A FEW months ago I made a collecting tour for Wirt and Companythrough that stretch of country watered by the Ohio. Thirty years ago I had spent a summer there, and the change bewildered me : not that the rough buckeye and hemlock woods and mountain creeks had been railwayed, canalled, bored for coal, and derricked for oil ; I looked for that ; but the people had cropped out into a new phase of life.
They were lazy, smoky old towns,— those upper Virginia and Kentucky villages,— when I was a young man ; something of the solitude of “ the dark and bloody hunting-grounds ” hanging about them yet ; the old forts still standing which had been the terror of the Indians ; the grandchildren of the pioneers holding baronial tracts of land under grant from Washington: mule-raisers, most of them, droning out their lives in great rambling stone houses, card-playing, Champagne-drinking, waited on by a few slaves, and carrying in their own tawny skins, high cheekbones, and beetling eyebrows, hints that the blood of these same pioneers had mixed too freely, perhaps, with that of their savage foes and allies.
By this time, however, the drowsy, sunshiny burghs have-swelled, like the frog in the fable, and burst out into jaunty modern cities, with mills belching soot and oily smoke down into the muddy streets; the pavements are crowded with Uncle Sam’s boys in their light blue coats ; the shops are stocked by Northern capital ; the hard-headed, taciturn Western man, with his broad common-sense, has set his solid foot down on the ground, and begins to dominate over both the sloth of the natives and the keen Yankee speculators. The women of the old-country families look out sullenly, talk a great deal of “ shoddy ” ; are loyal, certainly, but say nothing of “Jack” or “Ned” who hold commissions under Lee or Hood.
However, this is not what I meant to tell you. While I was passing through one of the border towns, I accidentally met again the traces of a curious old character, well known through all that region, who, if fate had but placed her in the compressed action of a court, instead of the loose, inconsequent hurlyburly of a republic, would have made herself a footing in history before now. She deserves a more thorough record than this mere sketch must be.
But I must go back to my own first journey to that country. It was the fulfilment of an old, boyish plan. My father had been a land-surveyor, and had hunted and trapped, in those early days, from the fat river-bottoms of the Monongahela and Cross-Creek valleys up to the great Cheat Mountains. He was a contemporary of the pioneers Wetzel, the Leets, M’Cullochs, etc., and when I was a boy, used to fill up the winter evenings with wild stories of border Indian warfare, bear-hunting, and the like. I formed a hotter resolve, each new time of hearing, to make a pilgrimage, as soon as I was a man, to his old camping-ground, (“the Ohio ” we called it then,) to hunt out and open the mounds left by the Creeks and Delawares, and to find the forts where these battles of his had been won and lost. It always pleased my father that I entered into his old stories with such zest.
“ I hope I ’ll live to go with you, Zack,” he would say, nodding his gray head. “ We ’d hunt out Mrs. C——, if we came within a hundred miles of her. She could give you the history of every inch of ground from Blennerhassets Island up to Fort Du Quesne, — that is, if she were so minded. She had a sharp, suspicious eye of her own when she was a girl, and age would not sweeten her temper. But there’s no better authority for old legends of that time, — none. She was a cousin of M’Culloch, who made that leap from the mountain to escape the Indian arrows, you remember ? and was in the fort when Polly Scott went out to the gate-house for powder, bringing it in her apron across the field, a target for hundreds of the red devils. But I doubt if the old lady ’s living yet; she was married when I was a stout young beau, dancing Virginia reels out yonder: Shepler was her first husband.”
The older my father grew, the more the idea haunted him of going with “Zack” out to the banks of the Ohio, until, as second childhood crept on him, it became a ruling whim. But crossing the Alleghany range was no light task for even a young man in those days of wagons and stage-coaches, and he never was gratified. When he was gone, I reproached myself bitterly that it had not been accomplished : it seemed so easy and natural a thing to do, now that it was too late. My old plan grew, therefore, to have a morbid interest for me.
I fancied that to go over his old hunting-paths would bring my father back to me, and that, wherever he might be now, he would choose to be so brought back.
About the time I was thirty, then, having no employment except an opening which Fordyce offered me in New York, I chose, instead of accepting it, to start alone on my voyage of discovery. One August morning, the air full ot a gentle languor, the heavy clouds of bituminous smoke vanishing beyond the horizon in swells of intense purple and orange, which I never had seen in our pale sky, I took a boat at Pittsburg, and dropped lazily down the shining Ohio, through thick-wooded hills, and dotting little islands that thrust themselves out of the water to support only a clump of showery green willows, or an old rock, maybe, draped with delicate trailing mosses. Chance favored me.
“ If you want the run of the Injun forts,” said the Captain, as he stood beside me on the Texas, “there ’s Abel Steadman aboard. He knows ’em better than anybody hereabouts,-—an’ knows nothin’ else,” dropping his voice. “ I ’ll bring him up,” which he did accordingly.
Steadman was a lank, yellow-haired country-lad, habited in a suit of blue Kentucky jeans, ill-fitting, and ragged besides. He talked acutely and intelligently, however, on this subject, and gave me a clear idea of the discoveries made in Indian antiquities in that region. “ The trouble was,” he said, “ people who had means cared nothing about the matter.”
The next day we naturally came together again : he had precisely the information I needed. About noon he touched me on the elbow, as I stood by the deck-railing,—
“ There is where I live,” pointing to a tumble-down old shanty back in a field. “There is a small mound to be opened in the adjacent farm next week. Would it interest you to see it? If so, come ashore, and stay with me for a few days.”
The invitation was given so simply, and as a matter of course, that I accepted it without further parley. The Steadmans were miserably poor ; the young man, in his queer, blunt way, said as much, though by no means apologetically.
“ You are afraid of encroaching ? No. We live by what we shoot or fish, Matt and I. Matt’s my brother. It ’s not much ; but if you choose to throw a line with us, it will make you easy about staying as long as you please.”
There was a straightforward delicacy in this that I liked. I remained with the Steadmans, therefore. We went over to see the mound in the evening, which proved to be much smaller than that at Elizabethtown, thirty miles farther down the river, in which was found the famous “ mound-stone ” that so puzzled French savans. Our mound was covered with a thick undergrowth, when we first saw it ; was oval in shape, and about twelve feet in height. The next morning it was opened by the farm-owner, (who wanted it out of the way to plant potatoes,)—Abel and I assisting and digging with the best ol them. After half a day’s work we came to an incrustation of clay, baked hard, as by internal heat. After this had been penetrated and carefully removed, we discovered a stone block or altar, immediately in front of which lay a skeleton, and the ornaments, tomahawk, etc., of a chief. Forming a complete half-circle with this, and in front of the altar, were thirteen other skeletons, their heads towards the chief, the bones of the arms crossed as in obeisance. The pith of our discovery lay in the fact, that about these inferior bones was heaped a lightish, oily, brown dust,—-burnt human flesh, in a word.— proving that these skeletons belonged to criminals or prisoners sacrificed at the death of the chief.
Abel Steadman kicked the bent skull and folded arms of one of them aside.
“ Even those savages made masters and slaves of each other,” he said, pettishly. “The costliest wampum made the chief then, as nowadays, I suppose.”
I remember I looked at him, thinking it an odd train of thought for a carter's son.
I loitered away several weeks with the Steadmans, having induced the old woman to take me as a boarder. The house was but a large hut, with a wide kitchen below, and two lofts over it. in one of which the boys slept, and in the other their mother and Cousin Jane, a young woman of Abel's age. I had a bunk fitted up in a closet off the kitchen. Perceiving that Abel took notes of our researches, making drawings with me of the painted rocks, etc., I wondered to find a day-laborer with a taste for such pursuits, unusual even among educated men. When our supper of flitch and molasses was over one evening, therefore, I asked him how he meant to use his papers. Abel ran his fingers through his thin, red whiskers.
“Material for future work, — material.” he said, vaguely staring into the fire.
I saw that Mrs. Steadman, a thin, hollow-chested woman, looked up to hear his answer, and Matt gave a keen glance round from his work. Matt was a stout, clean-skinned lad, with a firm, decisive way of shutting his lips, and a pair of shrewd, kindly blue eyes that I liked. He was trying to be a carpenter without learning the trade : had put up a shed outside, and was up by daylight every morning hewing away with his one plane and saw. Boy-like, he had made a chum of me already. My question had curiously disquieted Abel. He rose and left the room. Matt drew his bench up.
“That hurt Abe, you see ?”
“ I do not see why.”
“ True for you. But” (in a whisper) “ he can't help doin’ them things ; and then, seein’ they don't help, he worries like a girl.”
“Yes,” — then was silent, his mouth harder set. “ Well,” (a rush of blood dyeing his face.) — “ look yonder ” (jerking his head back) “at mother. Don't you think it ’s time somethin’ was done ? ”
I had noticed that the woman was raw-boned and stoop-shouldered, with that etiolated yellow flesh that comes of long overwork. I might have heard her cough, but had paid no attention to it until now, when a fit came on dry and hollow.
“How long has she had that?” I asked, gravely.
“ Nigh on to a year. I knew it would come some day. She ’s slaved night and day to keep us goin’, since I could remember. It’s time Abel an’ me was doin’ somethin’, beside diggin’ an’ cartin'. We never could raise enough to learn a trade.”
He dropped his chin on his hand, and sat looking fixedly, but not gloomily, into the fire. His mother could not overhear him. but I thought Jane did, — she put so much vigor into her rubs on the washboard, and spoke more tenderly to old Mrs. Steadman. Jane was a bustling, pleasant, low-spoken girl: I think I mentioned her before.
“The truth is,” said Matt, presently jerking out a nervous laugh, “we’ve all our lives kept draggin' on, waitin’ for a great stroke of luck. My father did : he allays thought another year would bring it, and another. He ’s dead now: he dug an’ carted to the last; and here ’s his sons.— men without learnin’, in the old rags they wore when they was boys — diggin’ an’ cartin' just the same. See mother there ? That old gown ’s her best. Often think there ’s not a lady in the land would look like mother, if she’d laces an’ silks to wear; and she shall have them, by” —— with a tremendous oath. “There’s Jane,” — after a long silence, the color fading out of his face, — “Jane and I are like other people. We ” —— stopping short.
“ Yes,” I nodded, gravely.
“Well, could I help it? I couldn’t see her, and —— But we never can marry, this way of ongoin’. I mean to stand from under, and clear a way for myself. I ’m tryin’ to be a carpenter, and have stuck to it pretty steady these two years, gettin’ a job now and then from the farmers. They like to help a fellow through,” with a smile. “ I ’ll marry Jane yet, and put mother where she ought to be.”
“ That’s the true talk, anyhow, Matt.”
He flushed again.
“ Well,” getting up and taking down the stable-lantern from the wall, “it ’s been the curse of the Steadmans, waitin’ for dead men’s shoes. That ’s so ! ”
An hour later Abel came in, and after lounging about awkwardly touched me on the arm.
“ I ’d like you to come up ’loft, Mr. Humphreys.”
I scrambled up the ladder into their garret, and sat down on an old hair trunk, which he pulled up to a table. There was nothing in the room but the bed and this table, which was strewed with papers, covered closely with writing. Abel stood beside them, shuffling them with great embarrassment.
“ It’s a good deal to ask of a stranger,” he said ; “but you spoke about my sketches, and”—— “Well, I have no funds.”
“ I think I understand,” after waiting. “You have written something of which you would like my opinion.”
“ Yes, that ’s it. Not that it would make me think differently of it, but I ’d like to know how the world would take it, — see ? And you could give me a notion of that. Though whatten judges are they?” tossing the papers. “See how they met Keats and Robbie Burns ! ”
He pushed over the sheets to me one by one, gravely silent as I read. They were principally verses, as was to be expected, — one or two tales, the scene laid in Italy or France, after the manner of young authors, — and a tragedy. Not a line which did not show absurdly enough his utter lack of knowledge, — mistakes as to fact, misspelt words, deficient grammar, verses halting on all sorts of feet. Yet, with all this, there were flashes here and there of power and feeling ; and the English was, strangest of all, not stilted, but the simple, homely words which he used every day. I held the last paper a long time ; I had not the moral courage to tell the boy the truth. Evidently, however, he cared very little for my opinion, but sat pinching his lips, vaguely staring into space, as usual.
“ You do not think any publisher would take them, I see. Well, it ’s likely. Did you see these lines?” — picking up a page. “ This passage, now ? ” — reading it. “ I think no one could have said that more finely.”
He had chosen the best stanza ; but the speech made me dumb.
“You need training, Steadman,” I said, at last. “It is only right to be honest with you. Two or three years of hard study would fit you to make some mark in the world. But you need that ; and my advice to you is, to put your papers resolutely away, and go to work. Make enough money to give yourself schooling, and you will be the more fit to hold the pen when the time comes. The world ’s a big workshop, in which a man can shape what fate he pleases ; but it is a workshop still.”
His eyes had wandered off before I had finished, — a faint, dreamy smile on his face.
“Yes, education. Oh, of course that will be included. I mean to be a profound scholar, when the time comes. I thought of making the law my profession. It will be a very short time now.”
I asked no explanation, and he offered none, folded his papers and put them away, then tried, in his simple, unobtrusive way, to play the host.
Whatever eastle in the air these poor Steadmans had inherited, the mere delusion had given a certain dignity, and an almost grace of bearing to them, not to be hidden by their laborers’ habits and speech. Abel talked of different parts of the States with a hungry curiosity; he never had been out of —— County, I found.
“ Nothing enlarges a man’s mind like knocking about a bit,” I said. “You could easily make a trip down to the Gulf. Most of these lads hereabouts that I meet have been down to New Orleans as raftsmen.”
“ Oh, they ! Raftsmen ? To be sure, to be sure. What would one see of society in that way? Who would recognize you as other than a common riverdog ? Some clay I mean to travel as a gentleman should.”
Then stopped abruptly, and turned the conversation to the capital, questioning me with regard to the District of Columbia, growing rapid and eager as he found that I was familiar with the localities, and showing a singular accuracy of information himself about them. About one range of country, especially, he was curious. — the plantations in the neighborhood of Washington, particularly certain belonging to a family named Shepler, which were the finest, by the way, in the District. Finding that I knew them, he made me describe the homestead, negro-quarters, woods, and water-courses. I was puzzled at his curiosity; but the lad was full of vagaries, I saw, and indulged him.
“ The heirs are minors,” I said, in conclusion. “ I happen to know the property ; for my brother had a claim to prosecute against it, and sent me to see the face of the country.”
He grew suddenly reserved at that, drawing within his shell, and dropped the subject instantly. Soon after, he took up an old violin.
“ Shall I play for you ? ” he asked.
My ears shivered in anticipation, but I assented. He held the bow firmly, playing a simple air or two with much genuine pathos, but in ignorance of the art, of course. I said as much, adding,—
“Training, Steadman! training! You must have it to achieve anything permanently good.”
" Of course ; I never doubted that. But I know what is in me. Some day the world will understand.”
The vanity was so unconscious and childish that it ceased to be offensive.
I began to feel an interest in these boys, but most in the poor overworked mother. I had picked up, in my scrambling life, enough knowledge of medicine to judge of her case. The next morning, after consulting Matthew, I made a thorough examination into the cause of her disease. Matt waited outside. When I came out to him, his face was pale, and he bit and moistened his dry lips unceasingly.
“ Well, Mr. Humphreys ? ”
“ Your mother must leave this place. The work and the fogs from these swamps are killing her. Dry air and rest would effect a cure, I believe.”
He stood paler than before, but not speaking a word.
“ You think it impossible, Matthew ? ” I said, gently.
“ Nothing is impossible.”
It troubled me to see the grave, stern look on the merry face, which never had been there before. I fully explained my reasons for judging as I did, knowing him to be reasonable and acute beyond his years. I offered to do what I could, in my poor way.
“It is only due from one man to another, Matthew.”
“ No, this is for mother, Mr. Humphreys ; I must take care of mother myself,” — standing with his hands in his pockets, his eyes fixed on the ground.
Abel had come up, and listened like a frightened woman, the muscles of his face working, tears in his light-blue eyes.
“ Cheer up, Abe,” said the younger boy, heartily ; “ I’ve thought of a plan.”
“ There ’s one way, Matthew,” said Abel, eagerly. “If only ”——
“ No, none of that! ” — sternly. “ We ’ve had enough of waitin’ for an ‘ if.’ We ’ll help ourselves now.”
An hour after, I saw him lock up his shed as if he had done with it, and presently come out of the house with his face washed and his shoes on, and take his way across the fields.
That afternoon, at the mound, Doctor Peters, the owner of the farm, began a conversation with me about the Steadmans.
“ It was the ruin of the old man,” he said, “waiting for his rights. It kept him a loafer all his life. What little he made was by digging, just enough to hold body and soul together, hoping Mrs. C——would not hold out another year. But there ’s no die in her.”
“ C——! ” I exclaimed,
“ Yes, yon’s her place. The way of it was this. She was a Fawcett, — Betty Fawcett : I ’ve heard my grandfather talk of her. Her first husband was a Colonel Shepler.”
“ Of the District ? ”
“Yes, — Alexandria. They had no children ; but the Colonel, he leaves her all for her life, and after she was gone it was to come back to the Sheplers. Afterwards she married C——; but she holds on to every dollar of the old Colonel's money. Now old Steadman was the only one of that family living.”
“ Do you mean to say that there is but one life between these boys and the Shepler properties ? ”
“Just so; but the ‘life’ is a tough one. She ’s been ailing these twenty years. It will come to them soon, surely.”
“ Where did you say was her place ? ”
He pointed it out, on the other side of the creek. After a few moments’ consideration, I sauntered towards the ford. From his first mention of this Mrs. C—— I recognized my father’s heroine, and determined to see her, at first from curiosity; but another reason was now added. If what the man stated was true, this woman surely could not be aware of the condition of almost pauperism to which these people were reduced whose property she held. If the case were plainly set before her, she would at least furnish means to save the poor woman’s life whom I had just left, etc., etc. Reasoning thus, I Came to the creek, and picked my way over on the stones raised about a foot above the water. The ground stretched from the bank up to the house in a grassy slope set with one or two alders and willows. It was a grazing farm. Rich meadows rolled away on every side, except where a sugar-loaf-shaped hill rose abruptly in front of me. The old Shepler mansion stood at its base. It was large, and, with its out-houses, built of stone, solid, clean, and jail-like. The absence of all look of comfort was curious, — not a curl of smoke from the wide kitchen, no sleepy dog sunning himself, no flower in garden or unshuttered window, the grass cleared away even from the well, and the yellow clay left. Two or three stalwart negroes were gossiping over a pile of half-sawed wood near where I stood. I had stopped but a moment, when a shrill, rasping voice came across the creek, making the men jump to their work with a will.
“ No ! I ’ll make my own way ! I have crossed my own water-course for half a century, and what is come to me to stop me now? I must see what this fellow is staring about.”
I turned and saw a man on the opposite bank, close to the water’s edge, remonstrating with a short, thin old woman about something. She made use of violent gestures ; her tones were acidulated into the essence of all that was dogmatic and shrewish.
“ Don't talk to me, Parker ! If you want to know how I will cross the ford, here ! ”
So saying, she squatted down on the ground, and removed her shoes and stockings in a twinkling, — then, tucking them under her arm, made her way over the stones with a chuckle as she touched the shore.
“Parker’s a fool ! Don’t tire yourselves, I beg, Pike and Jerry ! Now, young Sir, what is your errand ?” facing me, sharply.
“ To make myself known to a friend of my father’s.”
“ So, so ! I ’ve heard that story before. Young people nowadays make a show of Mrs, C——, and ferret her out with some story of old times and their fathers. Your name ’s Humphreys ? Pike told me of you. I keep a sharp eye on all the country round. I think I did know a Humphreys in Colonel Shepler’s time. Get you before me into the house.”
During this harangue, she had been composedly putting on her stockings, and fastening a pair of low shoes with the old-fashioned buckles of brilliants on the instep. I preceded her into the house, entering the low-raftered kitchen, as she directed.
“There ’s a fire there. It ’s chilly.”
She perched herself on a high chair, her toes on the rung, while she subjected me to a rigid cross-examination about my father. I observed her as closely. A small, withered old woman, as if Nature had at first begrudged her the sap and genial juices of life, and dried them out of her as speedily as might be ; only her eyes blazed, fresh, keen, vindictive. She sat bolt upright in her chair, her skinny hands crossed over her coarse blue dress, the fingers loaded with rings, many of them jewels of great value. Her white hair was drawn back in a thick puff under a cap of cheap lace, and fastened there with a diamond pin. A great turnip-shaped gold watch was fastened on her left shoulder, her hollow chest garlanded with massive chains, a bunch of steel keys ending them, among which those of the pantry and cellar were conspicuous.
She pronounced my verdict at last.
“ I believe you are not lying. Come into my house. I am glad to see Philip Humphreys’s son. A shiftless dog, but good blood, good blood,” — leading me into a spacious dining-room, uncarpeted and dreary, the plaster falling from the walls, but a magnificent buffet filling up one entire side and laden with massive plate, among which I noticed several cups, prizes at Southern race-courses.
Her keen eye caught my passing glance at them.
“ Yes, yes ! I had a good eve for the turf once ! Keep clear of it, young Humphreys ! It has gone down into a money-making jobbery. Gentlemen cannot keep even their vices intact — in — the — Republic,” with a delicate, fine smile of satire.
Once within this inner court of hospitality, her manner had changed instantly. The change was so unnatural as to be almost appalling : it was like a corpse putting on a gracious, gay life again. Evening found me still charmed to my seat, a willing listener. I do not think even now that it was because I was an inexperienced, uncritical youth, that I was so readily puzzled and interested. I have written this paper mainly for the purpose of sketching a real character, thinking her now, as I did then, a curious study for the dilettante in anomalies of human nature, as well as one of the most noteworthy women of her time from extraneous circumstances. Once having taken up her rôle as hostess, the roughness and vulgarity slid from her as by a magic touch, — as coarse armor with which she kept her neighbors at bay. She had the keen insight, the delicate instinct, dainty in expression of manner and speech, of a woman habituée du monde for many crowded and watchful years. From the time of her first marriage she spent her winters in Washington, at first noted as a beauty and bel esprit, then an object of interest from her eccentricities, her cool skill, and long familiarity with the private political life of the capital. Her manner had the quaint archness, overlying intense pride, of an old French Marquise, to whom Bonaparte is “plebeian,” and the fruitful, vulgar present worthy only of being dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders.
I went day after day to see her, — of course, at her own request: with the same odd, half-rebuked feeling with which I opened the Indian mound,— only that which was to be unearthed from this grave was of far more interest to a man of the world, and much less holy, than the poor savages’ cache with their dead in it. I did not broach the subject of the Steadmans, hoping to obtain some clew to a weak point in her nature which could be touched and roused to sympathy. I never found it. I think she enjoyed my visits. I was fresh from the world from which she had long been shut out, brought its breath with me, was eager and appreciative. As a reward, she poured out an exhaustless store of anecdote. Her times had covered a broad field, and one of glaring contrasts ; not an Indian war back to the Colonial era with which she was not familiar ; she remembered the first proclamation of the Declaration of Independence ; had known Paine, Lafayette, and Lee; sat on the side of the court-room devoted to Burr's adherents during his trial at Richmond, a young and brilliant beauty, while her husband faced her on the other ; talked of Benton, Clay, Webster, then political leaders, as “those young men, — promising, but crude, Sir ! crude ! ” I afterwards learned the estimation these men had for her.
“ I never passed her house,” said Mr. C——, “without stopping to pay my respects to her. She had a powerful intellect in her younger days, — power enough to make men overlook her coarseness. Many of our caucuses were held in her drawing-rooms ; she could keep a secret better than most men ; but she was too fond of petty sarcasm and intrigue to be effective in any cause. We respected her, too, for her mental strength only; in her most brilliant days, she was selfish and a miser.”
The manner in which this latter trait of avarice showed itself, and its struggle with her finer taste, were ludicrous enough, — for instance, in her cheap servant's gown and old jewelry. One day she took me up to a large chamber, filled with chests of drawers, in which were stowed away the dresses she had worn for half a century.
“ Every year I put away two, made in the current mode. I like to turn them over, as you do to look at pictures, perhaps ? ”—unfolding heavy velvets, brocades, and then, out of spicy red boxes, lifting fold after fold of yellow old lace, daintily as a mother would caress a baby’s limbs.
But this woman never had children.
“ It will be a precious legacy for some young beauty,” I said, thoughtlessly. “A warning one, too.”
“ Legacy ? You look far ahead, young Sir ! ” her bony old hands shaking, as she shut the boxes and locked them wickedly.
Yet in one of these upper rooms she had her tombstone,—a shaft of Carrara marble, with a base containing niches, which she filled in her younger and more generous days with finely wrought figures, but lately with plaster groups purchased from itinerant image-vendors.
It was with little hope of success, therefore, that I broached the subject of the Steadmans on the last day of my stay. I did it, however, resolutely, affecting not to see that the old woman’s face grew set at the first mention of their names. She sat stiffly erect, and permitted me to finish without a word of interruption. I did what I could, — showed how a little present help would enable the brothers to start in life utterly different men from their present selves, — stated in plain terms the peril in which the woman stood, and the immediate necessity for aid.
“ But little, Madam,” I said, — “ not more than the value of that least ring on your finger, but immediate. It will save her life, in all probability.”
“Have you finished?” taking snuff from her jewelled box, nervously.
“ Then may I ask what are these canaille to me ? Why, old Steadman was not a cousin within the first degree of Colonel Shepler, — a carter, Sir,
-—a hodman! Colonel Shepler was a gentleman ; there was ducal blood in his veins.”
“All of which did not render Steadman's sons less the heirs-at-law of the Shepler properties,” I replied, coolly.
“Which they will never inherit, Mr. Humphreys ! I have seen them; I know what the physique of that race is worth ; I will walk over their graves yet! ”
And upon my soul, she looked diabolical enough to live forever, and walk over all of our graves. I began to speak, but she waved her hand imperiously.
“ I have had enough of this. The old carter and his sons have prowled, jackal-like, at my gate for years, waiting to prey on my dead body. If they are needy, let them work, I thought better of your instincts than to suppose you would hear the country gossip, and, worse still, regale my ears with it.”
“ I spoke simply in the cause of humanity. If the country people judge your conduct as I do, Madam, they are more just than I hoped.”
She was silent a moment; but I think in her secret soul she liked the coarse, rough blow.
“The matter is an old story to me,” tapping her box impatiently. “ I find it wearisome. For this ring to which you allude, have you remarked it ? It is a Nubian antique,—rare, I fancy.”
And so on, and on, sketching the history of the rings she wore, with a curious felicity in throwing an interest about trifles. I dined with her that day for the first time : a meagre repast, served on the family plate. But her wines were exquisite, and dealt with an unsparing hand. I left her that evening, as I supposed forever, — looking back at the bent figure in the massive doorway, and thinking her the loneliest human being I had ever seen. One of her morbid fancies was to intensify that very solitude, — the negro-quarters being at some distance from the house, and after she was undressed at night everything living was banished thence out of her sight. Out of that long life she had not brought the love of even a dog to bear her company in the last hour.
When I parted with Matthew Steadman, I said nothing to him of what I had tried to do. I saw his eye grew brighter, and he laughed and joked as at first.
“ I told you I had a plan, and I find it will answer.”
“ Well, Matt ? ”
“Joe Carver is an old friend of ours, — Captain of the Belle Louise, you know, runnin’ to Orleans. He begun by pilotin’, an’ has gone up as they do on these boats. He ’ll take me on as fireman, and for pay give mother her passage down. Once there, I ’ll turn an honest penny.”
“ By carpentering ? ”
“Yes, I find one always clears the ground faster by kcepin’ in the same road. Abe won’t go with us. He thinks luck ’s comin’ soon, and he ’ll wait for it. That Luck has been a ghost in the house. I for one will breathe freer to be clear of it.”
“ And Jane ? ”
His face showed that I had touched a sore chord.
“ Jane will go out as seamstress somewhere. If ever the good day dawns, I ’ll come back for her. But my first care is mother.”
I left them the next day, with a real reluctance. I had few friends, and these boys had come near to me in many ways. But years passed, and I never heard from them again. Mails were uncertain in those days. I wrote often, but they never received my letters.
But when I returned to the West, after thirty years’ absence, this last spring, one of my chief aims was to find some traces of them. I took passage for W——, therefore, the largest town in their old county, finding that a railroad had invaded that region, —passing, by the way, through the very spot where we opened the mound. Business detained me in W—— for several days,
and at the close of the week, one close, sultry evening, I was strolling about the dingy streets with the lonesome feeling which always besets one in a strange place, when I came to a little foot-bridge over the creek, from which opened a view of the river below, and the foundries glaring red on either side. It was a lonely place, though in the midst of a busy town. I stopped, leaning over the little hand-rail, looking down into the muddy water, and at the silent, melancholy lights burning dully in its depths and in the air above. There was a solitary figure on the bridge, which strangely entered into the quiet and dreariness of the scene, depressing it, giving to its dingy and unclean shadows a human significance of loss and discomfort. It was an old man, in a filthy suit of black, who stood smoking a coarse cigar and looking vacantly down into the creek. His head was bald, a fringe of uncombed red hair straggling about the pinched and pimpled face ; it shook weakly when he tried to look at me ; the light eyes blinked blindly in the dim light. A weak, tipsy bit of old human flesh, which once might have made a man ; yet you fancied he had become a drunkard as a cowardly escape from pain,—that he had been disappointed before he had begun life. Nearly an hour I stood quietly watching him,— then, having known him for some time, I touched his arm.
“ Abel,” I said, — “ Abel Steadman?”
He started, reddened in his old womanish fashion, and, when he recognized me at last, stood cringing, holding his frowzy hat in both hands with a subservient humility pitiful to see. His manhood had slipped from him so utterly, that his harmless vanity had left but the dregs of self-disgust.
“ Come, man,” I said, “ be cheery at seeing an old friend. Give an account of yourself.”
I forced him with me to the hotel, and ordered wine, seeing that he needed a stimulant. He had come unwillingly, almost angrily, and now sat on the edge of a chair, his hat held in both hands between his knees.
“ That ’s no good,” — pushing the wine feebly away. “I only take it when I cannot breathe without.”
After a long time, however, the poor creature seemed to waken into a faint likeness of his old self, and told me his story in a forlorn, disjointed way. After I heard it, I thought, cruelly enough, that he had had sufficient of his poor portion of life, and all that remained for him was to die as weakly as he had lived. I tried to rouse him by asking for his poems and essays.
“ No good came of any of them yet. When I get my rights, I ’ll publish. It won’t be long to wait now.”
“ You mean ”——
“ That she’s living yet ? Yes, I do, — ninety-eight last spring.”
The wreck before me was so miserable that I could not laugh.
“And meanwhile, Abel ? ”
“ I ’ve tried to shift as I could, — sometimes as day-laborer, or running on railroads as brakeman ; and I got once into a photographist’s wagon to help prepare the plates. Was no use going into anything regularly, you know, when my luck might come any day. I kept my eye on that Shepler land, though,” — something like life coming into his lack-lustre eye. “ She’s mismanaging the bottom fields terribly these late years. All in oats. But they ’ll bring in good returns some day, when they ’re properly worked. There’s surface indications of oil along the creek, too.”
“ About your studies, Steadman ? ”
“I ’ve read a bit here and there. I mean to go in training when I get my rights. Good God ! the man I ought to be!” — suddenly putting his hand to his head.
This feeble outcry was the only sign of manhood that he gave. It was gone in a moment, and he droned down into the old speculations as to her “ holding out another winter.”
“ Did you ever meet her ? ” I asked, with perhaps idle curiosity.
“ Only once, — last winter. I was creeping out one cold evening to the —— well, my boarding-house, and I met her face to face, in her pony chaise, near her own gate. She ’s withered into something like wrinkled leather now, with heavy opal ear-drops at each side of her skinny face. She makes the black fellow pull up, ‘ So ! you ’re prowling round still, Steadman, hyenalike ? Stand, and let me look at you.’ With that her eyes went all over, gloating like a beast of prey, I thought, but I said nothing. Then she laughed. ‘ I ’ll walk over your grave yet! ’ she said. ‘ Drive on, Joe.’ Nobody goes near her now but her blacks ; her sharp tongue keeps them off.”
“ And Matt ? ” I asked.
“ Matt ’s in St. Louis. You ’ll see him, as you 're going there. But you ’ll not mention me, Mr. Humphreys ? Matt often wanted me to join them. Matt ’s kind ; but I ’ll wait for my rights. It’s long since he heard from me, and I ’d rather you would not mention me.”
I gave the promise, and he rose to go. My face burned as I offered him money, not knowing what the effect would be on him ; but he took it eagerly, — not for the first time, I saw.
Are you comfortably quartered, Steadman ? ” I asked, when we reached the door.
His lank jaws did redden at this.
“ Yes, very comfortably, very ; I have a — friends.”
Graves, the landlord, laughed as he hurried down the street, and told me that the poor wretch had been for two years in the county almshouse, at times helpless from imbecility.
” He has days of sense,” said Graves. “ To-night was the best I ’ve knowed. Seeing you revived him like.”
In St, Louis I found Matt Steadman head of a machine-foundry. His house, a pretty, tasteful home, was back in the French quarter. I found Jane there, pink-cheeked, bustling, cheery as ever, — and old Mrs. Steadman, a placid old lady, in the corner, watching jealously over her grandchildren,
“ I told you no lady in the land would look like mother, when her turn came to wear silks and laces,” said Matt. “None does to me,”—patting her cheek tenderly.
Matt was the firm, tight-built, alert fellow of old, looking out of the same shrewd, kindly eyes ; but he talked pure English now, and put broad, liberal views and true creeds into his vigorous Saxon, and, better still, into his life. It was a good, wholesome home, even to look into as I did ; and I carried out of it a stronger breath and a warmer feeling for my fellow-men. They talked of their brother often, but thought him dead. I did not enlighten them ; I kept my promise : and besides, I would not raise in their house the evil spirit of the Luck of Abel Steadman.