John Brent/Chapter XII
A Ghoul at the Feast
Mr. Clitheroe’s thoughts loved to recur to his native Lancashire, smoky though its air might be, and clean-shaved the grass of its lawns. I could not help believing that all the enthusiasm of this weak, gentle nature for the bleak plains and his pioneer life was a delusion. It would have been pretty talk for an after-dinner rhapsody at the old mansion he had spoken of in England. There, as he paced with me, a guest, after pointing out the gables, wings, oriels, porches, that had clustered about the old building age after age, he might have waved it away into a vision, and spoken with disdain of civilization, and with delight of the tent and the caravan. It had the flavor of Arcady, and the Golden Age, and the simple childhood of the world, when an enthusiastic Rousseauist Marquis talked in ’89 of the rights of man and universal fraternity; it would seem a crazy mockery if the same enthusiast had held the same strain a few years later, in the tumbril, as he rolled slowly along through cruel crowds to the guillotine.
Speaking of Lancashire, we fell upon the subject of coal-mining. I was surprised to find that Mr. Clitheroe had a practical knowledge of that business. He talked for the first time without any of his dreamy, vague manner. His information was full and clear. He let daylight into those darksome pits.
“I am a miner, too,” said I, “but only of gold, a baser and less honorable substance than coal. Your account has a professional interest to me. You talk like an expert.”
“I ought to be. If I once saw half my fortune fly up a factory chimney, I saw another half bury itself in a coal-pit. I have been buried myself in one. I am not ashamed to say it; I have made daily bread for myself and my daughter with pick, shovel, and barrow, in a dark coal-mine, in the same county where I was once the head of the ancient gentry, and where I saw the noblest in the land proud to break my bread and drink my wine. I am not ashamed of it. No, I glory that in that black cavern, where daylight never looked, the brightness of the new faith found me, and showed the better paths where I now walk, and shall walk upward and onward until I reach the earthly Sion first, and then the heavenly.”
Again the old gentleman’s eye kindled, and his chest expanded. What a tragic life he was hinting! My heart yearned toward him. I had never known what it was to have the guidance and protection of a father. Mine died when I was a child. I longed to find a compensation for my own want, — and a bitter one it had sometimes been, — in being myself the guardian of this errant wayfarer, launched upon lethal currents.
“Your faith is as bright as ever. Brother Hugh,” said a rasping voice behind me, as Mr. Clitheroe was silent. “You are an example to us all. The Church is highly blessed in such an earnest disciple.”
Elder Sizzum was the speaker. He smiled in a wolfish fashion over the group, and took his seat beside the lady, like a privileged guest.
“Ah, Brother Sizzum!” said Mr. Clitheroe, with a cheerless attempt at welcome, very different from the frank courtesy he had showed to ward us, “we have been expecting you. Ellen dear, a cup of tea for our friend.”
Miss Clitheroe rose to pour out tea for him. Sheep’s clothing instantly covered the apostle’s rather wolfish demeanor. He assumed a manner of gamesome, sheepish devotion. When he called her Sister Ellen, with a familiar, tender air, I saw painful blushes redden the lady’s cheeks.
Brent noticed the pain and the blush. He looked away from the group toward the blue sierra far away to the south; a hard expression came into his face, such as I had not seen there since the old days of his battling with Swerger. Trouble ahead!
Sizzum’s presence quenched the party. And, indeed, our late cheerfulness was untimely, at the best. It was mockery, — as if the Marquis should have sung merry chansons in the tumbril.
Miss Clitheroe at once grew cold and stern. Nothing could be more distant than her manner toward the saint. She treated him as a high-bred woman can treat a scrub, — sounding with every gesture, and measuring with every word, the ineffaceable gulf between them. Yet she was thoroughly civil as hostess. She even seemed to fight against herself to be friendly. But it was clear to a by-stander that she loathed the apostle. That she was not charmed with his society, even his coarse nature could not fail to discover. Anywhere else the scene would have been comic. Here he had the power. No escape; no refuge. That thrust all comedy out of the drama, and left only very hateful tragedy. Still it was a cruel semblance of comedy over a tragic under-plot, to see the Mormon’s cringing approaches, and that exquisite creature’s calm rebuffs. Sizzum felt himself pinned in his proper place, and writhed there, with an evil look, that said he was noting all and treasuring all against his day of vengeance.
And the poor, feeble old father, — how all his geniality was blighted and withered away! He was no more the master of revels at a festival, but the ruined man, with a bailiff in disguise at his dinner-table. Querulous tones murmured in his voice. The decayed gentleman disappeared; the hapless fanatic took his place. Phrases of cant, and the peculiar Mormon slang and profanity, gave the color to his conversation. He appealed to Sizzum constantly. He was at once the bigoted disciple and the cowed slave. Toward his daughter his manner was sometimes timorously pleading, sometimes almost surly. Why could she not repress her disgust at the holy man, at least in the presence of strangers? — that seemed to be his feeling; and he strove to withdraw attention from her by an eager, trepidating attempt to please his master. In short, the vulgar, hard-headed knave had this weak, lost gentleman thoroughly in his power. Mr. Clitheroe was like a lamb whom the shepherd intends first to shear close, then to worry to death with curs, and at last to cut up into keebaubs.
Brent and I kept aloof as much as we might. We should only have insulted the chosen vessel, and so injured our friends. Indeed, our presence seemed little welcome to Sizzum. He of course knew that the Gentiles saw through him, and despised him frankly. There is nothing more uneasy than a scrub hard at work to please a woman, while by-standers whom he feels to be his betters observe without interference. But we could not amuse ourselves with the scene; it sickened us more and more.
Sunset came speedily, — the delicious, dreamy sunset of October. In the tender regions of twilight, where the sky, so mistily mellow, met the blue horizon, the western world became a world of happy hope. Could it be that wrong and sin dwelt there in that valley far away among the mountains! Baseness where that glory rested! Foulness underneath that crescent moon! Could it be that there was one unhappy, one impure heart within the cleansing, baptismal flow of that holy light of evening!
With sunset. Elder Sizzum, after some oily vulgarisms of compliment to the lady, walked off on camp duty.
We also rose to take our leave. We must look after our horses.
Mr. Clitheroe’s old manner returned the instant his spiritual guide left us.
“Pray come and see us again this evening, gentlemen,” said he.
“We will certainly,” said Brent, looking toward Miss Clitheroe for her invitation.
It did not come. And I, from my position as Chorus, thought, “She is wise not to encourage in herself or my friend this brief intimacy. Mormons will not seem any the better company to-morrow for her relapse into the society of gentlemen to-night.”
“O yes!” said Mr. Clitheroe, interpreting Brent’s look; “my daughter will be charmed to see you. To tell you the truth, our brethren in the camp are worthy people; we sympathize deeply in the faith; but they are not altogether in manners or education quite such as we have been sometimes accustomed to. It is one of the infamous wrongs of our English system of caste that it separates brother men, manners, language, thought, and life. We have as yet been able to have little except religious communion with our fellow-travellers toward the Promised Land, — except, of course, with Brother Sizzum, who is, as you see, quite a man of society, as well as an elect apostle of a great cause. We are quite selfish in asking you to repeat your visit. Besides the welcome we should give you for yourselves, we welcome you also as a novelty.” And then he muttered, half to himself, “God forgive me for speaking after the flesh!”
Come, Wade,” said my friend. And he griped my arm almost savagely. “Until this evening then, Mr. Clitheroe.”
As we moved away from the wagon, where the lady stood, so worn and sad, and yet so lovely, her poor father’s only guard and friend, we met Murker and Larrap, They were sauntering about, prying into the wagons, inspecting the groups, making observations — that were perhaps only curiosity — with a base, guilty, burglarious look.
“He, he!” laughed Larrap, leering at Brent. “I’ll be switched ef you’re not sharp. You know where to look for the pooty gals, blowed ef yer don’t!”
“Hold your tongue!” Brent made a spring at the fellow.
“No offence! no offence!” muttered he, shrinking back, with a cowardly, venomous look.
“Mind your business, and keep a civil tongue in your head, or there will be offence!” Brent turned and walked off in silence. Neither of us was yet ready to begin our talk on this evening’s meeting.
Our horses, if not their masters, were quite ready for joyous conversation. They had encountered no pang in the region of Fort Bridger. Grass in plenty was there, and they neighed us good evening in their most dulcet tones. They frisked about, and, neighing and frisking, informed us that, in their opinion, the world was all right, — a perfectly jolly place, with abundance to eat, little to do, and everybody a friend. A capital world! according to Pumps and Don Fulano. They felt no trouble, and saw none in store. Who would not be an animal and a horse, unless perchance an omnibus horse sprawling on the Russ pavement, or a family horse before a carryall, or in fact any horse in slavish position, as most horses are.
We shifted our little caballada to fresh grazing-spots sheltered by a brake. We meant to camp there apart from the Mormon caravan. The talk of our horses had not cheered us. We still busied ourselves in silence. Presently, as I looked toward the train, I observed two figures in the distance lurking about Mr. Clitheroe’s wagon.
“See,” said I; “there are those two gamblers again. I don’t like such foul vultures hanging about that friendless dove. They look villains enough for any outrage.”
“But they are powerless here.”
“In the presence of a steadier villany they tire. That foul Sizzum is quite sure of his prey. John Brent, what can be done? I do not know which I feel most bitterly for, the weary, deluded old gentleman, doubting his error, or that noble girl. Poor, friendless souls!”
“Friendless!” said Brent. “She has made a friend in me. And in you too, if you are the man I know.”
“But what can we do?”
“I will never say that we can do nothing until she repels our aid. If she wants help, she must have it.”
“I will find a way or make one. Sidney’s thought is always good. You and I can never die in a better cause than this. And now, Dick, do not let us perplex ourselves with baseless talk and plans. We will see them again to-night, when Sizzum is not by. It cannot be that she is in sympathy with these wretches.”
“No; that horrible ogre, Sizzum, is evidently disgusting to her; but here he has her in his den. It is stronger than any four walls in the world, — all this waste of desert.”
“Don’t speak of it; you sicken me.”
Something more in earnest than the tenderest pity here. I saw that the sudden doom of love had befallen my friend. In fact, I have never been quite sure but that the same would have been my fate, if I had not seen him a step in advance, and so checked myself. His time had come. Mine had not. Will it ever?
But love here was next to despair. That consciousness quickened the passion. A man must put his whole being into the cause, or the cause was hopeless, — must act intensely, as only a lover acts, or not at all.
I determined not to perplex myself yet with schemes. I knew my friend’s bold genius and cool judgment. When he was ready to act, I would back him.