quick eye suddenly discerns a slight motion of the curtains that enclose the great, square bed, standing in one corner. "I ax your pardon, Mam, but may I look in this 'ere bed?" Mr. Stubbs points to the bed, as Madame, having thrown herself into a great rocking chair, proceeds to sway her dignity backward and forward, and give out signs of making up her mind to faint.
Mr. Stubbs draws back the curtains, when, behold! but tell it not in the by-ways, there is revealed the stalworth figure of Simon Patterson, the plantation parson. Our plantation parsons, be it known, are a singular species of depraved humanity, a sort of itinerant sermon-makers, holding forth here and there to the negroes of the rich planters, receiving a paltry pittance in return, and having in lieu of morals an excellent taste for whiskey, an article they invariably call to their aid when discoursing to the ignorant slave—telling him how content with his lot he ought to be, seeing that God intended him only for ignorance and servitude. The parson did, indeed, cut a sorry figure before the gaze of this indescribable group, as it rushed into the room and commenced heaping upon his head epithets delicacy forbids our inserting here—calling him a clerical old lecher, an assassin, and a disturber of the peace and respectability of the house. Indeed, Madame Ashley quite forgot to faint, and with a display of courage amounting almost to heroism, rushed at the poor parson, and had left him in the state he was born but for the timely precautions of Mr. Stubbs, who, finding a revolver in his possession, and wanting no better proof of his guilt, straightway took him off to the guard-house. Parson Patterson would have entered the most solemn and pious protestation of his innocence but the evidence was so strong against him, and the zeal of Mr. Sergeant Stubbs so apparent, that he held it the better policy to quietly submit to the rough fare of his new lodgings.
"I have a terror of these brawls!" says Mr. Snivel, emerging from his hiding-place, and entering the chamber, followed by the high legal functionary.
"A pretty how-do-ye-do, this is;" returns Madame Ashley, cooling her passion in the rocking-chair, "I never had much respect for parsons—"
"Parsons?" interrupts Mr. Snivel, inquiringly, "you don't mean to say it was all the doings of a parson?"
"As I'm a lady it was no one else. He was discovered behind the curtain there, a terrible pistol in his pocket—the wretch!"
Mr. Snivel exchanges a wink with the Judge, points his thumb over his left shoulder, and says, captiously: "I always had an implacable hatred of that old thief. A bad lot! these plantation parsons."
Mr. Stubbs having discovered and removed the assassin, the terrified damsels return to their chambers, and Madame Ashley proceeds to close her house, as the two legal gentlemen take their departure. Perhaps it would be well to inform the reader that a principal cause of Anna's preference for the Judge, so recently manifested, was the deep impression made on her already suspicious mind by Mr. McArthur, the antiquary, who revealed to her sincerely, as she thought, her future dark destiny.