An Outcast/Chapter XXXVII
To bear up against the malice of inexorable enemies is at once the gift and the shield of a noble nature. And here it will be enough to say, that Maria bore the burden of her ills with fortitude and resignation, trusting in Him who rights the wronged, to be her deliverer. What took place when she saw her aged father led away, a prisoner; what thoughts invaded that father's mind when the prison bolt grated on his ear, and he found himself shut from all that had been dear to him through life, regard for the feelings of the reader forbids us recounting here.
Naturally intelligent, Maria had, by close application to books, acquired some knowledge of the world. Nor was she entirely ignorant of those arts designing men call to their aid when seeking to effect the ruin of the unwary female. Thus fortified, she fancied she saw in the story of the lost ship a plot against herself, while the persecution of her father was only a means to effect the object. Launched between hope and fear, then—hope that her lover still lived, and that with his return her day would brighten—fear lest the report might be founded in truth, she nerves herself for the struggle. She knew full well that to give up in despair—to cast herself upon the cold charities of a busy world, would only be to hasten her downfall. Indeed, she had already felt how cold, and how far apart were the lines that separated our rich from our poor.
The little back parlor is yet spared to Maria, and in it she may now be seen plying at her needle, early and late. It is the only means left her of succoring the parent from whom she has been so ruthlessly separated. Hoping, fearing, bright to-day and dark to-morrow, willing to work and wait—here she sits. A few days pass, and the odds and ends of the Antiquary's little shop, like the "shirts" of the gallant Fremont, whom we oppressed while poor, and essayed to flatter when a hero, are gazetted under the head of "sheriff's sale." Hope, alas! brings no comfort to Maria. Time rolls on, the month's rent falls due, her father pines and sinks in confinement, and her needle is found inadequate to the task undertaken. Necessity demands, and one by one she parts with her few cherished mementos of the past, that she may save an aged father from starvation.
The "prisoner" has given notice that he will take the benefit of the act—commonly called "an act for the relief of poor debtors." But before he can reach this boon, ten days must elapse. Generous-minded legislators, no doubt, intended well when they constructed this act, but so complex are its provisions that any legal gentleman may make it a very convenient means of oppression. And in a community where laws not only have their origin in the passions of men, but are made to serve popular prejudices—where the quality of justice obtained depends upon the position and sentiments of him who seeks it,—the weak have no chance against the powerful.
The multiplicity of notices, citations, and schedules, necessary to the setting free of this "poor debtor" (for these fussy officials must be paid), Maria finds making a heavy drain on her lean purse.
The Court is in session, and the ten days having glided away, the old man is brought into "open Court" by two officials with long tipstaffs, and faces looking as if they had been carefully pickled in strong drinks. "Surely, now, they'll set me free—I can give them no more—I am old and infirm—they have got all—and my daughter!" he muses within himself. Ah! he little knows how uncertain a thing is the law.
The Judge is engaged over a case in which two very fine old families are disputing for the blood and bones of a little "nigger" girl. The possession of this helpless slave, the Judge (he sits in easy dignity) very naturally regards of superior importance when compared with the freedom of a "poor debtor." He cannot listen to the story of destitution—precisely what was sought by Keepum—to-day, and to-morrow the Court adjourns for six months.
The Antiquary is remanded back to his cell. No one in Court cares for him; no one has a thought for the achings of that heart his release would unburden; the sorrows of that lone girl are known only to herself and the One in whom she puts her trust. She, nevertheless, seeks the old man in his prison, and there comforts him as best she can.
Five days more, and the "prisoner" is brought before the Commissioner for Special Bail, who is no less a personage than the rosy-faced Clerk of the Court, just adjourned. And here we cannot forbear to say, that however despicable the object sought, however barren of right the plea, however adverse to common humanity the spirit of the action, there is always to be found some legal gentleman, true to the lower instincts of the profession, ready to lend himself to his client's motives. And in this instance, the cunning Keepum finds an excellent instrument of furthering his ends, in one Peter Crimpton, a somewhat faded and rather disreputable member of the learned profession. It is said of Crimpton, that he is clever at managing cases where oppression rather than justice is sought, and that his present client furnishes the larger half of his practice.
And while Maria, too sensitive to face the gaze of the coarse crowd, pauses without, silent and anxious, listening one moment and hoping the next will see her old father restored to her, the adroit Crimpton rises to object to "the Schedule." To the end that he may substantiate his objections, he proposes to examine the prisoner. Having no alternative, the Commissioner grants the request.
The old Antiquary made out his schedule with the aid of the good-hearted jailer, who inserted as his effects, "Necessary wearing apparel." It was all he had. Like the gallant Fremont, when he offered to resign his shirts to his chivalric creditor, he could give them no more. A few questions are put; the old man answers them with childlike simplicity, then sits down, his trembling fingers wandering into his beard. Mr. Crimpton produces his paper, sets forth his objections, and asks permission to file them, that the case may come before a jury of "Special Bail."
Permission is granted. The reader will not fail to discover the object of this procedure. Keepum hopes to continue the old man in prison, that he may succeed in breaking down the proud spirit of his daughter.
The Commissioner listens attentively to the reading of the objections. The first sets forth that Mr. McArthur has a gold watch; the second, that he has a valuable breastpin, said to have been worn by Lord Cornwallis; and the third, that he has one Yorick's skull. All of these, Mr. Crimpton regrets to say, are withheld from the schedule, which virtually constitutes fraud. The facile Commissioner bows; the assembled crowd look on unmoved; but the old man shakes his head and listens. He is surprised to find himself accused of fraud; but the law gives him no power to show his own innocence. The Judge of the Sessions was competent to decide the question now raised, and to have prevented this reverting to a "special jury"—this giving the vindictive plaintiff a means of torturing his infirm victim. Had he but listened to the old man's tale of poverty, he might have saved the heart of that forlorn girl many a bitter pang.
The motion granted, a day is appointed—ten days must elapse—for a hearing before the Commissioner of "Special Bail," and his special jury. The rosy-faced functionary, being a jolly and somewhat flexible sort of man, must needs give his health an airing in the country. What is the liberty of a poor white with us? Our Governor, whom we esteem singularly sagacious, said it were better all our poor were enslaved, and this opinion finds high favor with our first families. The worthy Commissioner, in addition to taking care of his health, is expected to make any number of speeches, full of wind and war, to several recently called Secession Conventions. He will find time (being a General by courtesy) to review the up-country militia, and the right and left divisions of the South Carolina army. He will be feted by some few of our most distinguished Generals, and lecture before the people of Beaufort (a very noisy town of forty-two inhabitants, all heroes), to whom he will prove the necessity of our State providing itself with an independent steam navy.
The old Antiquary is remanded back to jail—to wait the coming day. Maria, almost breathless with anxiety, runs to him as he comes tottering out of Court in advance of the official, lays her trembling hand upon his arm, and looks inquiringly in his face. "Oh! my father, my father!—released? released?" she inquires, with quivering lips and throbbing heart. A forced smile plays over his time-worn face, he looks upward, shakes his head in sorrow, and having patted her affectionately on the shoulder, throws his arms about her neck and kisses her. That mute appeal, that melancholy voucher of his sorrows, knells the painful answer in her ears, "Then you are not free to come with me? Oh, father, father!" and she wrings her hands and gives vent to her tears.
"The time will come, my daughter, when my Judge will hear me—will judge me right. My time will come soon—" And here the old man pauses, and chokes with his emotions. Maria returns the old man's kiss, and being satisfied that he is yet in the hands of his oppressors, sets about cheering up his drooping spirits. "Don't think of me, father," she says—"don't think of me! Let us put our trust in Him who can shorten the days of our tribulation." She takes the old man's arm, and like one who would forget her own troubles in her anxiety to relieve another, supports him on his way back to prison.
It is high noon. She stands before the prison gate, now glancing at the serene sky, then at the cold, frowning walls, and again at the old pile, as if contemplating the wearying hours he must pass within it. "Don't repine—nerve yourself with resolution, and all will be well!" Having said this with an air of confidence in herself, she throws her arms about the old man's neck, presses him to her bosom, kisses and kisses his wrinkled cheek, then grasps his hand warmly in her own. "Forget those who persecute you, for it is good. Look above, father—to Him who tempers the winds, who watches over the weak, and gives the victory to the right!" She pauses, as the old man holds her hand in silence. "This life is but a transient sojourn at best; full of hopes and fears, that, like a soldier's dream, pass away when the battle is ended." Again she fondly shakes his hand, lisps a sorrowing "good-bye," watches him, in silence, out of sight, then turns away in tears, and seeks her home. There is something so pure, so earnest in her solicitude for the old man, that it seems more of heaven than earth.
- Our Charleston readers will recognize the case here described, without any further key.