A Gentleman of an Old School
PROBABLY there is not a line of print in the world about Mr. Vance Fosbrooke, probably not a hundred persons outside of the city of Charleston were distinctly aware of his existence ; yet in Charleston he was as well known as the chime of St. Michael’s Church. He had not acquired his fame by any of the methods whereby an American ordinarily becomes notorious. He was not very rich ; he had never done a great business, and never had failed ; he was not a politician, nor a soldier, nor a particularly good man, nor, in any legal sense, a bad one.
Vance Fosbrooke had lived himself into social distinction by sheer dint of deportment. If there ever was a cleaner man, — a man with a daintier white neckcloth, — a man more fastidiously shaved and combed and brushed, — a man more elaborately formal in his manners, — a man with a more pungent sense of propriety, — Charleston does not know it. He would have died sooner than have committed what he considered a meanness; and he held himself at all times ready to shed blood, rather than submit to an indecorum. His distaste for whatever was vulgar or uncleanly sometimes led him to a stress of nicety which was unintentionally humorous. If a thumbed or greasy bank-note was tendered him in change across a counter, he would say, “ Sir, I am exceedingly scrupulous as to what I carry about my person, and if you could give me something fresher than that, I should be greatly obliged to you.” In short, he belonged to a social deposit of which our democratic age will soon know nothing, except through the researches of the curious. The venerable bones which Professor Holmes is now digging up on the banks of the Ashley for phosphates are supposed by some philosophers to be the fossil remains of that old school of gentlemen of which Vance Fosbrooke was one of the last living representatives.
On the whole, Charleston had reason to be proud of its born citizen, Vance Fosbrooke, as a shining example of that neatness of presence and decency of bearing which form no small part of the finish of high civilization. And creditably proud of him it was, although it was, of course, amused by his eccentricities, and called him “a gentleman of the old school,” with a smile. But a little before the breaking out of the war he became the hero of an adventure which brought upon him the severities of public opinion, and caused most Charlestonians to look upon him as an unnatural father and a bad citizen. Without venturing to dissent from so respectable a decision, I propose to relate the Vance Fosbrooke side of the story. If I am somewhat dramatic in my mode of rehearsal, it is not because I am dealing with fiction, but to show my man.
One evening in December, 1859, this gentleman of a breed which is now, or soon will be, gathered to the clods, sat in the front lounging-room of the M'ills House, conversing with his only intimate friend, James Vane Hightower. These life-long comrades differed greatly in character, manners, and appearance. Fosbrooke was hard, resolute, pugnacious, punctilious, formal in bearing, fastidious in dress, tall and thin in person, with high, marked features. Hightower was a broad, juicy, rosy, genial being, — a man who put you in mind of roast-beef and gravy, of plumpudding and wine sauce ; a sweet and humane soul largely at ease in one of the portliest of bodies, fitting it tenderly like an old slipper. By the way, how many human beings, especially in New England, are feverish, nervous, and snappish, merely because their physical cases are too tight for them !
“What’s the matter with you, Fosbrooke ? ” inquired Hightower, in a curiously cheery tenor voice, which broke upon a pause in the conversation like the warbling of a flute. “ You look serious.”
“ My dear sir, I was driven from the tea-table,” was the answer, delivered in a measured utterance which ran up and down the gamut after the English style of intonation. “ I had a dreadful creature opposite me. Actually, Hightower, there was a person there — from Georgia, I suppose — who ordered boiled eggs, — boiled eggs for tea, Hightower ! And, more than that, he ate them out of a wineglass. Why, good Ged, Hightower ! if a man should do that in a decent restaurant in Paris, every gentleman present would leave the room.”
“ Now, really, Fosbrooke, I don’t think I should leave the room, — not, at least, till I had had my meal. To be sure, I never did yet see anybody eat boiled eggs for tea ; but I do think I could bear the spectacle.”
There was now another silence, during which the large man eyed the thin one with a kind of cheerful anxiety. He perceived that there was some unusual weight on his friend’s mind, and it was in his nature to desire to dissipate all trouble that fell under his notice. But as no confession came, he concluded to leave the brooding fit to work itself out; and, picking up his hat with a smile, as if he wished to do it a favor, he rose slowly, after the manner of men of his girth.
“ Don’t go ! don’t go ! ” said Fosbrooke, starting from his revery. “ Oblige me by sitting a little longer. I have something to say to you, and I may as well say it now.”
“ Hightower,” he resumed, after collecting his thoughts, — “ my dear Hightower, this is a dem’d serious business. I am very much troubled about it. I positively must do something for those children — you know — you understand me.”
“ Yes, yes, I understand,” mumbled Hightower, dropping his eyes upon the floor.
It was evidently a delicate subject, if not also a dangerous one. Both gentlemen had glanced about them, and sunk their voices to little more than a whisper, although already aware that they were alone.
“Yes, I must secure them,” continued Fosbrooke, with a kind of irritated determination. “ These cursed laws of ours will rob them of every penny, if I die ; yes, by Jove ! Hightower, rob them of themselves, — send them to the saleblock. It ’s a beastly shame. It ’s horrible.”
“ Yes, Fosbrooke, it’s horrible,” assented Hightower.
Even in the height of Slavery’s reign, there were many secret rebels against the tyranny ; some impelled to the treason by circumstances, and others by the impulses of nature.
“ Alfred is as decent a young fellow as there is in this city,” continued Fosbrooke. “ There is n’t a mean streak in him. I don't believe he ever did a low thing in his life. And as for Flora and Louise and Sophie, if there are better mannered, kinder hearted, purer girls, I don’t know them. Dem’d well educated, too! But you know what they are. You have seen their letters, and heard them do opera music. By Jove ! my dear sir, if they had a foreign language or so, they would equal any young lady in town for accomplishments.”
“ You’ve taken vast pains with them, Fosbrooke ; you’ve been generous and just by them ; it does you great credit. And they have been worthy of all that you have done. Do you remember Flora writing me a letter when I was at Columbia ? I showed that letter to half a dozen gentlemen, and nearly every one said, ‘ Why, Hightower, that’s an amazingly clever girl! who is she ? ’ And when I told them it was an octoroon, it was, 'Sho, sho, Hightower ; don’t believe it.’ Ah, yes, they are fine children.”
“ And they have n’t a civil right,” pursued Fosbrooke, his thin, wrinkled face flushing. “ By Jove ! Hightower, it’s a dem’d outrage, — one of the dem’dest Outrages that I can conceive of. They are my property, — and I don’t want to own them. I can’t set them free. I can't leave them a penny. It’s enough, Hightower, to make a man turn Yankee.”
Twenty-two years previous to this dialogue, and when Mr. Vance Fosbrooke was thirty-six years old, he had lost his wife. Within what the Charleston Mrs. Grundy deemed a proper time thereafter, and under circumstances which the same great authority admitted to be decently secret, he purchased a handsome quadroon woman, and gave her an “establishment” suited to his moderate means. He placed her in a small house which belonged to him, allowed her to keep all her earnings as a laundress, and taught her to read. In 1856 she died, leaving four children, who, without any miracle in the matter, were octoroons. The boy, Alfred, now twenty years old, was a barber, keeping his own little shop, and devoting his small profits to the support of himself and sisters. Flora, aged seventeen, and Louise, two years younger, were learning millinery ; while Sophie, only thirteen, was still at school. There was a patriarchal law against teaching slaves to read, but “sound” Southerners might violate it with impunity, it they would do it quietly ; and these children were well educated in the ordinary English branches, drawing, and music. It was of this most illegal family, this family which had been formed and brought to its present condition in spite of commandments and enactments, that the two gentlemen in the frontroom of the Mills House were discoursing.
“ I shall let Robert know to-morrow that he must divide with them,” continued Vance Fosbrooke. “ If Robert gets the whole of my property, he will spend it just as certainly as he would spend the half of it. Ged bless my soul, Hightower ! I don’t see why I should have a gambler for a son ! ”
Against his only legitimate child Fosbrooke was bitter, and with cause. Robert was like himself, obstinate, dictatorial, and fiery ; moreover, he was a spendthrift.
“ You and Robert might not get along comfortably over such a subject, suggested Hightower. “ I think you had better let me arrange with him.”
“Certainly, I will. Why, good Ged, Hightower! you know that I have n’t exchanged a word with Robert for eighteen months. I am security for his position in the custom-house ; I stand by him as a father must stand by his son. But there ’s no talking betwixt us ; we should break each other’s heads ; he’s a devil of a temper.”
Vance Fosbrooke was himself notorious, at least with every one but himself, as a devil of a temper. He had fought two duels, and wounded both his men ; he had had various rencontres, breaking now a bone and now a cane. Informed once, that a sketch of his peculiarities would be published in a small satirical paper, he called immediately on the editor.
“ Sir,” said he, with severe courtesy of manner, and an utterance as firm and measured as the tramp of infantry, “ I have been told that a delineation of me will appear in your columns. I beg leave to assure you, that, if such a thing happens, I shall hold you responsible. I shall cane you the first time I see you. If you draw a pistol on me, I warn you to aim well; for, if you miss me, I shall take it from you and break your skull. Good morning, sir.”
No rencontre took place on this occasion, for no monograph of Vance Fosbrooke came out in the “ Satyr.”
We return to the interview at the Mills House, but merely to show how this man went home. He ate at the hotel ; he lounged, entertained visitors, and received his letters there ; but at ten o’clock in the evening he always went home. Taking the quietest side of the street, evading companionship and observation, solicitous to avoid shocking the public proprieties, he sought the house occupied by “those children —you know,” let himself in through a side gate and door, and was at home. They waited on him humbly, gratefully, faithfully, and almost tenderly.
The day after the conversation, Mr. Hightower, armed with full instructions, called on Robert Fosbrooke.
“ Well, Robert, I have come to have a little talk with you,” he said with an air at once friendly and serious, like that of a genial undertaker.
The young man was in his room, and had been in it all day. An expedition to Sullivan’s Island the day previous had ended in a debauch which was too much for his jaded system, and had given him a twenty-four hours’ illness. He was better now, and had taken tea and toast with some appetite, by the blessing of an iced cocktail. We must so far do justice to what character he had as to state that he did not account for his sickness on the score of having eaten too many rice-birds, but frankly declared that he had been drunk, and was getting over it.
“ Robert, I ’m sorry to hear that you have had another spree,” said Hightower, smiling, but honestly regretful. “ You have too many sprees ; you are looking the worse for them. I really wish you would not get drunk quite so often. I ’ve seen a great many young men go on in your way — till they stopped going. I ’m a pretty good judge, Robert, of how long a fellow can last. Depend upon it, you have n’t five years ahead unless you pull up a little.”
Hightower exaggerated as little in his evil auguries as in his demand for reformation. Robert was even thinner than his father, and had a sodden complexion instead of the frost-bitten freshness of Vance Fosbrooke, while his eyes were watery, and their lids reddened. Moreover, his drinking, his gaming, his many debaucheries, had given him that unpleasant expression of an unhealthy soul which is usually described as “a dissipated look.” Instead of a handsome youth, which was what nature meant him to be, he was little less than repulsive. His dress alone was entirely attractive, being even now neat and tasteful and quiet, as became the attire of a Fosbrooke. His manners were self-possessed, and would have been exceedingly agreeable but that they were impregnated by that pungent odor of dissipation. It was a good thing in him that he took no angry exceptions to the plain-dealing of his visitor. But then it is not remembered of any human being, or even of any member of the brute creation, that he or she ever flew into a rage at James Vane Hightower.
“Ah, old fellow, you are down upon us youth ! ’ laughed Robert. “ You have got by your time for sitting up late, and you want us to go to bed. But you are not a perfect model. I don’t believe, for instance, that you ever go to church.”
“ O yes, I do, Robert,” smiled Hightower. “ I always go on Christmas, and some other of the great occasions. And every Sunday afternoon I remember that I ought to set a good example, and I dress up nice, and, when people are returning from church, I go out and mingle with them. Why, Robert, there ’s such a virtue as appearing decent.”
“ By George ! you are a most enticing sinner,” said the young man, shouting outright. “You are a great deal more dangerous than I am, don’t you know ?”
“Well, Robert, let us talk about business a little,” answered Hightower, while a graver expression stole across his cheerful face, like the shadow of a cloud dancing over fields of golden corn. “ I have come to you with a message from your father about those — those children, you know.”
“ Yes, I know,” answered Robert, scowling. “ What has the old man got in his head now ? ”
“ He says that he’s afraid he sha’n’t live long, and that he wants to assure them a decent future before he dies.”
“They would be all right in my hands. He knows that I would n’t sell them; you know it, Mr. Hightower; you know that I ’m not one of that sort. Sell my own brothers and sisters ? I ’m not responsible for the relationship, but hanged if I ’ll go back on it! ”
“ I don’t suppose you would, Robert, — not so long as you are the man you are at this moment. But some day you may not be just the same man ; you may be in debt, or you may be out of temper, or out of your head. I don’t mean to offend you, but I must treat the future fairly.”
“ Well — of course — a fellow may get rum-crazy — may change somehow. But what does the old man want ? Come, I ’ll compromise with him. I don’t object to his freeing them.”
“ Of course he must set them up. He can’t simply turn them loose on the world. Just think what might become of the girls.”
“ O the devil ! Well, give them a thousand apiece ; yes, give the lot five thousand. That ought to do them.”
“ Robert, as things go here that would be handsome ; but it’s a great ways below your father’s mark. He proposes to leave them — and that you shall guarantee them — twenty thousand.”
“The old maniac!” exclaimed Robert, and followed up the epithet with divers execrations, not so unnatural, perhaps, as deplorable. “ Why, good Lord, Mr. Hightower! that ’s half his property. Does he suppose that his only white child, his only legitimate child, his only legal heir, will submit to that ? I won’t do it. I ’ll go ten thousand, for the sake of peace, but not a dollar more.”
“It won’t satisfy him. Your father is a very determined man, and he has given twenty thousand as his ultimatum.”
“ Tell him that I defy him. He can’t do it. By the laws of our State, he can’t leave them a penny, can’t even free them.”
“ All that can be evaded. Now do be rational, Robert, rather than lose every penny.”
“ I won’t do it, Mr. Hightower. I tell you, once for all, that I won’t be plundered in this style.”
“ I ’m very sorry, Robert. Well, I must tell you fully, then, what your father’s terms are. If, within a year from to-day, you have not agreed to this settlement, he will proceed to free them, and make them heirs to all his property, which is not necessary to guarantee your position in the custom-house. That is, he will give them about thirty thousand dollars, and you ten thousand. That is what the old gentleman says, and I have no doubt that he will keep his word.”
Passing his hand through his hair, the young man reflected gravely before he answered.
“ Pshaw ! ” he broke out. “It’s all a bluff-game. I know the old man as well as you do. He ’s obstinate, but he’s a Fosbrooke. He never will leave the representative of his name with a beggarly ten thousand. I ’ll stand my chances. Why, Hightower, it’s such an infernal outrage ! O, I ’m not blowing at you, understand ; nobody blows at you. Well, never mind, just tell my father, simply, that I refuse.”
“ I ’m sorry for it. It is n’t the best way, Robert. But good evening. I hope to see you out sound and hearty in the morning.”
The year passed by without further communication between father and son. At the end of the year Vance Fosbrooke, who had a hospitable way of doing business, invited Hightower to dine with him at the Mills House, and reopened the subject of the property settlement. He was, as usual, miraculously shaved ; his clothes were so conspicuously neat that you might almost speak of them as shining raiment ; his linen, and especially his high white cravat, were the ne plus ultra of starching and ironing ; even his manners had the air of being starched and ironed. It was remarkable that he should make an intimate friend of a man who was on ordinary days a little careless in his costume. But Fosbrooke had his reasons for putting up with Hightower.
“ Hightower, you see, is a large man,” he would say, in his mincing English utterance. “ In fact, Hightower is a protuberant man. Now a person of that build cannot keep himself so carefully as a person of my build. Gravy will fall on him. Besides, there is so much surface every way ! However, I do wish Hightower was a little more given to the clothes-brush.”
Secession was in full blast then, and Anderson had just made his famous change of base, and everybody at the table d'hôte was talking about it. Vance Fosbrooke had not considered it good style to take much interest in politics since the Rutledges, Pinckneys, Hugers, &c., had been superseded in the public councils by such parvenus as the Rhetts, Cobbs, and Aikens; but, just to pass the time and divert himself from the subject which weighed upon his mind, he did, during the dessert, permit himself to utter a few remarks concerning the seizure of Fort Sumter.
“ Why, good Ged, sir ! ” he remarked to General Marion Waddy of the militia, — “ why, good Ged, sir ! it’s the most unconstitutional act in our history. It’s a direct and audacious blow, sir, at the sovereignty of the State.”
“ It is the deed of a tyrant and coward,” returned the General, agitated all through his lean frame by something like a colic of indignation. “ If Buchanan does not disavow and revoke it, he ought to be impeached. I should like to cane him.”
The conversation continued in this style for some minutes. The only “transient” near the speakers was a young man who apparently paid no attention to what was said, and occupied himself with penciling in a notebook, from which it was inferred that he was a clerk on a collecting tour. After café noir had been served, Fosbrooke and Hightower repaired to a quiet corner of the reading-room.
“ Has Robert sent any word to you concerning my proposition ? ” inquired the former.
“ I have n’t heard from him. Have you ? ”
“ Not a syllable. Confound the puppy! What does he want to drive me to the wall in this style for ? Well, Hightower,” he added presently, with a sigh, “ I must do as I said. My plan is this. I shall withdraw the ten thousand dollars’ worth of stock which stands as security for Robert, and shall put in its place my house, which is worth about the same sum. I shall then invest everything in railroad bonds, and two weeks from to-day I shall take those children North. On that day I shall bid my State and you good by for years, perhaps forever.”
His eyebrows quivered a little, and his voice was almost tearful. Hightower had never before seen nor heard of such emotion in Vance Fosbrooke; and, being a tender-hearted, sympathetic man, he found himself unable to reply for a moment.
“Well, Fosbrooke,” he said at last, in his silvery tenor, “ here is your friend ! — grieved to part with you, but pledged to help you ! ”
“ Why, good Ged, Hightower ! don’t let us be babies. But I sha’n’t have an intimate comrade left in the world. You know I don’t take to strangers. I ’ve no relish for new acquaintance. I am just going to sacrifice myself for the sake of these poor children, for whom I am responsible. It is outrageous, perfectly outrageous, in Robert and our State laws to drive me to it. Hightower, I ought not to be obliged to sacrifice myself.”
“ On the 2d of next month, then ? ” said Hightower.
“ Yes, if that is steamer day; I believe it is.”
“ Well, Fosbrooke, just to bid you good by, and to disarm suspicion, I ’ll give you a dinner at my rooms on the 1st. I owe for a number of things of that sort, and I ’ll have in half a dozen of our friends ; say a party of eight.”
James Hightower had a weakness for roast pig, the head being his favorite part. Accordingly he applied to ex-Senator Hathaway, one of the most august citizens of Charleston, and also one of the wealthiest of Low Country planters, for a suckling of a certain noted breed, which flourished on the Hathaway estate.
“ I am going to give a bachelor dinner, and I want to be sure of one good dish,” he explained.
Hathaway, a man of marvellous social education and experience, was so amused at Hightower’s rustic taste, that he confidentially repeated the tale to Fosbrooke. But that model of deportment could not see the matter in a jocose light. He was profoundly shocked and agitated.
“Why, good Ged!” he exclaimed, “ roast pig at a dinner of ceremony ! Ged bless my soul ! Ged bless my soul! For Heaven’s sake, Hathaway, don’t let him do it! don’t let him have his beast. Do tell him, as kindly and delicately as you can, that such a thing would never answer. And — and — don’t let him know that I spoke of it, or that you mentioned it to any one. He will be overwhelmed with mortification when he realizes his mistake.”
Hathaway repeated these observations to Hightower, and the latter, with a hearty laugh, gave up his porker. Moreover, when Fosbrooke appeared at his lodgings on the day set for the festivity, he hastened to relieve him of all fear of seeing the unfashionable luxury.
“ I did think of having roast pig, Fosbrooke,” said he, “but Hathaway advised a haunch of venison instead of it.”
“ A very proper substitution,” responded the gentleman of the old school, immensely gratified, but politely struggling to conceal his satisfaction.
“By the way, Fosbrooke, here is something that will amuse you,’ added Hightower, not averse to a good-natured revenge. So saying he produced a copy of the “New York Times,” containing a letter from “ our Charleston correspondent” in which was reported the dialogue of a fortnight previous, concerning the unconstitutional seizure of Fort Sumter. In this piece of impudence, lean General Waddy figured as “The Spectre,” stout James Hightower as “ The Solid Man,” and Vance Fosbrooke as “ White Choker.” Mr. Fosbrooke put on his spectacles, read a few lines, and looked up with a frown.
“Why, this is myself!” he said, in calm indignation. “ The sneaking scoundrel! He has violated the sanctity of the private conversation of gentlemen. Hightower, if I ever catch that scoundrel, I ’ll cane him. If you learn that he is still in the city, do me the favor to let me know it.”
“ But you won’t be here, Fosbrooke,” said Hightower, smiling at this outburst of the old sensitive pugnacity.
“ O, exactly ! Well, let us talk that matter over ; I came early, on purposeYou promised to smooth the way for my departure; and I should like to know, if you think proper, what you propose.”
“ I propose to have you make a comfortable dinner, and pass a quiet night. Just go aboard in the morning, and take a state-room for yourself, and don’t forget your little box of bonds.”
“ Will they certainly be there ? ” demanded Vance Fosbrooke, his withered face flushing with eagerness.
“ My dear sir, you won’t see Cato waiting on us at dinner. Cato will be in better business. Cato has a carriage, and is driving some friends around. If anybody asks for Cato, I shall slander him; I shall say that he is an irregular sort of boy, and that I have had to hire somebody to fill his place.”
“And he knows what to do?” insisted Fosbrooke, still unsatisfied, so anxious was he.
“ Bless you ! Cato is acquainted with the steward of the boat, and can manage a trip North for a few friends as easy as whistle.”
“ Hightower, give this twenty-dollar gold-piece to Cato, and tell him that I am his friend for life. I shall remember him in my will.”
We will not go into the particulars of the dinner. That night Vance Fosbrooke had a room at the Mills House, and at seven in the morning he was on the deck of the New York steamer. Although neatly dressed, as usual, he looked ghastly with want of sleep and anxiety, and his face was stubbly with a white heard, which contrasted strongly with the dyed black of his hair. The mulatto steward greeted him with a bow of unusual consideration, and whispered, “It’s all right, Colonel. As soon as we git outside the bar, you take a look down the forrard cabin.”
Mr. Fosbrooke made no answer, except to slip a ready gold-piece from his vest pocket into the steward’s hand. Then, until the vessel was over the bar, and the pilot had left her, he paced the deck, anxious, eager, grim, and with a pugnacious grip on his loaded cane. There was quite a sublime light on his hard, thin, grizzled face as he made his way to the forward cabin, gently opened a door which was pointed out to him by the steward, looked into the anxious eyes of a young man and three girls, drew a long breath, and said, “ Well, you are free.”
“ God bless you, master ! ” was the reply, almost inaudible for tears. They did not call him father, and had never so called him in their lives, and had no thought of ever so calling him. There were no words of relationship in this family; there were no endearments, either in manner or speech ; but there was strong affection and confidence.
These contrabands who had not waited for Butler, these freedmen who had not needed the Bureau, were handsome. There was something prettily French in the low, broad forehead, glossily waving black hair, sparkling eyes, small nose, small chin, arch glance and ready smile of the eldest girl, Flora. The two other girls and Alfred were of the Antinous type, half Greek and half Egyptian, classic outline, softly tumid bps, and calm expression.
And now we must take a long jump ; we must leap four years monstrous with war. During this period Robert Fosbrooke had fallen gallantly in battle ; the Confederate government had sought to confiscate Vance Fosbrooke’s house as the property of a refugee, and had been foiled by the adroit management ot James Hightower ; then bombardment had wrought destruction where rebellion could not effect robbery.
In May, 1865, Hightower visited New York as an agent to raise capital for certain Southern contractors. Standing on the steps of the St. Nicholas, he saw a haggard, stooping, feeble, and somewhat threadbare gentleman, well brushed, however, cleanly shaved, and with a spotless white cravat, whom he recognized as Vance Fosbrooke. During the first moments of greeting these two could not keep their faces from quivering.
“ I came down town in hope of meeting some old friend,” said Fosbrooke ; “ but I did not expect this great pleasure. You are in homespun, I see,” he added presently. “ I suppose that every one is poor there now.”
“ Ah, yes ; it ’s an immense almshouse ; you never saw such destitution.”
“ And the war has ruined me also. You know that I put everything into the Cumberland River Railroad. Well, I have n’t a dollar; I am a recipient of charity.”
“ Come in and dine with me,” said Hightower. “ I owe you many hours of hospitality.”
As they sat after the meal, talking of matters in the South, an Irish waiter, possibly a Copperhead, whispered, “ Be careful; there ’s a ‘ Herald ’ reporter back on ye, and he’s a taken ye down.”
Vance Fosbrooke turned slowly in his neckcloth, stared with a threatening eye at the delinquent, and said in a distinct voice, “ The scoundrel! ”
Then, as the newsmonger departed, he added, “ Hightower, do you remember the scandalous publication of our conversation in the Mills House ? I never have been able to meet that fellow. If I had, I would have broken every bone in his skin.”
They were by this time sufficiently alone to speak of affairs personal to each other.
“ I am glad to know that Robert died like a gentleman,” said Fosbrooke in a firm voice. “ If he must die before me, it was necessary that he should die like a gentleman, or I should have blown my brains out. We were not much to each other, but we were as much as that.”
“ Ah — I did not know that you were aware — ” muttered Hightower, relieved to find that he had not that tidings to communicate.
“ Yes, I learned about Robert from a prisoner. In the same way I heard of the destruction of my house, — my last tatter of property. Good Ged, Hightower ! I am a tree without a leaf. I am stripped bare.”
Hightower was still anxious about one thing ; what had become of “ those children — you know ” ? Had fate been so terrible that they were all dead ? Or was it possible that they had been ungrateful enough to desert this old man in his extremity ? Remembering the pride, the sensitiveness, the reserve of his friend, and checked by his own tenderness of heart, he dared not ask.
“ Hightower, it is near nightfall,” said Fosbrooke, rousing himself from one of those reveries into which the old and feeble so often fall. “You must go home with me. You must see how I live.”
Partly in the omnibus and partly on foot they made their way two miles up town, and into a quiet quarter of small houses and cheap shops in the western part of the city. The walking was slow work ; for Hightower had much to carry under his homespun waistcoat, while Fosbrooke’s step was so feeble that he frequently staggered; so that it was after dark when they stopped at the side-door of a little two-story building, the front of which was occupied by a barber and a milliner. Entering by the aid of a night-key, they ascended a dark staircase, at the top of which Fosbrooke opened a door, and gently pushed his comrade into a plainly furnished sitting-room. There, waiting around a still unserved dinner-table, were all “ those children — you know.”
“Why, it ’s Master James Hightower!” cried Louise, in that scream of joy which is so pleasant from a woman’s lips. And then they all had him by hand, one after the other, or rather two at a time, laughing in their gladness like children.
“ Why, Louise ! why, Flora ! why, Sophie ! Why, God bless you ! how handsome you all are I and how glad I am to see you ! ” was the honest, though confused, utterance of James Hightower’s head and heart, both speaking at once. “ And Alfred ! Why, Alfred, God bless you ! And now, Flora, let me shake hands with you again. How amazingly well you look ? Your husband ? Bless my body, a husband! Mr. Foster, I am very happy to make your acquaintance.”
Yes, Flora was married ; and there was her husband in costume evidently clerical, his mulatto face marked by education, respectability, and selt-respect.
Although trembling with fatigue and emotion, Vance Fosbrooke remained standing until his guest was seated. Then, still leaning on his cane, with his battered but well-brushed hat in his hand, he looked slowly from face to face, and said, “James Hightower, these are my friends and benefactors. I am living on their bounty.”
Unmanned by the confession, the proud old — noble, shall we call him ? — dropped into a chair, covered his face with his hat, and sobbed aloud. It was too pathetic a moment for any one to speak, even in protestation. Hightower felt a tear upon his wrist, and was just able to see out of his dimmed eyes that Flora was bending her head over his hand as it lay upon the table, her face covered with her interlaced fingers. He did not move that hand; it seemed to him much blessed and honored ; he put the other to his wet eyelashes.
“ He will sometimes talk that way,— when we owe him everything,” whispered Flora, presently.
“ Really, I don’t know why I should cry over you, Fosbrooke,” said Hightower, recovering his smile. “ I ’ve seen people in much worse trouble. Why, when I left Charleston, old Mrs. Hathaway was going to the Yankee quartermaster for her rations regularly.”
“If I had not brought them North, we should have been doing the same,” answered Fosbrooke, uncovering his face. “ I did not altogether fail.”
“ You altogether succeeded, sir,” said the clergyman. “If you have lost your substance, you have done justice. You are like this nation.”
But the eulogy, magnificent as it was, did not entirely please the old Southerner, and his thoughts took a turn towards bitterness.
“ These are all my acquaintance,” he resumed. “ Hightower, I am not on speaking terms with a white person in this city. There is not an Abolitionist of them all who would call on me here, or receive me at his house. They are too good for me, because I have sought to rectify the mistake of a lifetime. They are too good for them, — too good for Flora there. Good Ged, Hightower! look at her. Good Ged ! to think that in Charleston that woman had not a civil right, and here has not a social right ! Hightower, you and I, old South-Carolinians, we are not ashamed of them.”
“ God bless them ! ” said James Hightower. “ Proud of them!”
Then the conversation drooped to a more commonplace tone.
“Will you dine, Hightower?” inquired Fosbrooke. “Well, I suppose not. Have up your dinner, children. I am sorry I made you wait; but I was with our old friend, Hightower, this is our sitting-room, and in this house we all live, except Flora. Alfred has the barber’s shop below; Louise and Sophie the milliner’s shop. We are not suffering ; we are not drawing rations. Ged have mercy upon my old friends down there ! I am able to pity them.”
He was cheerful now; but it was evident that he was very tired, and it was not long before he sank into a state of half-slumber. When his friend departed, he hardly revived from it enough to murmur in a broken voice, “ Come and see us often, my dear fellow.”
On the afternoon of the next day, Alfred called at the St. Nicholas for Mr. Hightower.
“ I wish very much that you would come up and see the master,” he said abruptly, and in a tone which betrayed emotion. “ He was quite poorly when he woke this morning, and he has been growing steadily worse all day. We are very anxious about him. He asked for you an hour or so ago.”
“ Bless me ! ” exclaimed Hightower. “An old friend and the talk of old times has been too much for him. I ’ll go immediately, Alfred. Let us hope that it is n’t as bad as you fear.”
At the door of the little sitting-room Flora met them, weeping.
“ I ’m afraid he is dying,” she said. “ My husband has been reading the Bible to him ; but he does n’t seem to hear.”
There was a murmur of solemn tones in the sick-room as they approached it, and they were not surprised, as they entered, to see the mulatto clergyman rise from his knees. He glanced at Hightower, shook his head sorrowfully, put his arm around his wife’s waist, and whispered to her some unavailing word of comfort. Louise and Sophie, tears running down their cheeks, looked fixedly at the visitor, as if for hope.
Hope of life there evidently was none. Vance Fosbrooke’s face was dusky, his forehead beaded, his features pinched, his cheeks sunken, his eyes glassy.
“ Ah, my dear old friend ! ” said Hightower. “ What can I do for you ? ”
Although the parted lips moved, they uttered no sound ; but the eyes awakened, and glanced significantly from the friend to the offspring.
“ I won’t forget them, Fosbrooke,” promised Hightower; and he thought that a feeble pressure of the fingers thanked him.
“And is death a gain?” whispered the clergyman, bending low for an answer which could not be uttered.