Story of a Beast by Henry S. Armstrong
It was a dirty, grasping little office, vile enough to have been built by the Evil One; and the occupant was a dirty, grasping little man, cruel enough to have been made out of its scraps. It was a hard, remorseless little door, that took in a visitor at a gulp and closed after him with a bite. If the luckless caller happened to be a debtor, the fantastic barbarity of his reception was positively infernal. The jerk of grotesque ferocity that greeted him was like the "hoop la!" of a demonized gymnast. The straight-backed chair looked like a part of the stiff, angular man. The yellow-wash on the wall seemed to have caught its reflex from the faded face, and stared grimly at deep lines of avarice ironed into it. Even the mud on the floor, the dust on the table, and the cobwebs on the ceiling maliciously conspired against him, and asserted themselves in every seam of his threadbare clothes. But the face,--stern, stony, relentless, an uncertain compromise between the ghastly severity of a German etching and the constipated austerity of old pictures of the saints,--in that, one fixed idea had blotted out every other vestige of humanity. Each starting vein, bone, and muscle on the hungry visage had "stand and deliver" scarred all over it. The eager metallic glitter of his eyes, the rigid harshness of his mouth, and the nameless craving that seemed to speak from his lean, attenuated cheeks, united to make the name of Hardy Gripstone and Beast synonymous. He looked like a beast, he ate like a beast, he lived like a beast.
Beast started out of every bristle on his unkempt head; it shone in the unhealthy gloss of his battered hat; it wallowed on the stock that clung around his dirty neck; it glistened in the grease on his dingy clothes; it starved on his thin, claw-like hands; it flourished in the grime imbedded under his nails; it creaked in his worn-out, down-trodden shoes. Men, as he shambled by on the streets, unconsciously muttered, "Beast!" women, shrinking from him, whispered, "Beast!" between the heart-throbs the terror of his presence created; children, hushing their cries in silent horror at his grimace, stared "Beast!" out of their wonder-stricken eyes. You might bray him in a mortar and boil the powder in a caldron, yet amid all the envy, hatred, and malice that made up the ingredients, Beast would have triumphantly floated on the top. Beast! Beast! Beast! Beast! The universal verdict clutched him like the shirt of Nessus. He actually grew proud of the title, and received the stigma with a cluck of beastly joy, as though inspired with a certain beastly ambition to deserve it. The laugh with which he hailed any appeal to his charity was monstrous. It commenced with a leathery wheeze like the puff of asthmatic bellows; it croaked with a grating chuckle, as if his throat opened on rusty hinges; and then it broke out in a shrill vocal shudder, that sounded like the shriek of a hyena.
It is an idiosyncrasy of mine to foster just such pet abominations; and I cultivated Hardy Gripstone. My advances were not encouraged by that overweening tenderness that indicates the possible victim of misplaced confidence. Far from "wearing his heart upon his sleeve for daws to peck at," it seemed to have been weaned years agone, and my milk of human kindness fell flat as any whipped syllabub.
Felicitous as were the suggestions of his suspicious brain, it took me fully three months to descend in his bearish estimation from a highwayman to a ninny. There was an incredibility in my apparent lack of motive that puzzled him. His dubious cordiality was doled out under protest. As an exhibitor would clutch a vicious ape, he grabbed at every show of feeling, and almost throttled the most pitiful courtesy, in his nervous dread of its doing him some bodily harm. There was a low cunning in his very acceptance of any little kindness. The sly way in which he insinuated his withered face into my morning papers, and the smirk of satisfaction with which he gloated on the triumph of having gratuitously gleaned their entire contents, was in keeping with every other ludicrous phase of his distorted nature. He looked upon me as a paragon of stupidity; and I fear I considered him a piece of personal property, and felt as much pride in the possession as did Barnum in his Aztec children.
I do not think the acquaintance tended in any way to exaggerate my ideas of human purity. Though it extended through several years, no guilty act I ever heard of detracted from his deserved reputation for beastliness. My surmises never ventured to the hazardous period of infancy, or risked the doubtful thought that kith or kin could have loved him; but I have often wondered if there ever was a time when his rapacity found employment in the robbing of a hen's nest, or his grasping ambition culminated in the swop of a jack-knife. I wondered if in all the grotesque concomitants that congregated to make up the hideous whole, there existed a redeeming trait. Yes, there was one,--one I discovered in the tears that sprung from his unrelenting eyes and rained on his cadaverous cheeks. What was the anguish that shook his beastly frame? what the agony that tore his grasping nature? who was the Moses that smote water from this rock?
Dear hearers, it is here we find the text of the sermon, and here commenceth the preaching.
* * * * *
Early one summer, the grasping little door bit to for good, and I missed its mangy proprietor for probably four months. Had he planted himself in the earth and regerminated, he could not have been more freshened. His emaciated carcass fairly blossomed with magnificence; and gaudy ornament sprouted all over him. It peeped through his shirt-front in flashy studs, it twined on his fingers in glittering rings, it trailed around his waist in glowing velvet, and expanded over his thin legs and arms in a forest of broadcloth. 'Tis true, the shiny collar would get over his ears, the coat-sleeves darkened every sparkle on his hands, and the hems of his trowsers persisted in being trodden under heel; but what were petty annoyances like these, in a renovation so complete? His face had been shaved and polished until it approached in glistening amiability the ivory head on a walking-stick; but there was an uncertainty in its ripples of merriment impressive of the belief that if once a genuine ha! ha! was ventured, the galvanized look of joy would instantly vanish. It was at a very uncertain gait he sidled into my office. He did not seem at all sure I would know him, or, in fact, very intimately acquainted with himself. The mingled gruffness and cordiality of his greeting suggested a dancing-master suffering with corns. It was a minute or two before his wonted calmness returned; but finally, with a piteous look of blended tenderness and brutal exultation, he handed me a card. It contained the handsomely engraved compliments of Miss Florence Gripstone, and a hope for the pleasure of my company at a soirée. This was the magic wand that turned penury to wealth and made the sterile rock blossom with gorgeous flowers. The beast had a daughter, and with all the ardor of a distorted nature he loved her.
If, a week before, Gripstone's soirée had been hinted, I think I would have laughed; but if the assertion had been ventured that it would be given in a stately house, with spacious grounds, on a fashionable street, and with "Gripstone" on the door-plate, I know I would have shouted outright. Yet the house was stately, and the entertainment superb. Carpets glowing with the gorgeous coloring of the Orient, pictures that had caught their delicate tinge in sacred Rome, furniture carved from the solid heart of rose-wood, plate vying in richness with the state service of a scion of nobility, abounded. Fluttering in the light of many tinted lamps, rare flowers breathed daintiest odors; and floating through the high arches, soft music whispered plaintive ecstasy. In the center of a throng of recently arrived guests, and positively cropping with broadcloth and Marseilles, beamed the host. Close at his side, radiant in her beauty, faultless in its adornment, stood the daughter. In one, a magnificent swallow-tail, fleecy shirt-frill, and snowy gloves had stamped their wearer with a look of hopeless absurdity; in the other, exquisite taste, gentle dignity, and true courtesy bore the impress of glorious womanhood. I was positively bewildered. Could the father of that lovely girl be the wretch the world hooted at? Could the owner of all this grandeur be the Beast I fancied my private property?
Carriage-loads of elegantly attired women crowded each other in the vestibule; dancing beaux congregated in the smoking-room; eminent merchants, with their wives and daughters, wits of both sexes, women of the most exclusive ton, thronged the spacious salons. Each in their turn was greeted with a smirk of ecstatic glee. To Gripstone the courtesy seemed invested with a proprietary interest. A nod was receipted with a simper, a grasp of the hand with a scrape, the most distant recognition by the most obsequious acknowledgment. There appeared to be no doubt in his mind it was all bought and paid for, but it did no harm to be polite for once; and comically polite he was.
I will not say he did not gradually begin to wear the look of a man who had purchased an elephant; for he did. I found him late in the evening posted behind a column and peering through the window at the assembled merry-makers. It was evident he owned the whole party, and that every ringing laugh went with the property; but to him it was a novel investment, and perhaps more difficult to manage than any other article he possessed. Partly from a dim consciousness that he had wandered beyond his depth, and probably from the loneliness consequent to so uncongenial a spectacle, a companion had become necessary; and, when I approached, his jump of cordiality was as uncouth as it was unexpected. So stunned were my senses by the extraordinary events, that, had he cried out, "Come to my arms, my long-lost brother!" or were a strawberry-mark actually found, I could not have been surprised. As it was, his frenzied tugs at the lapel of my coat threatened its immediate destruction, and my spinal column ached under his demoniac slaps on the back, before I gasped out my congratulations.
Wine, excitement, or the society of one who at least had treated him with common decency, warmed the little geniality that remained in him.
With a jerk he thrust me into his study, and, while thrilling music swept through the echoing halls, and the solid flooring swayed under the feet of the dancers, the Beast opened his heart. Shrinking, as though 'twere felony, from the penury of early life, flying from a brief hour of married happiness, in wild triumph he plunged into the dreariness of the upward struggle. Maddened with success, spurning all thought of concealment, with shocking exactness he entered into every detail of the contest, every incident in the appalling history. The low cunning and miserable privation that accumulated the first paltry hundreds, the trickery that made them thousands, the heartless sacrifice of self-respect that doubled and trebled the swelling store, were gloated over with a grin of delight. Transactions imbued with a depravity that made me shudder, were narrated with a chuckle; chicaneries of a depth and maliciousness positively devilish, were touched with a smirk. For this he had lied and cheated; for this his wretched body grew lean for want of food; for this all the world loathed him. In his youth poverty crushed him; but his little girl, away at school, never knew the meaning of the word. Widows went portionless, but she did not want; orphans starved, her platter was always full. He had been spattered by the coaches of the rich; but now his chariot, and her chariot, would take a drive. They had called him Beast; but now they called him gentleman.
The hundreds who drank his wine and trifled with his sweets called him gentleman, and hundreds more were ready to go down on their knees to his own flesh and blood. Now was the time to enjoy, now the day of happiness. Money was a drug; in his abundance, he could never want. He had love, grandeur, troops of friends; now he would live a monarch. Flushed with victory, his eyes blazed, his voice rang clear and loud in its exultation, and his lank form swelled with defiance. Springing to his feet, and clutching up a decanter, he waved it wildly around his head, and, challenging God or man to mar such peace, shivered it on the floor.
Wonder-stricken at the intensity of his vulgarity, and shocked at the sacrilege, I left; and from that moment Hardy Gripstone became a study. Every step in his tortuous course, every phase of his ostentation, every enormity on good taste, was followed with ceaseless vigilance. Excesses that would have startled the most thoughtless were pursued with restless activity; absurdities that drew forth a shout of ridicule were committed with provoking good humor. No freak seemed exuberant, no folly preposterous, no extremity extravagance. The joy of paternity, sinking deep into his nature, made every peculiarity more glaringly apparent. Money had been his idol, its accumulation the summit of his ambition; its reckless sacrifice in his daughter's honor appeared the only adequate expression of his love. The intervals of his devotion were passed in idle boasting, and to me he detailed every incident. There was something really touching in the abject way in which he mentioned each trifle concerning her. Little circumstances connected with her daily life were described as one would describe the traits of some rare animal. His career of degradation seemed to have blunted every idea of responsibility. He looked upon her as a superior being, and her adornment as a sacred duty. The richness of her toilet, the magnificence of her equipage, the glory of her beauty, became an inexhaustible surprise and delight. The utter lack of congeniality, the barrier of caste that divided them, was indescribably sad. Rapturous admiration, gentle amazement, blind idolatry, meek bewilderment, the one twisted by brutality to a living distortion, the other lifted by refinement to the embodiment of womanly grace; and yet they were father and daughter. To do her justice, she strove in every way to testify her love and gratitude for her strange parent; the ties of blood asserted themselves in her words and caresses, but they looked doubtfully out of her eyes. Educated far away from him, and amid other associations, she could not be blind to his faults and shortcomings. The social gulf that divided them, though bridged by her sense of duty, was ever present in her thoughts. I mourned over the remorseless avarice that made him what he was; I almost regretted the culture that placed her so far above him; but, knowing the rude shocks to her sensitive nature, the ruthless trampling on every womanly instinct, I mourned for her the most.
Alas for the schemes of prosy men and women! when tender Loveliness goes airing herself through shady lanes, frank young Valor is seldom far off. The Eurydice may be only a school-girl, and Orpheus a brave, manly boy in a blue coat; but there is a world of heart-fluttering, for all that. The flush of conscious beauty blooming on the cheek of one, is generally a shadow of the warm red that mantles the face of the other. While Eurydice Gripstone mused in quiet nooks, it was no fabled youth of magic lyre who sent the rhetoric and botany waltzing through her brain; and when the fierce cry of "Lights out!" hurried Jane Eyre under the pillow, it was no dream of impossible mustaches that made her hear the clocks chime dismally and the cocks crow for midnight.
When the long-looked-forward-to Commencement-day was at length looked on, and our heroine tripped up to the platform to read her Essay on Filial Affection, alas for its consistency! it was not the grin of Pluto Gripstone staring stupidly at the show, but the smile of Orpheus, now blessed with a strong beard, that set the recipient of undying fame a trembling. And now, when the farewell had been said, and Orpheus left to break his lyre and mourn,--when Pluto had carried home his prize and the dreary occupation of being as extravagant as possible had commenced,--they were no notes of weird pathos, but billets containing many brave promises, that made strong coffee the most delectable of drinks. Of course all these changes from dreamy reverie to tremulous joy could not escape the searching eye of Pluto; and of course, when questioned, no Eurydice of spirit would think of denying the mate for whom she pined.
Oh, the consternation of the discovery! Oh, the thunders of remonstrance with which Hades resounded! The wheel of Ixion might whirl, and the pitchy depths blaze with the fires of indignation, but all this did not dry the tears of the nymph, nor soothe her bitterness of woe. Every tenderness that could reconcile, every enjoyment that could wean, was vainly essayed; mourning for her Orpheus, she would not be comforted.
At last the Plutonian shadows opened to receive the matchless man. It was with no impossible burst of harmony he charmed away the terrors of this prison-house of injured innocence. Whatever might have been the Orpheus of the fabled "long ago," our modern hero was a plain, business-like man. He thought a great deal of the daughter, but for her worn-out old hulk of a father he didn't care a button. Married he was determined to be, nolens volens; and that was the long and the short of it. To a piteous plea to remain and enjoy the old man's wealth, he turned the deafest of ears. Business required his presence at home; where business commanded, he obeyed; and that was the long and the short of that. He didn't propose to set up a museum of deformities, if the daughter did; or stay to witness a burlesque on the society he was brought up in, were she never so dutiful.
Oh, the misery of this reality! When shall I forget the anguish on that cadaverous face, when the terror of the narration? For nineteen years he had patiently plodded on, despised by the rich, hated by the poor, spurned by both. He had driven hard bargains that she might drive her carriage; he had turned his wretched debtors houseless into the streets that she might be covered. With every spark of love in his heart, with every instinct of tenderness in his soul, he had bowed down and worshiped her. She had him all: he would set to work anew, were it needful, for her sake; he would go in rags for her; he would starve for her; and this was his reward!--his happiness filched from him by a whipster of a day's acquaintance!
When two people, like the frogs of Æsop, conclude to plunge down a well for the waters of happiness, it is generally the "weaker vessel" who dallies. Let no one suppose our Eurydice quitted the blissful innocence of nymphhood without a struggle, or coolly deserted her battered old father without a regret.
With all the golden halo that hung about the future, there were walks taken in those gardens in which the claw-like hands and tapering fingers clutched each other very tightly, and there were sudden bursts of emotion when the cadaverous cheeks were well-nigh smothered with kisses. If you or I had had an interview with the pillow that adorned her chamber, it would have told us of many a scalding tear that damped its purity and many a smothered sob that fell on its feathery ears. If there were red eyes and pallid cheeks at the breakfast-table on one side, there was a very dismal face on the other. Step by step the hard fact sunk into it, and furrow after furrow marked the progress. It was very glorious for Orpheus; but it was very gloomy for the Beast, and he knew it. Bravely did the old man hold out, and grim and silent was the surrender. Perhaps a dawning light of their ill-assorted association, and a fear for its influence on her happiness, might have opened the sally-port to the conqueror; but he never admitted it. He laid down his arms as coldly and quietly as ever any old Spanish knight gave up his citadel.
Once more the stately house opened wide its doors to a stately gathering, and again there was music and dancing and feasting. There were scores of richly-dressed women to kiss the bride, and there were scores of brave men to congratulate the groom; but there was not one in all that fair company had a kindly word for Hardy Gripstone, and of all the throng who feasted that night there was not one saw his broken heart.
From the hour the creaking steamer bore the happy pair to their Northern home, he slunk out of society. The great house was closed, and the little office, dirtier and more grasping than ever, opened. Every witness to his outburst, myself included, was studiously avoided. I met him often; but no sign of recognition escaped him.
Some months afterward, in passing his filthy little street, I found the remorseless little door had gulped a policeman. Pulling apart its ferocious jaws, and peering in, I saw the straight-backed chair; but the body which seemed a part of it was much stiffer and more angular. The yellow-wash on the wall was a paltry reflex of the ghastly yellow of his faded visage; for the iron face was the face of a corpse.
Men who stood vacantly staring in muttered, "Beast!" women, shrinking from the unsightly spectacle, whispered, "Beast!" and children, gazing in silent horror with the rest, stared "Beast!" out of their wonder-stricken eyes. So hard did they stare, so loud did they mutter, and so many instances did they rehearse of the foul wrongs he had committed, that I am doubtful about the matter myself, and ask you, reader, Was he a Beast?