George's Little Girl
GEORGE BALL was the handy man of Dicksonville. We always thought that if he had been at home we should not have burned up, or down, as we did, on a certain fatal July night, long remembered and still quoted.
For George had gone to Boston, an unexpected, unusual event to him and to us, who all knew his poverty, for although he had worked hard all his life he had not made any money. We had no gold mines in Dicksonville, and the granite rocks scarcely yielded that poor article which was called up there a living. The climate was of that early New England quality which one of the sufferers from it described as “ nine months of winter, and the rest of the year pretty cold.” He used a stronger word, perhaps, in the place of “ pretty, ” but the principle remains the same. We had excellent diamonds in the way of wit, mines of gold and silver in the virtues of the people; we had all the somewhat cold and forbidding puritan integrity. “You can’t catch anybody in this town a-bein’ dishonest,” remarked Deacon Gregory, But alas! was not that because nobody was smart enough to catch them? George, on receiving a present from Mr. Osgood (“Colonel” Osgood we called him, though why this title we never could find out) of ten dollars over and above his wages for digging a very superior well, determined on the first, greatest, last indulgence of a self-denying life. He would go to Boston, that Mecca of the New England Mohammedan; that holy of holies; that home of the mysteries; that Valhalla; that favored spot of earth where the learning of the East is garnered up; that Alexandrine library which has not been burned; that home of banks, capital, and insurance companies, where all the money goes, where the boy shall be sent to be educated, the girl to be finished, if enough can be pinched, squeezed, extracted, bled, out of the poorest farm in coldest Northern New England. George determined to see Boston.
The journey then from Dicksonville to Boston was not by uninterrupted railroad; there were episodes of connecting stage-coach in it which were not hailed with that enthusiasm by the travelers which now haloes the trips of the “ tallyho.” No, the nearness to stage-coaching in a rustic neighborhood, an acquaintance with a dirty old unwashed vehicle; certain not too-thoroughbred horses; the bandboxes and bundles of local Mrs. Gamps; the buffalo-robes, imperfectly “ cured,” perhaps, at first, and long the recipients of stale tobacco smoke and ammoniacal stable odors, not to speak of the familiar contact with an active and an industrious peasantry, who had not Mohammedan ideas of baths, whatever they might have thought of Mecca, — all these surroundings, the cold, the jolting, the C springs (more conducive to sea-sickness than anything which “ ocean, that mighty monster,” could turn up), had given the stage-coach an unpleasant reputation to at least that class of personages in Dicksonville who had the undesirable notoriety of being fastidious in their requirements. But to George and his congeners this diversion of the stage-coach was eminently pleasing: that veteran of the road, Bill Webster, drove from Dicksonville to the cars, and that greater but less successful man, Ira Sprague, drove occasionally, and occasionally acted as tickettaker and “conductor aboard of the cars ” on one of the lesser interregnums between Cranberry Centre and Shakertown, where the rails again relapsed into ruts, and the coach laboriously dragged onward those unfortunates whom steam had dropped.
As for the cars, George distrusted them; they looked like “the caravan” to him; an idea of wild beasts was remotely conveyed to his mind by that straight and boxed-up effect. In such a sort of thing lions and tigers were now and then brought to Dicksonville. Still, it was a dash into the unknown, and George, the most thorough Yankee who ever used his nose as the medium of speech, was not disposed to turn his back upon steam and progress. It was therefore with some natural elevation of manner that he mentioned to Jemima, his wife, —
“Well! I guess I've been up and bought me some tickets, and I ’ll go aboard of them cars at Cranberry Centre day after to-morrow, and then, if them tickets holds good and I ain’t been cheated, I ’ll git to Boston Thursday night, sure as you ’re alive, Jemimy.”
Jemima was very much alive: she sat up all night to finish off a pair of stockings which she was knitting for George; she scrubbed his best coat until it shone. She was a good creature, and dearly loved her lord. It seemed entirely natural and proper that he, the superior animal, should go off pleasuring and leave her behind; she only regretted that their joint savings had not got them around to a better pair of boots for him to wear through the glittering splendors of Boston streets, of which they both thought as the French peasant dreamed of Carcassonne.
The boots did trouble George; but with that heroism of poverty, that sublime sympathy, that best and loveliest courage in all the world, which is to be found only between two poor, humble souls who have tasted nothing but life’s crusts, he hid his own shame, as he saw that it troubled his wife, and took on a jocular tone, which quite reassured her.
“ Ho! you git out, Jemimy; you are a-gittin’ proud. I expect Boston mud is considerable like mud ennywheres else, and if I’m a-goin’ to Boston, I’m a-goin’ to see things, — Bunker Hill Monniment, the State House, and the shippin’. I never see a ship yet, nor the Atlantic Ocean neither, and I ’to a-goin’ to plow round, I tell you, Jemimy. Now do you s’pose I should wear a pair of new boots to do all that in ? I should have to put ’em in a trunk to travel with, and then leave ’em to Ezra’s whilst I was there; don’t you see, Jemimy? Besides, when I’ve greased up a little ” —
He was going on with his noble falsehood, when a little cry from the next room stopped him. This was the cry of his baby daughter, the thing which he and Jemima worshiped most, and a pang shot through his heart at the thought of leaving her for even a few days. He went into the next room and got her, and brought her into the kitchen, where Jemima sat sewing.
She was beautiful, this humble baby, — beautiful with sleep’s disarrangement of brown curls, with sleep’s dewy moisture in her great brown eyes, and that last touch of rose on lip and cheek which the fairy godmother gives to princess and peasant alike, when they travel under her enchantment through her own serene land of sleep. Her hands were buried in George’s great red beard, as they met in their clasp round his neck; her cheek was pressed up against his; a pair of rosy legs and feet, as rounded and as fair as those of Raphael’s immortal infant, hung over George’s bare, hairy, muscular arm; and her little white nightgown revealed the chubby outlines of a sweet baby figure.
“ I declare, I ’most hate to leave her,” said the proud owner of the tickets.
“ Oh, law,” said Jemima, whose turn it now was to be heroic, “ ain’t you ’most a fool, George, about that child ! As if I couldn’t take care of her alone for a week or two! For if Ezra’s folks want ye to stay, you can stay jest as well as not. Mis’ Rutland, she’s been very kind. She says I may do the housecleanin’ and carpets this year, and she’s gin me all the clothes of her baby that died; and I can go and take Mimie, and stay there all day, she says, whilst you ’re gone, and leave the baby with Roxy whilst I’m cleanin’; and you need n’t trouble about us, because she ’ll pay me well. Now you jest go and have a good time and enjoy yourself, — Lord knows you ’ve worked hard enough for it. And I should like a pieter of Bunker Hill Monniment, I ain’t a-goin’ to deny it.”
“ Mis’ Rutland is one of the folks that the Lord made,” said George, with a sincere piety. He believed in her as a Catholic would have done in his patron saint. “ Riches ain’t spoiled her, no wav; no, nor trouble don’t harden her heart, though I expect she takes that ’ere death very hard, don’t she?”
“ Yes,” said Jemima, wiping her eyes on her apron. “ Mr. Rutland, he found her shet up in the room with the little corpse, and he says, ‘ Gertrude,’ says he, ‘this ain’t Christian-like; this is rebellin’ against the Lord.’ And she says, ‘ Richard, jest let me hold his little feet in my hand onc’t more, as I always did; you know a mother loves her child’s little feet and her child’s flesh. I ’ll give him up in a minnit.’ And he could n’t say a word, but jest stayed and cried, too. And I guess that was jest what he ought to have done; and my opinion is she’s jest as good and a great sight better than he is, if he is so stiff and religious-like.”
“ Oh, Jemimy,” said George, “ don’t say such a word. I’ve been a-fishin’ with Richard Rutland, and I’ve camped out with him many’s the time. We’ve trained together in the Dicksonville Fusileers, and till he went off to get his eddication we've played ball together and gone a-shootin’. I know him, man and boy, these twenty years. He’s a man every inch of him. He ’s got melancholy and pious lately, and he ain’t so pleasant since he got religion; it don't seem to me to be the right kind, no how, since it don’t give him no comfort, and he’s always a-judgin’ other folks now, which he did n’t used to do; but he’s all right and you ’ll believe it.”
“ He ain’t nigh so good a Christian as his wife,” said Jemima, with wifely pertinacity.
“ Well, I swan to man, I should like to know who is ! When she come here, just as handsome as a painted picter and straight as a popple-tree, and walked to church with him, folks said she was proud and gay, and warn’t a-goin’ to make him a good wife, but I should like to jest know what they think now ! ”
The next morning George had to finish up some odd jobs on Mr. Rutland’s fine place, for he was one of those Yankees of faculty who turned his hand to leaky roofs, unaccountable chimneys that would smoke, wash-tubs that insisted on ungearing themselves, carriages that disintegrated in unexpected places. He could not settle down to any trade; he was too restless and too versatile. He loved the woods and streams, like a wild Indian, and had he been born in England would have been a poacher or a gamekeeper; but in New England he was the Jack-at-all-trades which one finds in nearly every rural neighborhood. His good heart and a certain natural dignity and honesty had barely kept him from being a failure.
“ Well, George,” said Mr. Rutland, “ how about that kitchen chimney? ”
“ Well, sir, I’ve pieced it up a few; I guess it’ll last a spell. I’m a-goin’ to Boston to-morrow; it ’ll hold on till I come back.”
“ Oh, you are going to Boston, are you? ”
“ Yes. Ezra, he keeps a liquor store down in Hanover Street, and is pretty forehanded, I expect; so I am a-going down to visit him. You remember Ezra, don’t you? ”
“ Oh, yes; he caught the largest trout I ever saw. Well, George, here’s a little money on account to help to enjoy Boston. Better not taste any of Ezra’s wares ! ”
“ No, sir; thank ye, sir,” looking at the clean ten-dollar bill which Mr. Rutland had put into his hand. George began to think the sky was raining money. “ You don’t owe me nothin’.”
“ But I shall some day; come and work it out, George,” and Mr. Rutland walked away in a melancholy manner, followed by George’s sincere pity.
The journey to Boston was a series of delightful and unexpected surprises and adventures. Ira Sprague proved to be all he had hoped for, and more. He was “ forbidden fruit,” was Ira Sprague,— a gambler, and a generous one; a fascinator of both sexes, and equally dangerous to both. Far and wide had his fame spread, through Dicksonville and Cranberry Centre, and George listened to him as he talked and handled the ribbons with a graceful dash. What a large, dissipated, gay, delightful place the world was, to be sure! And when George sat down to a greasy dinner at Cranberry Centre, and a young lady asked him in one breath if he would have “ roast pork, corned beef, codfish, boiled mutton,” and later on presented him with the varied choice of “ mince pie, apple dumpling, custard pudding,” in the same dulcet tone, accompanied with a shake of her black ringlets, Brillat-Savarin dining with the Rothschild of Paris was not more satisfied, gastronomically, than George was.
Ezra met him at the depot, and piloted him through the mazes of Boston highways and by-ways. The splendors and immorality of Ezra’s large drinking saloon, whose walls were ornamented with a picture of a lady insufficiently clad as to skirts, George thought, and who stood on one foot while the other was extended in air; and another of a gentleman who was even less sufficiently supplied with shirts, and who was engaged in breaking another gentleman’s nose, struck George’s untrained senses unpleasantly. He did not find Ezra improved, either, although he had store clothes on, and was kind and hospitable. When Ezra took him into the back shop and introduced him to a very showy lady as his wife, George did not feel at his ease with her, either. She was not so neat as Jemima, nor so pretty, although she had on a silk dress, finer by far than anything Jemima had ever owned. Altogether, he was conscious of himself, poor fellow, for the first time in his life, and the antiquated cut of his Sunday coat, his bell-crowned beaver, and, above all, his dilapidated boots all came home to him in a miserable and degrading sense of unfitness. He was ashamed to be ashamed, too, which is the worst of all the forms of shame, — at least the most painful. For an hour or two he wished himself back in Dicksonville, and thought of the morrow with dread rather than pleasure. It seemed to him that every eye in crowded Boston would be upon him, and every mouth would express contempt for his outlandish appearance. But the good night’s sleep, a very robust breakfast, and Ezra’s real good nature brought back George’s natural dignity, and he sauntered forth to see the “ shippin’,” gradually much comforted that nobody looked at him. All the men he met were hurrying along, looking on the ground or straight before them. He wondered what Boston folks were so anxious about, and where all the rich ones were, who had nothing to do but to amuse themselves. Down on the wharf he was spoken to by some saucy boys, who alluded to his hat, but he found it did n’t hurt much, and one group of sailors looked at him admiringly, for he was tall and strongly built, and asked him if he did n’t want to ship for a voyage. The immense picture of the ocean and commerce and a great, busy town finally did for him all that he had dreamed, and when, late in the afternoon, Ezra took him up to see the State House and the Common and the Hancock House, which was then standing, and ought to be standing now, the poor country fellow thought that he had indeed tasted of the joys of travel.
“ Well, I swan!” said he. “I jest wish Jemima was here! ”
It was another and more sincere way of saying,
Thy gentle hand to hold in mine.”
He got home very hungry to a supperdinner, which included amongst its multitudinous blowings a chowder, of which George’s taste approved.
“ Well,” said he, “ that’s as good a meal of vittles as ever I eat in my life,” and he began to like his sister-in-law better.
The next week was a dream of delights. Ezra found means to introduce a better pair of boots and a more modern hat without hurting the feelings of his brother, and took him to the theatre and to the circus, and to see the original of the dancing lady on the wall. She did not please him at all; he liked a tragedy, exceedingly, but best of all he liked to go and hear music.
Ezra knew a great many musicians. They came to refresh themselves at his counter frequently, for Polyhymnia is a thirsty muse. These disciples of hers left tickets behind them, which George was at liberty to use. So the poor, uneducated countryman, having a taste for high enjoyment hidden in his rough organization of which he had no suspicion, realized a sort of blind, undiscriminating rapture when he heard, for the first time, a great oratorio, and, without knowing at all what he was about, applauded in the right places, and knew as well how to be pleased as if he had actually been born in Boston. No one could suspect George of affectation, or a desire to appear to love music when he did not. No, that last infirmity of feeble minds; that most ponderous, useless insincerity ; that farce which amuses nobody, least of all the actor in it; that ruse which deceives nobody, a pretended enthusiasm for music, was not one of George’s temptations.
It was after a week of varied and delightful excitements, that had widened the views of the useful inhabitant of Dicksonville, that Ira Sprague sought him out in the deep recesses of the gallery of the Tremont Temple, where he sat listening gravely and happily to the strains of the oratorio of Moses.
A splendid female voice was rendering one of the solos with intense expression and feeling.
Ira Sprague had become a great friend to George. Ezra’s saloon was one of Ira’s haunts, and there, after a day’s fatigues, the cool gambler still found nerve and taste for a few games, which George watched when not too sleepy, but never joined in.
Perhaps it was not principle, perhaps it was only stupidity, or lack of money, which kept George from this tremendous temptation and excitement. He did not care for cards, except that he liked to have his fortune told, and had always believed that the old woman who predicted that he was to marry Jemima was a sorceress. He knew how to play fox and geese, with corn or beans on a board which he had made himself, but cards were beyond or above him, or beneath him, as the case might be; and to Ira’s honor be it said, he would have starved before he would have plucked the clean tendollar bill from George’s pocket, where it rested (thanks to Ezra’s generosity) until part of it was spent for a “ harnsome caliker ” for Jemima, and a bonnet which looked like Hanover Street, perhaps, more than it did like Beacon Street.
Still, if every dress that Worth sends out folds half the affectionate good-will within Its gorgeous draperies that lay done up in that red and yellow “ caliker;” if any Parisian bonnet surrounds a face as honest and beaming as Jemima’s was —
But here comes George’s tragedy. Perhaps he had taken in his modicum of happiness; the intensity of the flavor had been so great that it made up for its brevity.
But it went to Ira’s sympathetic gambler-heart to see him sitting there, mouth wide open, eyes starting from his head, and his hands, which were three times as large as Ira’s, grasping his knees, his whole frame instinct with enjoyment as the singer threw out her bird-like notes and trills.
When the song was finished, George turned and saw Ira sitting beside him.
He was George’s telegraph, his postoffice, his medium. Driving every day from Cranberry Centre to the railroad, and coming thence to Boston, he brought the Dicksonville news through in a day.
Life was simpler; it did not take so many men to manage a railroad then as it has done since, — a fact which the directors remember now with a sense of unappreciated blessings. There was no sensitive wire then, as now, which flashed more bad news than it did good, and performed the doubtful service of letting us know several hours earlier than we wished the evil tidings which proverbially travel fast.
“ Well, what’s the news?” asked George.
“ Well, I dunno; guess there ain’t much,” said Ira, who had a part to play.
“ Ira, you ain’t a-lookin’ well,” said George, struck with the pallor which spread over Ira’s thin, well-cut face. “ This ’ere a-playin’ and a-drinkin’ all night, and a-drivin’ all day, ain’t no life that’s a-goin’ to last a man. Neow you’re too good a feller to throw yourself away; why can’t you come up to Dicksonville and farm it awhile, Ira, and kinder rest and git some flesh onto yer bones? You ’ve got good bones in you,” said George, looking at Ira’s thin, delicate chest, and striving to pay him some physical compliment which should not be too transparently false, “ but you ’re a-killin’ of yourself, now, ain’t you, Ira? ”
“ I dunno,” said Ira. “I’ve been a pretty bad lot ever since I was a shaver. I guess there ain’t much wuth savin’ in me, no how.”
“ That ain't no way to talk,” said George.
“My mother died, my father licked me, and my step-mother starved me. The girl I liked, she went off with another man, and I ain’t got very good health,” said Ira, who had become wonderfully communicative about himself. “ So if I like to play cards and get drunk I dunno as it’s anybody’s business.”
“ Well, neow, Ira, git married and settle down, and I tell you you ’ll feel different. Git some good girl like Jemimy. Why, if it warn’t for that Bunker Hill cellebration, I’d ha’ been home yisterday, I tell you. Ezra, he kinder wants me tu stay over, but I want to see Jemimy and the baby that bad ” —
“George,” said Ira, hurriedly, “if you ’ll go home and go to bed, and git a good night’s sleep, I will, too. I won’t play to-night, and perhaps I shall feel better to-morrer. ”
“ Well, I will,” said George, delighted at the effect of his advice.
The next morning at daylight Ira called George, and sat down on the bed by his side.
“ George,” said he, “ I guess you’d better git up and go home along of me, to-day.”
“ Why? ”
“ Well, there’s bad news to Dicksonville,— half of it burned up night afore last, and Mr. Rutland, I expect he got some bruised. Mis’ Rutland, she sent down a line to the agent to have you come up as soon as you could.”
“ Why did n’t you tell me last night ? ”
“ Because I thought you might as well have a night’s sleep. Come along,” and Ira went off to his tickets.
In vain did George ask for particulars of the fire from all he met. He remembered afterward how everybody shunned him, and how queer it all was.
Not until Ira got him on top of the stage on that wild part of the road where you first see the mountain top, — that mountain which is the pride, the beauty, of Dicksonville; so gray in winter, so blue in summer (with such a royal purple at sunset and when you were in love!); that mountain, the confidant of all your moods from childhood onward to old age; that sympathetic, secret-keeping mountain, — not till fra saw the mountain did he feel inspired to speak and to tell his dreadful news.
“ George, old mail,” said he, “ I’ve got suthin bad to tell you.”
“ I knew it,” said George, beginning to shake, “ I’ve felt it all day,” and he grasped the iron rail of the stage, as if to keep from falling. “ Out with it, Ira,” said he, in a minute. “ I can’t bear this, no how. Mr. Rutland — he’s dead — or the baby— No, no! the baby warn’t burnt up ”— And at this thought the poor fellow threw his arms wildly in the air.
“ No,” said Ira. “ I guess I ’ll slacken up these ’ere horses a piece as we ’re a-goin’ uphill, and you can git down and walk a spell through the timber here. I ’ll stop for you to Sparhawks’ tavern, if you ain’t there, five minutes, when I drive up. George, wus ’n that. Jemimy— George — hold up! ”
Ira put one of his thin but wiry arms around George’s great surging frame, while he held his four horses with the other hand. Card playing, midnight orgies, days’ works through summer’s heat and winter’s cold, had not destroyed the strength of his arm or the native goodness of his heart; some honest fibre remained in both.
There was no one to witness this scene, but the blue sky was above them and the great mountain was before them. Had they had witnesses, these two descendants of the Puritans might have suffered all the tortures of the rack before either would have betrayed such sentiments as sympathy or tenderness. As it was, even the great mountain, respecting their reticence, drew a veil of cloud over his stern face, and left them alone with Heaven.
“ Jemimy got frightened in the fire, and jumped from a third-story winder. Mr. Rutland went up on a ladder and saved the baby. She is all right, but Jemimy ’s dead, poor girl, and Mr. Rutland’s pretty badly burned. Now, George, be a man! ”
The two or three passengers in the stage saw George get off to walk, as they reached the foot of a steep ascent, and noticed that when he got on, an hour later, he looked old and shrunken.
Ira threw his reins and ticket-box to Bill Webster, and quietly assuming charge of George, as if he had been a child, brought home the poor stricken fellow from his pleasure trip to Boston to his desolate existence.
We who saw that fire at Dicksonville never forgot Mr. Rutland’s conduct during the night which held for all of us losses and sorrows, but for George so bitter a tragedy.
The town was built along a broad street, — all the business part and the poorer dwellings crowded together, with the culpable carelessness of American villages. Built of wood, a dry season and a match, a favorable wind and the sound sleep of quiet, hard-working people were all that was needed; a conflagration was certain. When we saw how the flame darted out of Mr. Brown’s tavern roof, caught on Smith’s saddler’s shop, leaped to Mr. Pierson’s ambitious bookstore, and enveloped the only tenement house of the village, in which poor Jemima was sleeping off the fatigue of honest toil, we paused, and wondered why we had not burned up every night of our lives. Loud on the drowsy ear of the sleepers rang a clarion voice, and clearer still the high soprano of a woman, and Mr. and Mrs. Rutland, who saw the flame first from their high position on the hill, came down to help us, armed with presence of mind, educated intelligence, the courage which springs from training as well as that which springs from instinct. Out of the houses rushed the sleepy, half-dressed, frightened people; some went mad with terror; some threw the proverbial looking-glass out of the window; others brought down the equally tiresome feather-bed; a few cool heads organized a line of women to pass water buckets; and a few men got out the one insufficient hose of the village. “ Where’s George Ball? Why ain’t he here ? He can manage this ’ere thing,” said a hundred incompetent voices, as they tried and failed to bring a stream of water to bear on the Niagara of flame, which began to fall as it had risen, and defied in either case the feeble interposition of man.
However, Mr. Rutland, who had set the bells ringing and had wakened the people, soon got command. He seemed to be a dozen men. He was a natural leader. Finding himself at the head of an army that night, for the first time in his life, the quiet country gentleman, the religious zealot, the melancholy abstractionist, became a hero. He trod burning rafters with impunity; he directed a body of men to go into an atmosphere of fire and smoke, and they obeyed him as if they were his slaves; whatever order he gave, it was instantly carried out; he brought fainting women and half-crazed men from houses which were tumbling about their heads. Himself blackened, covered with smoke and water, he still stood forth against the flames, a tall, fine, heroic figure, one which we who saw can never forget, because, perhaps, he had entirely forgotten himself.
His wife meantime was keeping order and sway over the half-distracted band of women, sometimes passing the buckets of water. She kept her eyes on the progress of the flames, and in her clear, beautiful voice, so silvery and so distinct that it rose above the bells and the din of the crashing timbers, told of a new danger, or of some point which should be defended.
One cannot measure time during a fire; it annihilates that, as well as everything else. Therefore it is impossible to say how long a time had elapsed before she was heard to cry out, —
Where — where is poor Jemima V ”
At that moment, looking up toward the third story of the tenement house, which we all supposed was entirely emptied of its inhabitants, we saw a white figure at the window.
The whole of the lower story was on fire; the miserable one staircase which had sufficed for the four or five families was a long stream of flame; the smoke rose in terrific gusts and clouds. A loud shriek was heard, and before she could be warned or saved poor Jemima, probably half asleep, or crazed with terror, had thrown herself from the window, and lay on the ground, in her long white nightgown, quite dead.
This catastrophe had drawn the husband and wife together. They stood a moment, looking at the dead woman and at each other.
“ The baby! ” gasped Mrs. Rutland.
“ Yes,” said Richard Rutland. “ Men, those ladders! ”
“ No, sir, — no, no! No, it is certain death! " replied a dozen voices.
“ The ladders,” said Rutland quietly, but with a force which was as irresistible as death itself.
A dozen men sprang to the front and brought the ladders; they were scarcely long enough, but two heroes came out of the ranks, two young men, who demanded the right to share tlie danger with Mr. Rutland.
One was the village dandy, the man who wore long hair and played the guitar; the other was the young minister, who was supposed by Deacon Gregory to be a milksop. Nature hides her heroes in strange places. Mr. Rutland accepted their offer by placing a hand on the shoulder of each.
Up they went, a man at a time, over the shaky ladders, — Edmund Ely, the dandy, as we called him in derision, last. When he had reached the second story we saw him make a cat-like jump, and, catching on a window-sill, swing himself in, and then disappear in the burning house. Mr. Rutland had reached the last rung of the ladder, and yet was far from the window out of which poor Jemima had thrown herself.
Then we saw Mr. Ford, the young clergyman, stretch two long arms out and clasp the narrow window-sills above him on either side. We did not understand this manœuvre until we saw Mr. Rutland gradually rising, and we found that he was being raised on the shoulders of the muscular Christian, who was prolonging the ladder with his own body.
This act of extraordinary strength and presence of mind raised a shout in the crowd, and as Mr. Rutland disappeared in the burning house, Jim Slocum, our favorite horror, wit, and infidel, remarked, —
“ Well, that ’ere action is a-convertin’ me to the Christian religion considerable more than many of his sermons does.”
At this moment Edmund Ely appeared at the window into which he had jumped. “ Another ladder here, men! ” said he. “ Mr. Rutland can’t go down as he came.”
It was there instantly, as Mr. Rutland came staggering through the now blinding smoke with something done up in a blanket.
He was two stories from the ground, and as he stood there we saw that he fumbled blindly with one hand; yet with Ely’s assistance he got one foot out of the window and on the rung of tlie ladder. At that momenta great tongue of flame started up and seemed to twine around Ely like a snake, but he stood holding the ladder while Mr. Rutland descended ; half-way down Mr. Rutland reeled; and would have fallen, but Mr. Ford, on the parallel ladder, again extended a long arm and saved him. Before he reached the ground a dozen arms were ready to catch him and the unconscious child, who had slept through the whole affair; nor did she know until she was a woman what she had cost three brave men.
Mr. Rutland sank into the arms of his wife, exhausted and badly burned.
The dandy Edmund Ely was quite scorched; his beauty and dandyism were all burned away, but Sarah Crosby, whom he had been courting unsuccessfully for years, ran forward and embraced him, smoke and all, and married him as soon as he could stand up, after his wounds were healed.
Mr. Ford had undoubtedly scarred his white hands for life, and had lamed his shoulders, but he had preached a most eloquent discourse, which moved the hearts of the largest and most attentive audience he had ever had. One great act of humanity and personal courage gave him a hold on many beside Jim Slocum.
“We have a great duty to perform, George,” said Mrs. Rutland, as he stood at the door, twirling his hat, after the funeral of poor Jemima.
“ Thank God for that! ” said George. “ You 'll let me wait on him? ”
“ Yes, George. I could not trust anybody else,” said she, simply, but laying a soothing balm on the poor bleeding heart as she did so.
It was this woman’s mission to do the gentle, the kind, the tender, the thoughtful thing through life. Some people said that it was native generosity, natural goodness; that it cost her nothing, and therefore was not praiseworthy. Others said that it was religion; that Christian counsel and change of heart had done it. Nobody knew what did it, but we all knew we had one amongst us “ who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” We knew that while she found it well to be patient, cheerful, truthful, and merciful, it was worth the effort in a somewhat unsatisfactory world to be as she was, cheerful, patient, truthful, and merciful.
For God had put a heavy burden on her. Richard Rutland came out of that night’s work a maniac. No doubt a disease of the brain had been developing itself for some time, and had changed the once cheerful man into the melancholy zealot. He was injured physically; his health was gone; and yet, with a certain remnant of strength, he was left to suffer and to float, a dismasted wreck, destined to give trouble and annoyance for two years before he died to every one around him. For his mental disease assumed that form which is the hardest to understand and to endure, and which no word can express except the New England phrase “ hatefulness.” To be “ ugly and hateful” in New England means something which it means nowhere else: it is a sort of compressed human verjuice, a bitter extract of all the most aggravating forms of bad temper. “ Real ugly,” also, is one way of putting it. There is no dignified, pathetic badness about it. It is the nagging, insufferable, mean, and sometimes violent expression of ungoverned passions, united to the incessant activity of the Tasmanian devil, as described by naturalists.
No one can wonder, in watching such a case, that the uninstructed regarded maniacs as possessed by devils, and that the usual cure was whipping. Richard Rutland fell into good hands. There was no limit to his wife’s patience, no sort of boundary to George’s respectful service and watchful care. He was the best of keepers to the most trying of patients. When Mr. Rutland could not bear the sight of him, which was frequently the case, he would he outside of his door, like a faithful dog. When Butland was well enough to go out, he would take him fishing. He would lead him forth to those cool recesses of the forest which the meandering brook and the trout love, and with infinite tact lure him back to the days of boyhood and youth, before the cloud came. Often and often he with giant strength saved him from suicide, and held him in his strong arms until the paroxysm passed.
When the man of intellect and culture awoke, as he would do. in the diseased brain, and Rutland wished to return to the society of his wife and friends, it was touching to see George withdraw, conscious that for a moment his watch was unnecessary; that he, the poor, uneducated man, was no longer on duty; that he was not sufficient for the needs of his beloved patient. He saw it, and acted upon it with all the delicacy of a gentleman. Then it came Mr. Ford’s turn, and remembering that night of the fire, he studied the phases of moral and intellectual disease in the unhappy man, and forgave that which he could not understand.
One single agreeable thing remained to reunite the three, and that was music. Mrs. Rutland was a cultivated musician; she sang, she played the organ and the piano and the harp, — that most thrilling, natural, and touching instrument, which once soothed Saul, the first great maniac of whom we read.
George, with his little girl on his knee, would sit outside, in some convenient waiting-room, while this St. Cecilia sang or played to her husband. It was a rest, a comfort, a joy, for hours to all three, — certainly to George, who had been for years, unknown to himself, a musical enthusiast. The bugle of the Dicksonville Fusileers, indifferently tooted by Deacon Doolittle, and the drum and fife, played with military fervor, but with warlike disregard of time and tune, had always distressed George, he knew not why. He, however, dutifully marched to them, and obeyed their discordant call, supposing that as the music pleased everybody else in the regiment, he must have been in the wrong. He did like to hear old Washington Sambo — who sold ginger-pop on the field of Mars when the yearly muster was in progress — sing Jim Crow and Yankee Doodle, little knowing at the time that Washington Sambo had a baritone which would have made his fortune with Christy’s Minstrels, and a musical ear which left Deacon Doolittle at a harmonious distance. His naturally correct musical sense received its full benediction in the singing of Mrs. Rutland. It had one greater joy in the future, but that was a long way off.
God vouchsafed Richard Rutland a few hours of sanity before he died. It was a great comfort to his religious friends, who had begun to be seriously troubled at what they considered an unjust providence, that one of the elect, such a saint and such a hero as he had been, should be thus unmercifully dealt with. His head was on his wife’s bosom, his hand in hers, when George was called in to take his last words.
“ George, old fellow,” said he, with the beautiful old smile, which poor George remembered from the early days, “ I see it all now; you will forget and forgive? I have been unjust and cruel to Gertrude and to you, often and often. It was wrong here,” and he touched his head. “ She understands,” he said, pressing his wife’s hands; “she always understood me. Don’t cry, George; I cannot stand that. Go and bring me your little girl.”
George crept out and got the baby. She was nearly three years old, now, — a sweet, brown-eyed creature, like one of Correggio’s children; shy as a young fawn; a fresh, strong, large-limbed child; a daughter of the people.
“ She was worth saving,” said Richard Rutland, with the old smile; “ bring her here. I give her — I give her a dying man’s blessing,” and he touched her brown curls with his pale hand.
“ Now bring me my own children.” And George saw him no more until he took up his sad vigil by the silent, marble-like face and figure, to which in its majesty and grace came back the early beauty and serenity of Richard Rutland, which George remembered so well.
“ So George and his little girl lives there, do they ? ” remarked Ira Sprague to Bill Webster, as they walked down the village street one Sunday afternoon, in all the glory of store clothes, shiny hats, and conspicuous breastpins in unnaturally starched shirt bosoms, which had a sort of mosaic effect, as if they were not parts of the general whole.
“ Yes. My wife, says she to me, Mis’ Rutland she let George have his little girl for company, and kinder pensioned off Roxy, too, who is a-gittin’ old; and George’s sister, an awful thin creetur, from the farm, but I guess a nice, smart, capable woman, she come down and tuk care of the house ; and that little girl she sets at the head of the table, and is as pert as a peacock. I expect from what I hear that she’s dreadful smart at the deestrict school, and she plays the pianner like all git out.”
“ Mis’ Rutland pays that Eyetalyan feller for her lessons, don’t she? ” said Ira, who had a noble American disdain for all foreigners, especially musical ones.
“ Oh, I expect so. Mis’ Rutland, she never forgets nobody. She give George that cottage and piece of ground; he ought to be considderble forehanded ; and she ’s a-eddicatin’ the girl for a music teacher, I guess.”
“ Well, she ’s a good woman, although she has aged considderble since he died,” remarked Ira, who had an eye for youth and beauty. “ Her own darters are gittin’ to be quite lumps of girls, — ain’t they ? ”
“ Oh, law, yes,” said Bill Webster. “ A-goin’ to Europe, I expect. Let ’s see; it’s eleven years, ain’t it, since Rutland died ? ”
“ Expect it is; it was a spell before the cars run into Dicksonville, when we was both a-drivin’ stage.”
“ Yes,” said Bill Webster, sighing heavily and stretching his arms in air, partly to relieve him of the gêne of his Sunday coat, partly to revive old associations of the reins and of that whip which had once reached, with tingling emphasis, the ear of the off leader, and descended with cutting force on the flank of a recalcitrant nigh wheeler. “ ’T ain’t no use talking,” said Bill, with morbid disdain of the present as contrasted with the immediate past, — “ ’t ain’t no use talking, them days was livelier and better ’n these, if you du git to Boston in five hours. I’ve been froze and thawed, and wet to the skin and dried, till I cracked like a mackeril, and so ’ve you, Ira, on top of them stages; but I liked it as well agin as I do to be aboard of them cars, a-gittin’ dust into my eyes and throat, till I feel like a fust-class funeral, anyhow,”
“ Yes,” said Ira, with a hollow cough. “ 'T ain’t agreein’ with me nuther.”
Evidently not, for although he had lasted longer than George had predicted. Ira was now doomed, and he knew, or thought he knew, poor fellow, that he was not long for this world. Some remembered sympathy took him in to George’s cottage.
A tall, slender, graceful girl opened the door. “ Straight as an ellum-tree,” said Ira to himself. “ Hullo,” said Ira, “ be you George Ball’s little girl ? ”
“I am his daughter Mimie,” said the child, somewhat haughtily.
“ Well, is he to home ? ”
“ No, but he will be, in a short time. Won’t you walk in? ”
Ira was no longer the. devastator of female peace of mind which he had been ten years agone. He was now a thin, elderly-looking man, slightly bald and bent over, but there was a handsome face and large black eyes left, and that something which in more cultivated circles would have been called distingué about the man.
Enough to alarm aunt Sophronia, “ the awful thin creetur ” of Bill Webster’s reminiscences, who ran up into Roxy’s room and informed the now disabled veteran that " Ira Sprague, the awful gambler, was down-stairs a-talkin' to Mimie, and he ought to be driv rite out o’ the house, heddn’t he, Roxy?”
Aunt Sophronia had never been attractive or dangerous to the ravening wolf man, but like many women to whom fascination has been denied, she had at least suffered, the compensating terror. She had never walked alone of a moonlit night that she had not expected capture, nor had she ever, even after fiftyeight summers of meritorious though untempted celibacy, heard a man’s voice that she did not suspect an offer of some kind, honorable or otherwise, to be lurking behind it. The care that she took of charms which had never existed, and the suspicions she endured of wooers who never came and never wooed, would have sufficed for battalions of Helens of Troy. It is probable that a proper regard for the honor of her family was the only motive which induced aunt Sophronia to change her cap and gown, put on her false curls, and cast one last, long, lingering look at the glass before she went down to drive the wolf from the fold.
No more bitter sensation of envy had ever visited the breast of elderly female than she experienced, on entering the room, to see Mimie in a very composed manner doing the honors, while George, who had crept in from the cabbage garden, was entertaining Ira, with a gratified smile.
“ My aunt,” said Mimie, rising gracefully, and introducing Sophronia, as she had seen Mrs. Rutland present her guests.
“ How de do marm! ” said Ira, scarcely looking at the irate cap and curls. " Ye see, George, I did n’t think as your little girl was so nigh growed up.”
“ Yes, she ’s nigh onto fourteen, ain’t you, Mimie? And you ’d ought to hear her play the planner! Mimie, give us a tune.”
“ Not Sunday afternoon, I hope!” said aunt Sophronia.
“ Oh, now, Sophrony, don’t you be so darned superstitious! Ain’t music good anyhow? I expect what Mimie ’d do would n’t hurt Ira nor me.”
“ I’d rather not, father,” said Mimie, with ready tact. “ If Mr. Sprague will call to-morrow, I will play for him as well as I can.”
“ Well, that ’ll do. Come along, Ira; we ’ll go out and smoke in the shed.”
So aunt Sophronia’s suspicions simply had the effect of bringing Ira to the house again and again, and of subjecting Mimie to a great deal of annoyance from the speeches of the two elderly uneducated and vulgar women who happened to he her guardians.
It would be interesting to see a colony of young people, for once, educated without having the seed of suspicion sown in their minds. It is not a natural growth; it is a parasite insidiously introduced by the cankered and disappointed, in nine cases out of ten. No doubt it is well to warn a young girl against the advances of a man of bad character, but is not the danger a thousand times exaggerated by some over-suspicions friend? How much better to trust to that armor of honest thought, natural purity, and native good sense which is so often the dowry of our young girls! How touching it is to hear a young person defend a friend against the attacks of his or her elders! We should refrain from brushing the dew off the grape of early belief. When Mrs. Rutland allowed George to take his little daughter home out of her luxurious nursery, she obeyed that kind heart and faultless instinct of hers which never failed her. She knew that the poor laboring man had a right to his little daughter’s love and sympathy and companionship, and that it could not be entirely his if the girl were reared in habits of luxury, apart from him. So she had pensioned off her old nurse, Roxy, to keep the house and take care of the little child. George and Roxy had a good old comfortable hatred of each other, which kept up between them a sort of healthful quarrel, but both loved and cared for the little girl. Sophronia had been an after-thought. Mrs. Rutland did regret her introduction into the family, with her petty narrowness and absurd old coquetry, but it was inevitable.
For Mimie, this brand snatched from the burning, was developing into one of those splendid and gifted creatures vouchsafed to us now and then, to show what nature can do if she chooses. She had always been beautiful, from her cradle. The red hair of her father and the black eyes of her mother had met in her, softened in the one case and deepened in the other, until both had reached a sort of perfection which we occasionally find in the old masters, who loved these reddish-brown beauties.
Her complexion was of the highest degree of excellence. Sun did not tan it, nor wind redden it. Its lovely red and white suggested May-flowers, appleblossoms, strawberries and cream, everything that was pure, wholesome, and delightful. Her features were as patrician as if she had been the daughter of a hundred earls; probably more so, although her race had never before shown either great beauty, or blood, or breeding. Her teeth, that seal of perfect beauty, were a row of Orient pearls, and as shining as they were delicate and even. Her hands were long, supple, and refined.
She early manifested a talent for music. She sang, she played at nine years of age, and having, fortunately, a great musician for a friend and patron, she was not allowed to misuse that nightingale hidden in her throat, as some gifted singers are.
Mrs. Rutland reserved the right to give Mimie her musical education, and Signor Ceccarini, “the Eyetalyan ” whom Ira Sprague scorned, was a good teacher; when Mimie had reached her fifteenth year he came to Mrs. Rutland, and with many Italian gestures told her that Mimie had one of the rarest contralto voices in the world, and that he could not attempt to train it as it should be done, but that she ought to go to Europe; that here was a gem for the opera, an unknown Grisi, a budding Malibran. The child was an artist, too; she apprehended at once all the dramatic purpose and meaning of the music he taught her; in fact, Signor Ceccarini, a poor old broken-down opera singer himself, was half crazy with joy over the diamond which he had found in Dicksonville.
George, meantime, honest man, had not accumulated a cent. He now oiled the engines and worked on the railroad and did odd jobs for everybody, and was only able to support his family and to give Mimie very good dresses and bonnets, although none were so splendid as that poor old dusty bonnet which hung on a nail in his bedroom,—the one he had bought for dear Jemima in Boston so many years ago, and which remained, as old bonnets will do, to testify how poor a thing fashion is.
There was therefore many a consultation as to what was to be done about Mimie’s education. In spite of aunt Sophronia’s misgivings, Ira Sprague, dragging slowly along through the old-fashioned consumption, a disease which gratified Roxy and herself, because it was the good old inexorable kind, and not this modern fraud which can be cured by whisky and cream and cod-liver oil, — Ira, shorn of his beams as a destroyer, and simply appearing in the more mournful light of being destroyed, had finally drifted into George’s cottage to die.
He had taken a great pleasure in hearing Mimie sing and play. He had made her a great many appropriate presents, one a very good piano, but he had shown no desire to make love to her, and what was worse, none whatever to make love to aunt Sophronia, who made him excellent broths and puddings. George’s good heart and Mimie’s good sense were equal to the occasion, and the pure and honorable sentiments which survived the gambler’s mistaken life were entirely appreciated by them.
“ I tell yer what it is, George,”said Ira, with what was left of a voice, “ I hain’t hearn all this talk o’ yourn and Mis’ Rutland about Mimie for nothing. Now, George, I ’m considderble forehanded, and some of my money ’s honestly made. When I come home from the Mississippi River, I paid off them mortgages on father’s farm, and I come into possession. Two years after, they found a marble quarry on it, and I’m doin’ a first-class business up there a-making grave-stones. I shall want one myself pretty soon, and our head workman, says he, ‘ I’m a-goin’ to carve on to it, Here lies Ira Sprague, a-waitin’ for the last trump.’ He is pretty good at a joke, Hen is, I tell you! And sez I, ' Carve on to it what yer a mind ter. I expect I’ll git on better up there than ever I did here. ’ There was One, George, that took in even a thief with him ; and I never was that! So now I’ve left Mimie, in my will, a nice little sum, and there’s five thousand in the bank for her now. Now, jest you and Mis’ Rutland cook that thing up between you, and if it’s a-going to do Mimie any good, or make her sing a bit sweeter ’n she does now, to go to Europe, you jest take that ’ere money and let her go long.”
Hen Thompson, the wit of the gravestones, was somewhat astonished when he learned that a young girl in Dicksonville was a stockholder in the quarry, and that Ira had left her all his money, which had been going down to the bank pretty regularly; also, he received a very different order for the modest monument which was erected over poor Ira in the new Dicksonville cemetery than that which he had designed. Mimie took the Bible which she had been reading to the poor dying man, and searching in it, through her tears, for an appropriate and not too ambitious text, it seemed to open of itself (as the blessed book often does) at these words, which still shine out above the violets and buttercups, the clover and green grass: “I will sing unto thy praise, O Lord, for thou hast redeemed thy people!”
And so one fine day, George, who had washed the railroad grease from his hands and put on his Sunday coat, went up to the cars, in other than a fiduciary capacity, to bid good-by to his little girl, who was going to Europe with Mrs. Rutland and her daughters to study music at Leipsic and Paris, and to return a great singer. Many of the people who came and waited at the Dicksonville Junction (for we are a first-class town now, and four railroads have nearly ruined us) wondered as they looked at the homely laboring man, on whose arm hung a proud and perfect beauty, nearly as tall as he was. They walked up and down, not daring to look at each other, George and Mimie, until Mrs. Rutland said it was time for them to part. Then two beautiful, shapely arms were thrown around George’s neck, and a dear voice said, “ Father, father, good-by, goodby! ” and the too well-oiled engine bore her off, —bore off “ George’s little girl,” and left him to walk home, the most miserable man in Dicksonville.
The chimneys and the door hinges, the broken-down carriages and the railroad jobs, were very imperfectly done for a while. George had lost his inspiration. In fact, the village choir and the village street missed Mimie dreadfully.
Poor old Roxy died, and George was left to the tender mercies of Sophronia, who grew thinner, more suspicious, more coquettish, with every advancing decade.
However, George bore it all with a sublime patience, and life became for him only a measuring of time between post-days. The steamer had no more accurate time-keeper than this poor man up in Dicksonville, who watched for his daughter’s letters and for the news of her work and her success as his only pleasure. He counted the moments with heart beats, and his prayers for her were as constant and as ceaseless as the pulses in his brawny wrist.
She told him everything, his beautiful, gifted, rare child! She told him everything save the compliments which were paid her. These she did not mention. Perhaps aunt Sophronia’s early lessons had made her reticent on this subject. Perhaps a girl cannot tell these to her father. But they passed over the head of this daughter of art; she cared nothing for them. Two passions possessed her fine soul: the one was duty, and the other was her art. Her father and her duty were synonyms; she never was able to separate the two; and her art, how sacredly she served it! How pure a vestal at that altar she stood! Aye, and in that temple she serves still!
Mrs. Rutland wrote from time to time, and told George much of Mimie’s success. This watchful friend was always near enough to insure to George the feeling that Mimie was well cared for, without which he could not have lived.
It was nearly four years now since she had left him, when he got a letter from Mrs. Rutland. It was an account of Mimie’s triumphal success at the Conservatoire.
MY GOOD FRIEND GEORGE, — I have just come home from hearing “ our little girl” sing in that immense and trying place, the last and most decisive tribunal in Europe.
Well as I knew her excellence, greatly as I appreciated her genius, I assure you I was overwhelmed and surprised. She looked like the angel that she is, and she sang like the angel that she will be. George, your daughter is one of the great singers of the world. The old members of the Conservatoire, those who have heard all the great voices, shouted and applauded as she finished, and they crowned her with a wreath of beautiful fresh flowers, as they once did Christine Nilsson, when she sang in this same place. In a month I shall bring her home to you, — you of whom she said, as she came to my arms, “ Oh, if my father were here! ”
I thought of a scene you and I alone remember, — of a death-bed and of a blessing. Do you remember who said, as he touched her brown curls, “ I give her a dying man’s blessing”? It was he who had saved her for her honorable and distinguished career; and I cannot but think that he knew and rejoiced over those clear and penetrating notes, which seemed to me to reach to heaven. Your friend, GERTRUDE RUTLAND.
The quarry had ceased to be a paying investment, and Ira’s legacy barely carried Mimie through her education and the year that followed it; but she had a mine of gold in her voice.
George went to Boston for the second time as the father of a great prima donna, and sat in the same seat in the gallery to hear her sing in the oratorio of Moses where he had sat when Ira came to him with his message of grief, that message which he had, with the tact of a sincerely sympathetic nature, so tenderly and so carefully broken to him. And now a white-haired man, bent and broken with age, but with a great light in his face, accompanies the singer wherever she goes. He never calls her anything but “my little girl,” although Miss Mimie Ball is a very sizable person.
People ask why she does not love, why she does not marry. Some people say she would sing better if she could have a great heart-break. Others say that she sings quite well enough as it is. Beautiful and famous as she is, followed and admired, the breath of scandal never touches her name. Is it that old father, who begins to look like a fine study for a patriarch or an evangelist, who protects her? She loves him dearly, and her way of saying “father” is thought, by some, to be her best musical effect.
No, the protection emanates from herself; it is the native purity of a sincere and honest soul. She is the daughter of the most passionate and the most comprehensive of all the arts; she has sprung from the people; she knows all the alphabet of poverty, of self-renunciation, of prudence, of humble service, and of gratitude. Mrs. Rutland has been her tutelary angel. She knows by intuition the gamut of love and pity and heroism and piety; she can sing all the changes with that magnificent voice; she has the clairvoyance of genius.
M. E. W. S.