The Misfortunes of Bro' Thomas Wheatley by Lina Redwood Fairfax
He is our office-boy and messenger, and, my senior tells me, has been employed by the firm in this capacity for about thirty years. He is a negro, about sixty years old, rather short and stout, with a mincing, noiseless gait, broad African features, beautiful teeth, and small, round, twinkling eyes, the movements of which are accompanied by little abrupt, sidewise turns of the head, like a bird. His manner is a curious mixture of deference and self-importance, his voice a soft, sibilant whisper, and as he was born and bred in Alexandria, Virginia, it seems almost superfluous to add that he and the letter "r" are not on speaking terms.
He has a prominent characteristic, which always attracts attention at first sight. This is the shape of his head, which is immensely large in proportion, very bald, and so abundant in various queer, knobby excrescences about the forehead and sides, and so unnaturally long and level on top, that for some time after I made his acquaintance I could never see him without finding myself forming absurd conjectures as to whether his cranium and the hydrostatic press could ever have become acquainted at some early period of his life; and so strong is this association of ideas that, even now, his sudden appearance invariably suggests to me the study of natural philosophy. Poor fellow! his chagrin was great when this peculiar conformation of his skull was first brought to his notice. He had been telling me for some time past of the "splendid piccha" he had had "took," and I had been promised a sight of it just as soon as it arrived from the photographer's. I confess I had not been sanguine as to the result, although I knew a handsome portrait was confidently expected by the sitter. One morning he deposited the photograph before me.
"Hello!" I cried, taking it in my hand; "here you are, hit off to the life."
"Do' say that, Mist' Dunkin, do' say hit, seh," he replied, in a tone of deep mortification. Then, catching a glimpse of the picture, his ire broke forth: "Nevvah wuz like me in de wueld," he cried, in an elevated key; "nevvah wuz ha'f so ugly ez that. I'm--I'm a bettah-lookin' man, Mist' Dunkin. Why, look at de color of de thing," contemptuously. "Cain' tell de face f'om de coat I nevvah set up to be what you'd call faih-cumplectid, but disha things iss same is that thaih ink; jess iss same. My hade do' look that a way, neitha. Naw, seh, 'taint s' bad 's that."
"Why, Thomas," said I, "I think it a very good likeness--the complexion is a little dark to be sure, but do you know I particularly admire the head. Look at that forehead; any one can see that you are a man of intellect. I tell you it isn't every one who can boast of such a forehead."
"The--the 'mahk you make 'bout me, has been made 'fo'; I may say, has been made quite frequent--quite frequent; on'y lass Tuesd'y fohtni't, Sistah Ma'y Ann Jinkins--a promnunt membeh of ouh class (that is, Asba'y class, meets on Gay Street), Sistah Ma'y Ann Jinkins, she ups an' sez, befo' de whole class, dat she'd puppose de motion, dat Bro' Thomas Wheatley wuz 'p'inted fus' speakah in de nex' 'Jug-breakin' an' Jaymiah's Hamma,' by de i-nanemous vote of de class. I'm clah to say I wuz 'stonished; but ahta class wuz ovvva, Bro' Moss tole me de 'p'intment wuz made jes' f'on de 'peahunce of my hade, ''Cause,' he sez, 'no man cain't be a po' speakah with sich a fine intellec' which we see expressed in de hade of Bro' Thomas Wheatley--but, same time, I knowed all time de fus' motion come f'om Sistah Ma'y Ann Jinkins--she's a ve'y good friend o' mine, Sistah Ma'y Ann Jinkins--thinks a sight o' me; I 'scohts heh to class ev'y Tuesd'y--ev'y Tuesd'y, sine die."
"You do? What does your wife have to say to that?" I asked, maliciously.
He stared at me an instant, then replied:
"My wife!--oh--oh, Law bless yoh soul, seh, she do' keeh. Bro' 'Dolphus Beam, he sees ahta heh: you see, seh, she's I-o-n-g way 'moved f'om Asba'y class; 'twont admit none but fus'-class 'speience-givvahs in Asba'y, an' my wife she wa'n't nevvah no han' to talk; haint got de gif' of de tongue which Saul, suhname Paul, speaks of in de Scripcheh--don't possess hit, seh."
"She must be a very nice person to live with," I remarked.
"Well, y-e-es, seh," replied Thomas, after reflecting awhile. "I hain't got nuth'n' 'g'in' Ailse; she's quite, an' ohdaly, a good cook, an' laundriss, an' she's a lady, an' all that, but sh' ain't not to say what you'd call a giftid 'oman."
"Like Sister Mary Ann Jinkins, eh?"
"Egg-zac'ly, seh. Mist' Dunkin, you put hit kehrec', seh. Ailse hain't possessed with none of the high talence, cain't exhoht, naw sing with fehveh, naw yit lead in praieh; heh talence is mos'ly boun' up in napkins--as Scripcheh say--mos'ly boun' up in napkins; foh I do' deny she kin do up all kines o' table-linen, she kin indeed. Naw, seh, I cain't say I got nuth'n' 'g'in' Ailse."
He was, I think, the worst manager of finances that I have ever known. He cleaned all the offices in our building, and earned, as near as I could estimate, about thirty-five dollars a month. Three of his four children were self-supporting, and his wife was honest and industrious, taking in washing, and getting well paid for her work. Yet, he was perpetually in debt, and his wages were always overdrawn. Whenever I came into the office after my two-o'clock lunch, and found him seated on his wooden chair, in the corner, gazing absently out at the dingy chimneys opposite--apparently too abstracted to observe my entrance, I knew I had only to go to my desk to find, placed in a conspicuous position thereon, a very small, dirty bit of paper, with these words laboriously inscribed upon it: "Mr. Dunkin Sir cen you oblidge me with the sum of three dolers an a half [or whatever the sum might be] an deduc thee same from mi salry i em in grate kneed of thee same yours mos respecfull thomas wheatley."
The form was always the same, my name in imposing capitals and the remainder in the very smallest letters which he could coax his stiff old fingers to make, and all written on the tiniest scrap of writing-paper. I think his object was to impress me with his humiliation, impecuniosity, and general low condition, because as soon as he received the money--which he always did, I vowing to myself each time that this advance should be the last, and as regularly breaking my vow--he would tip-toe carefully to the mantel-piece, get down his pen and ink, borrow my sand-bottle, and proceed to indite me a letter of acknowledgment. This written, he would present it with a sweeping bow, and then retire precipitately to his corner, chuckling, and perspiring profusely. He usually preferred foolscap for these documents, and the capitals were numerous and imposing. Like the others, however, they were invariably word for word the same, and were couched in the following terms:
"MR. DUNKIN "SIR I have Recieved thee Sum of Three Dolers an a half from Your hans an I Recieve thee same with Joy an Grattetude. "Yours respecfull "THOMAS WHEATLEY."
I said his applications for money were always granted. I must, however, make an exception, which, after all, will only go to prove the rule. One bright morning he met me at the office-door, his face as beaming as the weather. He hardly waited for me to doff my overcoat and hat, when he announced that he had bought a second-hand parlor organ the evening before, on credit, for seventy-five dollars, to be paid in instalments of twelve dollars and a half each. He had been very hard up for a month past, as I had abundant occasion to know, and it was therefore with a feeling rather stronger than surprise, that I received the announcement of this purchase.
"But you haven't fifty cents toward paying for it. And what on earth can you possibly want with a parlor organ? Can you play?--can any of your family play?"
"Well, naw, seh," scratching his head reflectively. "I cain't s'ay they kin not to say play"--as if they were all taking lessons, and expected to become proficient at some not far distant day. "In fac', seh, none on um knows a wued o' music. I didn't mean, seh, I didn't 'tend the--the instrument fu' househol' puhpasses--I--I 'tended hit as a off'in' to ouh Sabbath-school. We--we has no instrument at present, an'--"
I am afraid I uttered a very bad word at this juncture. Thomas started, and retired in great discomfiture, and I thought I had made an end of the matter, but that afternoon I found the small scrap of paper on my desk--really, I think, with a little practice, Thomas might hope to rival the man who goes about writing the Lord's Prayer in the space of half a dollar. My name was in larger capitals, the rest in smaller letters, than usual, and I was requested "to oblidge him with the sum of twelve dolers an' a half." I knew then that the first organ-instalment was due, but I think it needless to add, his application was refused. About a week afterward, I learned that the Sabbath-school was again without a musical instrument, the organ having been pawned for twenty dollars, Thomas paying ten per cent a month on the money. It was so with everything he undertook. Once he gave me elaborate warning that I must furnish myself with another messenger at once, as he was going to make a fortune peddling oranges and apples. Accordingly, he bought a barrel (!) of each kind of fruit, sold half at reasonable rates, and then, the remainder beginning to decay on his hands, he came to me, offering really fine Havana oranges at a cent apiece.
"I'm driffin' 'em off et coss--driffin' 'em off et coss," he whispered, speaking rapidly, and waving his hands about, oriental fashion, the palms turned outward and the fingers twirling; this peculiar gesture seemed intended to indicate the cheapness of his wares. "Dey coss me mo'n that; heap mo', but I'm faih to lose um all now, en I'm driffin' 'em off, sine die."
After that, some dozen or more of the large wholesale houses engaged him to furnish their counting-rooms with lunch, and he began with brilliant prospects. He brought his basket around to me for first choice. Everything was very nice; a clean new basket, covered with a white cloth, wherein lay piles of neatly arranged packages done up in letter-paper, with a strange-looking character inscribed upon each.
"What do these letters mean?" I asked, taking up one of the packages, and trying in vain to decipher the cabalistic sign upon it.
"Oh, that's to show de kine of san'wich dey is, Mist' Dunkin. You see, seh, I got th'ee kines--so I put 'B' on de beef, 'H' on de hahm, an' I stahtid to put 'H' on de hystehs too, but den I foun' I couldn't tell de hystehs f'om de hahm, so den I put 'H I' on de hystehs."
"Oh, I see," said I, opening one of the "hysteh" packages. It was very good; an excellent French roll, well spread with choice butter, and two large, nicely fried oysters between. I ate it speedily, took another, and, that disposed of, asked the price.
"Ten cents, seh."
"Yes, seh; fi' cents 'piece."
"Why, Thomas," I exclaimed, "you mustn't begin by asking five cents apiece; you'll ruin yourself. These things are worth at least twice as much money. Why, I pay ten cents for a sandwich at an eating-house, and it doesn't begin to have as good materials in it as yours. You ought to ask more."
"Naw, seh; naw, seh; Mist' Dunkin; as' less, an' sell mo'--that's my motteh. I have all dese yeah clean sole out 'fo' two 'clock--clean sole out 'fo' two 'clock."
I interrupted him, asking the cost of each article, and then proving to him by calculation that he lost money on each sandwich he sold at five cents. But I could not convince him--he received the twenty-five cents which I insisted on paying him with many expressions of gratitude, but he left me reiterating his belief in "quick sales and small profits." "Be back yeah clean sole out by two 'clock, sine die," he exclaimed, brightly, as he departed.
This venture brought him six dollars in debt at the expiration of a fortnight, and after that, by my advice, he abandoned peddling, condemning it as a "low-life trade," and agreeing to stick to legitimate business for the future.
One of his famous expressions, the most formidable rival of sine die (which, as the reader has doubtless discovered, he intended as an elegant synonym for without fail), was entirely original--this was "Granny to Mash" (I spell phonetically), used as an exclamation, and only employed when laboring under great mental excitement.
As I was proceeding homeward one evening, I spied him standing on a street corner, holding forth to a select assemblage of his own color, who were listening to him with an appearance of the profoundest respect. His back was toward me, and I stopped and caught his words without attracting observation. He had assumed a very pompous, hortatory manner, and I could well believe he held a prominent position in Asbury class. "Yes, gentlemun; yes," he was saying, "ez Brotheh Jones 'mahks, I do live in a ve'y su-peeiaw at-mos-pheeh--suh-roundid by people of leahnin', with books, pens, blottehs, letteh-pess, en what not, ez common ez these yeah bricks which I see befo' me. But thaih hain't no trueh wued then ev'y station has its hawdships, gentlemun, en mine ah not exemp', mine ah not exemp'.
"Fus'ly, thaih's the 'sponsebility. W'y, this yeah ve'y mawnin' I banked nigh on to a thousan' dollehs fu' de young boss. En w'en I tell you mo'n two hundred stamps is passed my mouth this yeah blessid evenin', 't will give you some slight idee of the magnitude of the duties I has to puffawn. W'y, gentlemun, I is drank wateh, an' I is drank beeh, but my mouth hain't got back hits right moistuh yit."
The day of the 20th of July, 1877, was very quiet We had heard, of course, of the "strikes" all over the country, and the morning papers brought tidings of the trouble with the Baltimore and Ohio railroad employes at Martinsburg, but no serious difficulty was apprehended in Baltimore.
That afternoon I was detained very late at the office. I intended beginning a three weeks' holiday next morning, and was trying to get beforehand with my work. My senior was out of town, and Thomas and I had been very busy since three o'clock--I writing, he copying the letters. After five, we had the building pretty much to ourselves, and a little after half past five, the fire alarm sounded. The City Hall bell was very distinctly heard, and Thomas--who had finished his work and was waiting to take some papers to the office of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for me--took down a list of the different stations, to ascertain the whereabouts of the fire.
"1--5," he counted, as the strokes fell; "that makes fifteen, and that is," passing his finger slowly down the card, "that is Eastun Po-lice station, cawneh--naw, on Bank Street. On Bank Street, seh."
I listened an instant.
"1--5--1," I said, "151; it isn't fifteen."
Another five minutes elapsed, while he searched for "151" I busily writing the while.
"Hit's--w'y, Lawd-a-massy! Mist' Dunkin, hit's fu' de milinte'y."
"Let me see," said I. "Yes, so it is; but they only want them to go to Cumberland. There's a strike there, and the strikers are getting troublesome."
He made no reply, and as the bells ceased ringing soon afterward, I resumed my work, which kept me busy until seven o'clock. I then placed the papers in an envelope, and took up the letters.
"Be sure you see the Vice-President himself, Thomas," I said. "You know him, don't you?"
Receiving no reply, and turning to ascertain the cause of his silence, I saw he was leaning out at the open window, gazing earnestly northward toward Baltimore Street.
"Thomas! Thomas!" I shouted.
He heard me at last, and withdrawing his head, apologized for his inattention.
"I thought--I heehed sup'n nutha like a hollehin' kine of a noise, an'--some guns, aw sup'n, an' I wuz look'n' to see, but thaih don't 'peah to be nuthin' goin' on."
"They're mending the railroad on Baltimore Street," I said. "I suppose that is what you heard." And I gave the papers into his hand repeating my directions: "If the gentleman is not there, don't leave them on any account. I'll wait here until you get back--but go first to the post-office and mail these."
He wrapped the papers carefully in his handkerchief, placed them in his vest-pocket, and started off.
After he left, I leaned my elbow on the dusty window-sill and lounged there awhile, watching him as he trotted busily down the deserted street; then, rousing myself, I stretched my weary limbs and set about arranging my desk, closing the safe, etc. At last everything was put in order, and I seated myself in an arm-chair, rubbing my cramped fingers and wrist, and afterward consulting my watch, more for something to do than to ascertain the time, which the clock on the mantel-piece would have told me.
Only quarter past seven, and he might be detained until, half-past eight. I leaned back and closed my eyes. How still and hot it was! I believe I was the only human being in that whole long block of big buildings on that July evening. Everything was as quiet as the typical country churchyard. I had a lethargic sense now and then of the far-off tinkle of a car-bell. I could catch a distant rumble from a passing vehicle a block or two away. And, yes, I did observe the presence of a dull, continuous drone, which proceeded from the direction of Baltimore Street, but just as I sat up to hearken, some one passing whistled, "Silver Threads among the Gold," the melody tracing itself upon the stillness like phosphoric letters in a dark room. I listened with vivid interest, but the tune presently grew fainter, faded, and was dissolved into the dusk, leaving me lonelier than before, and too sleepy to give my attention to the strange hum, of which I again became dully conscious. It is tiresome work waiting here with nothing to do, was my last drowsy thought, as I folded my arms on the desk, and rested my head upon them, to be aroused by a knocking at my door.
"Come in," I called.
The door creaked on its hinges, and somebody entered. I waited an instant, when an adolescent voice of the colored persuasion asked:
"Do somebody name Mist' Dunkin live here?"
"Yes. I'm here; what do you want?"
"Dey wan's you down-y street."
I stretched myself, reached mechanically for a match, and lighted the gas, which disclosed a small yellow boy, standing in the doorway, some fright and a good deal of excitement in his aspect. I then detected that he had something important to tell, and that his errand was a source of gratification to him.
"Well, what is it?" I asked, after we had stared at one another.
"Ain't yer yeared nuth'n' 'tall?" a shade of contempt in his tone.
"No, what is there to hear?" I asked, rather irascibly.
"Dey's a big fight down-town; de folks dey done tore de Six Reggimen' all ter pieces, an' dey's wuk'n 'long on de Fif now."
I started up, and got on my hat in an instant.
"Dey's et Camd' Street depot, now. Ole colored gentlemun he's been hurtid, an' sent me atter you."
It did not take half a minute to lock the door and we proceeded down-stairs together.
"He's down yere on Eutaw Street," continued my informant. "Dey's fightin' all 'long dere--I come nigh gittin' hit myself--he gimme ten cents to come tell yer--maybe he's done dade now," he added, cheerfully, as we gained the street, and began to walk.
"Dey fet all 'long yere," was his next breathless remark, made some time later. We were now proceeding rapidly up Baltimore Street, as rapidly, at least, as people can who are pushing against a steady stream of agitated humanity. "Dey fawr'd a bullet clean through de Sun-paper room," pursued the boy, "an' dey bust up dem dere winder-glassis--"
Pausing involuntarily to look, I caught stray scraps of additional information.
"Twenty-five people killed."
"As many as that?"
"Oh, yes; fully, I should say. The Sixth fired right into the crowd, all along from Gay to Eutaw Street."
"Well, I hear the Sixth are pretty well cleaned out by this time, so it's tit for tat."
"The Fifth must be there now--"
"The Fifth?--what are they--two hundred men against two thousand?--Lord knows how it will end. I hope this old town won't be burnt, that's all." The boy, listening, turned fearfully around, looking with distended eyes into mine. "Come on," I responded, and we spoke no more until we reached Liberty Street. Then, all at once, above the street noises--the rumbling of fugitive vehicles, the jingle of street-cars, and the hum of excited voices--rose a deep, hollow roar; a horrible sound of human menace in it, which was distinguishable even at that distance. The boy pressed closer, clutching timidly at my hand.
"Is yer--is yer gwine ter keep on?" he faltered.
"De ole gentlemun, he 'lowed puticler you wa'n't to run no resk 'count o' him."
"Where is he?" I asked. "In the thick of it?"
"No, sir; he's lay'n' down in a little alley--clean off d' street."
"Come on, then; you'll have to show me where it is. I won't let you get hurt."
When we first wheeled into South Eutaw Street, I was conscious of an almost painful stillness, more noticeable after the tumult of confused sounds from which we had just emerged. The houses either side were fast closed, doors and windows Some of them were even unlighted, and not vehicle was in sight. The street was partially unpaved, where new gas-pipes had been laid, and piles of paving-stones were heaped on the edge of the sidewalks. The place seemed deserted.
But presently, far down in the immediate vicinity of the depot, I perceived accumulated a dense, dark mass, like a low-hanging cloud, from which a low hoarse murmur seemed to proceed. It swayed slightly from side to side, with the inevitable motion of a large crowd, while at the same time it kept well within certain bounds. We walked quickly along, block after block, without encountering a single soul. I had been so engrossed with the dark, muttering pulsation in front, that I failed to attend to the sounds from behind, until the boy, jerking my hand, bade me listen to the drum. I heard it then plainly, as soon as he spoke, and the approaching tramp of disciplined feet was soon after distinctly audible. I turned and looked. The Fifth Regiment was marching down the middle of North Eutaw Street, having not yet crossed Baltimore Street, the drum corps in front, the colors flying, and crowding the sidewalks on either hand was a motley van and bodyguard, consisting of street loafers and half-grown boys, who had come along to see the "fun," and whose sympathies were plainly with the rioters. The foremost of these soon reached the spot where I stood, and as I drew aside to let them pass, I heard a gamin say to his neighbor:
"I say, Bill, these yere putty little soldier-boys hadn't better make ther las' will an' testyment--ain't it?'"
"I dunno 'bout that," replied the other, a veteran of fourteen, who was chewing tobacco, and whom I recognized as a certain one-eyed newsboy.
"These yere men hez fought in the late war, yer see, plenty of 'um, an' you bet they don't carry no bokays on ther bayonits."
As the column advanced, I glanced anxiously toward the human sea down yonder. At first, no additional movement could be detected, then, as the drums approached nearer, a quick stir, like a sudden gust, struck its troubled waters; the hoarse, horrible cry tore raggedly through the summer air. And then I hastily drew the terrified child with me into the shade of a receding doorway--for the mad flood came raving over its bounds toward us.
The mob was mostly composed of men in their working-clothes, with bare arms and gaunt, haggard faces. There were some women among them--wretched, half-starved creatures--who kept shrieking like furies all the time. As the regiment, still moving resolutely onward, approached within a few yards of them, there fell the first volley of stones, accompanied with hoots and jeers of derision.
"Thuz only two hundred of 'um, boys," shouted a rough voice. "They'll run quick enough if you give it to 'um good," and a second shower of missiles fell into the ranks, the mob arming themselves with the paving-stones at hand.
But the little band of soldiers did not once falter, although here and there in their ranks you could discover a man leaning against a comrade, who gave him support as they moved on together. The crowd seemed a little dashed. The dispersion of the Sixth Regiment had been such a mere bagatelle, and their own number had, since then, been re-enforced by half the professional rowdies in town. They redoubled their cries, which, from jeers, now became shouts of rage and mortification.
"Wot are you 'bout? Give it to 'um good, I tell yer. They daresn't fire," howled the same brawny giant who had spoken before.
As they continued the attack, a pistol-shot could be heard now and then from the crowd. The regiment did not return the fire, but as the mob pressed closer, an order from the front was passed along the line.
The opposing parties were now only a few feet apart, and a rain of stones was falling so thick and fast as to darken the air, when all at once I saw the colonel's sword flash out, the blunt edge striking one of the rioters who was pressing on him.
"Clear the way, there!" he cried.
Then, wheeling and facing his command, his voice rang out, clear as a bugle;
"A--r--m--s, 'port! Double-time, march! Ch--ar--ge, bayonets! Hurrah! Give 'em a yell, boys, and you can do it," added the colonel.
I cannot describe the shout which followed--a clear, ringing, organized whoop; fresh and vibrant; of a perfectly distinct quality from the hoarse, undisciplined howl of the mob--sounding cool and terrible, like the cry of an avenging angel.
The mob turned and fled, appalled, melting away like wax before the blue flame of the glittering bayonets, and the regiment entered the depot.
Then I took time to breathe, and remembered Thomas.
"He ain't fur f'om yere," said the boy. "Right 'roun' d' corner."
And we passed out of the shelter of the doorway to a small, dirty alley, about twenty-five yards distant, where I found the old man resting against a lamp-post, the blood streaming down his face from a ghastly wound in the head, and his eyes closed. I made the boy get some water, and after bathing his face for a few moments, I succeeded in rousing him.
"Is that you, Mist' Dunkin?" he asked, faintly.
"Yes. How do you feel, Thomas?"
"Dey's tuhibul times down-street," he gasped. "I like to got kilt."
"Dey 'lowed dey wanted dem daih papehs--an'--dey didn't git 'um--an'--den--den dey hit me side de hade--with a brickbat--an' I come 'long tell I git yeah--an' den, disha boy he come 'long--"
His voice was very faint and his hands very cold
"Don't talk any more now," I said, chafing them in mine, while I wondered perplexedly how I should get him home. Presently he spoke again:
"But de papehs is all right, seh. I hilt on to 'um, sho'. Dey--dey couldn't git 'um nohow, wid all de smahtniss," he said, with feeble triumph. "Dey's right yeah in my wescut pocket." Then he added, with a sudden change of tone: "But I'd like to go home, Mist' Dunkin; Ailse'll be oneasy 'bout me."
I had to leave him with the boy while I went for a doctor and a vehicle, neither of which was easy to be had, but finally a milk-wagon was pressed into service, and although the mob had gathered together again, and were besieging the depot, yet, after some delay, we succeeded in conveying him to his home. I saw him safe in bed, his hurt dressed; then, after bestowing a reward upon the colored boy, who had rendered me such efficient service, I left him in charge of the doctor and his wife.
The latter was a small, plump yellow woman, with large, gentle black eyes, and the soft voice so often found among Virginia "house" servants. After watching her as she assisted the surgeon to dress the wound, I came to the conclusion all of her talents were by no means "bound up in napkins," and I went home assured my faithful old messenger was left in very capable hands.
Next morning, directly after breakfast, I sallied forth to inquire concerning his condition. After passing along the crowded thoroughfares, where everybody was occupied with the riot, it was a relief to find myself turning into the obscure little street where he lived.
"Here, at least, everything seems peaceful enough," I said, aloud, as I approached the house. I was just in the act of placing my foot on the one door-step, when the door was thrown violently open, and a tall black woman bounced out, colliding with me as she passed, her superior momentum thrusting me backward across the narrow pavement into the street. She was too excited to heed my exclamation of astonishment. I don't think she saw me, even, for she turned immediately and faced some one standing in the doorway, whom I now perceived to be Ailse, looking dreadfully frightened.
"Good-mornin', Mis' Wheatley," said the Amazon, with withering sarcasm; "good-mornin', madam. I think you'll know it the nex' time I darkens your doors, I think you will. Served me right, though, we'en I demeaned myself to come; I might 'a' knowed what treatment I'd 'eceive from you. Ef I hadn't ben boun' by solemn class-rules to pay some 'tention to Brother Wheatley's immortal soul "--these words were uttered at the very top of her voice--"you wouldn't 'a' caught me comin'; but I'll never come ag'in, never; so make yourself easy, Mis' Wheatley."
A shade of relief passed over Ailse's features as this assurance was repeated, and I coming forward at this moment, the representative of the church militant betook herself off, while I entered and spoke to Ailse, who, fairly dazed, sank into a chair, and stared me helplessly in the face. There was a moment's silence, when she suddenly rose and offered me a seat, remarking, as she did so, that "Sisteh Ma'y Ann Jinkins ca'in' on so" made her forget her manners.
"What is the matter?" said I.
"I dunno, seh, 'cep'n' she's mad 'cause docteh won't leave heh stay and talk to Mist' Wheatley; he made heh go, an' I s'pose hit kindeh put heh out."
"What was she doing?"
"Talkin', seh; jiss talkin' and prayin'."
"And exciting the man into a fever," said the doctor, entering at that moment. "I came here half an hour ago," he continued, turning to me, "and found this woman--who really is a good nurse--turned out of her husband's room by that termagant who has just gone, and whom I found in the act of preparing the man for death, she having decided his hours on earth were numbered; in fact, I actually chanced in upon a species of commendatory prayer, which, if continued another half hour--and I have every reason to think it would have been--would almost inevitably have ended the man's life."
"I suppose I had better not see him this morning, then," said I.
"Oh, yes; you can see him; he's doing well now, and if he doesn't talk too much, I think the sight of a cheerful face will do him good," and I left him giving some directions to Ailse, while I proceeded up-stairs to the room where Thomas lay. He was awake, so I walked up to his bedside, and asked him how he felt.
"I'm tollubul, thankee, seh; de medicine makes me kind o' sleepy, that's all."
I seated myself beside him, there was a moment or two of silence, then he asked, fretfully:
"Whai--whaih's Ailse? I like to see the 'oman 'roun'; s'haint got no speshul great gif', but she's kind o' handy wen a body's sick."
"You don't seem to care so much for gifted women in a sick-room, Thomas?" I remarked, somewhat mischievously, after I had summoned his wife from down-stairs.
"Well, naw, seh," a little shamefacedly. "Not so much. You see, seh, dey--dey's mos' too much fu' a body, sich times. Dey will talk, you'se dey will, an' 'livah 'scouhcis, an' a sick man he hain't got de strenth to--to supplicate in kine, an' hit kind o' mawtifies him, seh."
Once more there followed a silence, when I asked:
"Thomas, why didn't you give up those papers to the mob, when they attacked you last night? Your retaining them might have cost you your life. I didn't mean you to endanger your life for them."
He smiled slightly, as his glance met mine.
"I dunno, seh," he replied, with his old reflective air. "You tole me mos' pehticaleh to hole on to 'um, an' 'twouldn't be doin' my duty faithful to let 'um go 's long ez I could hole on to 'um."
"But suppose they had killed you?"
"Well, Mist' Dunkin, ef dey had, I hope I'd been ready to go. I ben tryin' to lead a godly an' Chris'chun life, ez Scripcheh sez, fu' fawty yeahs, now, an' I hope I'd a foun' dyin' grace at de las'. You see, seh, thing hoped me mos' was de thoughts of a tex' Bro' Moss preached on las' Sund'y; 'peached like hit hep' on jinglin' in my hade all time dey was jawin' an' fightin' with me."
"What text was it?" I asked.
But he was almost asleep, and his wife signalled me not to wake him. So I was stealing away toward the door, when he opened his eyes and murmured, drowsily:
"De tex', oh yes, seh. I fo'got--'twas a Scripcheh tex'--'Be thou faithful unto--'"
He then turned over, settling himself comfortably in his pillows, and in a moment dropped asleep.
In due course of time, he made his appearance in the office again, being anxious to "resume his duties," he said. But that blow on the head has proved to be a serious affair, affecting the old man's memory permanently, and giving a violent shock to his system, from which it will never entirely recover. He is no longer the clear-headed messenger he was, when he was wont to assert--no idle boast either--that he could "fetch an' cai' eq'il to any man." Now and then, in these latter days, he confuses things a little, always suffering the keenest mortification when he discovers his mistakes. As I said in the beginning, he is still our office-boy and messenger, although a smart young mulatto is hired to come betimes, make things tidy, and leave before the old man gets down, so his feelings mayn't be hurt. He sometimes remarks on our being the "cleanis' gentlemun in de wueld," but we contrive that no whisper of the real state of the case ever reaches his ear, and he is allowed to sweep and dust a little to satisfy his mind.
[Footnote 1: A virtuous woman.]