by Charles Reade and Jay Lewis.
I AM a bit of a character--a geographical Paul Pry. I pry, not into the affairs of my neighbors, but into nooks and corners. I grope New York City and suburbs, and make little sketches of things, places, and figures for my little museum.
One pleasant afternoon I walked down Broadway, and then made for an unexplored suburb. The hum of fashion died in my ear, and I passed through quieter streets, and next by straggling houses, and at last I emerged on a spot that few would expect to find so near the great city. It was an Irish colony. Hovels, at the doors of which old women, with flaunting caps squatted and smoked; half-naked children started out from dunghills, wheelbarrows, hen-coops, and the dust of the road, where they had lain hid, being of the same color, to stare at the stranger; and Celtic goats discerned a Sassenach, and marched gravely at me with crested neck and pointed horns, in spite of objurgations from the old women, who knew by experience what these hospitable creatures would be at. I took out my paper to sketch; but, goats increasing, had to walk faster and faster, scratching down my outlines as I receded, till my walk became nearly a run, and my lines exceeding wavy; and the wild beasts, accumulating, drove me out entirely, amid the whoops of the infants, and I mounted a rising ground, and there burst upon my sight--a paradise. A valley of the freshest green sloped gently toward the Hudson; the river shone like molten silver in the afternoon sun: it was alive with puffing steamers and white sail craft. A band of music, accompanying a picnic party, filled the air with melody.
I stood enraptured, and being now safe from horns and Celtic infants, made my little sketch--and then felt hungry.
In looking round for some place to lunch, I espied a mongrel house, halfway between a log cabin and a comfortable cottage, with a broad, good-natured female face framed in the low door-way. There was a speculative look in her shrewd gray eye. For why? She kept a primitive beer-garden; it was a very humble affair, little more than a huckster's stand. My eye fixed on a basket of rosy, well-polished apples; I bought a dozen, and some biscuits, and seated myself near a small table under the shadow of a tall rock, to munch them. When I had munched my fill, I took out my paper to sketch the place and Mrs. Murphy, who still filled the door-way, and looked good-humor in person. But I had not made a dozen strokes when I was interrupted by something rough rubbing against my leg. It was a pig. Up went my legs on the table, and no doubt my face betrayed affliction; for Mrs. Murphy snatched up a besom, and strode forth with a "Bad luck to ye, Barney." The pig awaited not her coming, but turned off with a grunt and a leer of his little eyes, and trotted down the hill.
Mrs. Murphy retired to her sentry-box, "I to my diary," as Mr. Pepys hath it, and had made as many as five strokes more when--"Cock-a-doodle-doo"--I became aware of an incensed rooster, stationed at my very feet, with a string of lovers at his tail. He defied the Sassenach with shrillest clarion.
Then I sat cross-legged on my chair, and revenged myself for his pibroch by including him in my sketch. My chair became the center of a dozen hens, all picking up the crumbs I had dropped. The eagle-eyed Sultan had seen me dropping crumbs, and had convened his harem to profit by Sassenach prodigality. He now stood aloof while the hens fed, and I admired him, and sketched him, and contrasted him with your modern lord of creation. How often we find the latter gorging himself at his club, while his better half is left at home to dine on slops.
The hens soon picked up all my crumbs and sought fresh pastures; and I took down my legs and sketched away, in which occupation I was visited by a she goat, who marched up and gazed benignly, but uttered a querulous sound.
"What is the matter with you?" said I.
Mrs. Murphy was amused. "Shure it's a cracker the crachure is after," said she.
Thereupon I gave "the crachure" one. She ate it with perfect solemnity; but the next moment stood up on her hind-legs, and beat the air with her fore-feet.
"That is for another, I suppose," said I.
"Ye may take your oath o' that same, sor," said Mrs. Murphy, and had to hold on by the door-posts to laugh.
So I went on feeding Nanny, and for every cracker she supplied a fresh antic. How she came to be wasted on that desert, and not paraded in some world-renowned circus, is wonderful. First she stood on three legs, then on two, then on one, and when there were no more crackers, and I told her so, she attempted a somersault, and failed ridiculously. Perhaps that mortified her. At all events, the moment she could pull herself together after it, she made a hearty lunge at my leg, and her sharp horn only missed it by half an inch, owing to my curling up again in time. My lady then stalked down the hill after the pig, and cackle--cackle--cackle burst out a hideous concatenation of laughs in the air right over my head.
I rose to go. Now I caved. I had borne much from the animal world that day, including the Celtic infants; but there is a species I abominate -- apes, ourang-outangs, devils of the wood, and gorillas. I detest them all. A scientific friend tells me that they are only deteriorated negroes. I can't help that; I don't like 'em; and so I rose hastily, resolved to seek repose and quiet where alone they were to be found--in Broadway. Mrs. Murphy saw disgust and other passions painted in my face; for she interposed hastily, and assured me it was only her "ould man."
I looked up, and sure enough it was not an ourang-outang, but a ragged Irishman, with a chip-hat, perched like a crow at the top of the rock. Mrs. Murphy told me it was he who had taught the "baste" her tricks--he had nothing better to do, his legs being crippled with rheumatism. It seems this crippling of legs makes an Irishman strong in the arms; for, during this explanation, Mr. Murphy descended the perpendicular rock hand over hand, clutching successive tufts of vegetation, which all-foreseeing Nature had disposed at intervals for that purpose, and, alighting at my feet, removed his chip-hat and made me an obeisance down to the ground that would have graced the Court of Louis le Grand, while his rags fluttered in the air. At that very moment an accordion, touched by a master-hand, poured forth a beautiful melody.
Surprise struck me dumb.
"It's me darlint," cried Mrs. Murphy. "There she is now coming up the hill ayont."
As she spoke Mrs. Murphy pointed, and from among the somber rocks there emerged the form of a young girl. She came gayly toward us, a gypsy hat on her head, and laden with all manner of packages--a girl with reddish-brown luxuriant hair, and violet eyes so large and serene that took the heart by storm. Her face, tinted a delicate rose-color, beamed with animation. The old people brightened at sight of her, and Mrs. Murphy whispered me, with superfluous mystery, that she went into the city twice a week, and always played herself home, though there was no need of that, for shure wasn't she the light of the house and the pulse of their hearts; and didn't she keep them all going with the work of her dainty fingers?
The girl arrived in the middle of this eulogy, and heard it. "Stop that, now," said she; "stop it intirely;" and flung both arms round her mother's neck, accordion and all; and there they were locked in a loving embrace, as if they had been parted a year. But the very next moment the laughter-loving girl looked round at the old man and me, and played "Garry Owen" behind her mother's head, without unclasping her arms, but with a sidelong glance at us that did my business on the spot. Oh, for a painter's brush to convey the grace, the tenderness, the sly, pretty fun of this most original and Irish proceeding! Then a sudden thought struck me: this must be a sweet place to drink tea in. I said as much; and in a very few minutes a table was brought out, some eggs boiled, and the old man, and the beauty, and I sat down. Mrs. Murphy cooked for us. The beauty, whose name was "Airy"--though I am not sure that I spell it rightly--took a seat by me and modestly but frankly entered into conversation with me. I learned from her that she had been educated by nuns, and was a skillful work-woman--could embroider, and was constantly employed in repairing lace; this work was well paid, and enabled her to keep the whole family, in spite of her father's misfortune in being crippled with rheumatism. Mr. Murphy struck in here, and announced that it was not his intention to be always a cripple. He was on the mend; and the only thing that troubled him was that he could be turned out any minute, not having a lease of the "primisses."
"Who is your landlord?" said I.
"Shure it's Mister Kirby himself," said he, with a stare at my ignorance.
"Kirby?" inquired I. "What's his Christian name?"
That was a puzzler. However, among them they contrived to make out that it was Nathan, and that he lived in Brooklyn.
Now it happened, strangely enough, that Mr. Nathan Kirby was a friend of mine; and I had once laid him under a little obligation. So I told Murphy I thought I might perhaps be able to get him a lease, and I certainly would if I could. This I said with a glance at Airy, which she repaid with a flash of gratitude that thrilled through me.
After tea I asked her to play to us again. She smiled, and complied at once, and played most ravishingly. I am a musician myself, and play the accordion. I dare say I could execute more downright difficulties on it than Airy. But she had a way of transfusing her sex into it that is indescribable. The soul, the delicacy of touch, the sweetness were admirable. She sang to it, too, in a full, rich voice that made the rocks echo and two sparrows chirp responsive.
The sun set, and I must away. To my surprise Airy offered, of her own accord, to show me a short way to the boulevard, where I could take the stage handy. The situation was becoming quite romantic. I am an old bachelor; and was it so very strange that something insidious crept into my veins when Airy fixed her large magnetic eyes full on my face? What brightness this charming child of nature would instil into my luxurious home! Was it mean and selfish to allow such thoughts to enter my mind? I think my excuse then was to rescue her from a life of toil.
A short cut brought us to the main road. Before we parted she gave me her hand-- not the hand of rude toil, but one a duchess might have envied.
All the way home that soft touch kept me company, and an unwonted warmth gathered round my heart.
Within three days I made it my business to call on the Murphys again. I found Airy at home. She was seated by the door, and her face beamed with delight the moment she saw me coming. All around her was a cloud of the most delicate lacework, to which she pointed with honest pride. "It is real lace," she said-- "I hardly ever work on any of the common kind. Sometimes I have quite a fortune--that is, it would be to us poor folk--to make up here at home. Many and many a time I labor half the night to get the work done. The reason I am home so early to-day is because they have a special order in, and some of the medallions were here."
"Airy," said I, "I have got something in my pocket that I hope will give you pleasure"; and I produced a writing.
"What is it, sir?" said she, coloring.
"Read it yourself," said I.
While she was trying to read it the old man came hobbling up.
"Oh, father!" said Airy, trembling, "I don't know, but I think it is--is it, sir?"
"Yes," said I; "it is a lease of the place for seven years, at one dollar the year."
"Oh!" cried Airy, and in one moment she seized my hand and pressed two warm, velvet lips on it. I felt them there ever so long afterward.
The old man blessed me as only the Irish can. Then came Mrs. Murphy, thanking me with true eloquence. She prepared a sumptuous supper; and I sat there like a king, and listened to Airy's music and songs.
Is it to be wondered at if, after this, I fairly haunted this humble abode? It is true I tapped at the rocks with my hammer, and even put specimens into my bag, and made believe to the Murphys that they were worth their weight in gold.
What a bundle of deceit I was!
One afternoon, as usual, I took my seat by the cottage. Airy was away but very soon she came bounding up the hill, her face flushed and her eyes flashing with excitement. She hardly noticed me as she passed into the house. Then there was a whispered conversation carried on within for a few minutes.
"She has got a letter," said the old man to me, in the low, mysterious voice an Irishman puts on sometimes; he added, with a wink, "from Barney, ye know."
This fell on me like a shower-bath. Who--what--was Barney? "What, has she got a brother?" stammered I.
"Divil a one of her!"
Before I could question him further Airy came out and sat down in her accustomed seat near me. She was not so lively as usual, nor so free. I had just time to ask her if she was feeling well, when Murphy called out, "Airy!" from his perch overhead. "Sure," he said, "and isn't the boy himself coming up the hill ayont?" The blood came in a crimson flood to Airy's face and neck. She gave but one glance, that was enough, uttered a little scream of joy, and bounded off down the narrow path.
The only person in sight was a rather coarse-looking young fellow, in the dress of a mechanic. There was a glad smile on his broad, honest face as Airy rushed into his arms. She rested her head on his ample chest with the utmost confidence, as if it was nothing new for her to do.
I turned on my heel and went into the house, not to see the love-making. I felt a wish to melt out of creation.
I wanted to be quiet, and make a little arithmetical calculation of how great a fool I had been; but the old woman, with her sex's delight at the view of a courtship, began to expatiate, and told me, too late, all about Barney and Airy, and how he had left her for a year to make money; and, by his coming back, I might be sure he had succeeded, and there would be a wedding in these parts; and although, perhaps, Airy might have looked higher, yet he was an honest boy, and a sober, and a hard-working--Buzz! buzz! buzz!--and was, indeed, a blood-relation, though somewhat distant: his great aunt, Kate Slogan, had married Patrick O'Doolan; and wasn't Pat O'Doolan the son of her man's great-grandfather by his first wife Norah? which Norah was an O'Shaughnessy, like herself --Buzz! buzz! buzz!--I wished her at old Nick.
But keener torments were in store. In came Barney, and Airy hanging on him with a grace and an abandon I should have liked to sketch if it had been any other girl than this one. And this brute, Barney, had come home with money, and proceeded to regale us all with whisky purchased from the neighboring store, and under its influence they all thawed but I; and nobody made any secret of the approaching marriage; and Barney, being informed of my goodness in procuring the lease, thanked me heartily, and rewarded me by saying that in that case he would build his cabin on the land; he would not take Airy too far from her folk. This he confided to me in a half-whisper--to me. But quick ears heard, and he was repaid by a glance of infinite tenderness from Airy, and by the old man toasting him and his bride. Mrs. Murphy filled my glass to the brim, and I had to drink suburban whisky to that toast, so that I may say I have drunk poison to poison. The taste of that vile compound was on my tongue for days.
However, all the rest enjoyed themselves. The accordion was demanded. Airy sang and played, and after every song the old woman and Barney jumped up and danced with each other so grotesquely, yet merrily and nimbly, that I suppose I was the only man in creation who would not have been excessively amused.
I got up to go away; but Airy and Barney would insist upon convoying me to the road. Then they turned back together, happy as princes, and poor, solitary I went home, feeling chilly and hollow.
Next day I took a long walk in a direction as opposite as possible to those fatal rocks, where I had enjoyed myself in a day-dream, and was now awakened rudely. I walked, and walked, and got into the country, and mounted a hill, and surveyed the beauties of nature with perfect dissatisfaction, inasmuch as the sea seemed to me a glaring looking-glass, the blue sky a vaulted monotony, and all the minor beauties cut out of stone. I walked home again, inexpressibly dull and dreary.
This was my life for some time; and then I got so mortified at my own folly that rage roused me. Weakness said, "Go and take a look at her, at all events." Self-deception said, "Contemplate her with the eyes of art alone; don't rob yourself of such a beautiful vision." But mortified pride, and a grain of good sense, said, "No; the deeper you go, the worse for you. Out with the racking tooth, and end the pain."
I listened to the wiser monitor. A month went by; two months; and I never went near the Murphys. Observing this, the devil turned postman and brought me a letter from Airy; a sweet letter, in which she said that, my visits having ceased so suddenly, she feared I was offended, or perhaps I might be unwell. So she had been to her landlord, and learned my full name and address, and "this came hoping" they had not done anything to offend me with their vulgar ways. Then she went on artlessly to say that Barney had been sent for to inherit some land and money in Ireland, and they looked to be rich; but meanwhile she felt lonely. In short, it was a modest invitation to console her during Barney's absence. My pulses beat. It was a great temptation. I took my hat, and started for the fatal suburb.
But when I had got a little way, I lighted a cigar and thought it over. What was I going to do? Cut Barney out, or suffer ten times more, on his return, than I had done.
I saw the trap. I turned into my club and wrote a letter instead. I imitated the girl's frankness. I told her that she was so charming I was afraid to visit her any more, for fear I should be more in love with her than I ought; that I had a sincere affection and esteem for her, and she must not think me less her friend that I did not visit her. I hoped she would never be in trouble; but, if she was, then I would come to her.
My virtue did not go to the length of not hoping for a reply to this.
But hers went the length of not sending one.
I had the sense to adhere to my resolution. I never wrote again to Airy. I never went near her.
But we were not to part on these terms. She crossed my path again when least I expected it.
It was, I think, about five weeks after my letter, that I stole out one day, feeling duller than usual, and, indeed, quite depressed. For one thing, the air was damp and chilly, and there was no sun. I lacked the vigor of mind to start on one of my excursions, and so wandered vaguely about. In such a frame of mind one ends by being drawn into the vortex, and by-and-by I found myself in the busiest part of Broadway. I mingled with the pedestrians on the sidewalk, but all at once my progress was obstructed. The dense mass of humanity had been stopped.
I peered over the nearest shoulders, but saw nothing. I asked what was the matter.
"Oh, not much. Only a shop-girl in charge of a policeman."
The policeman had signaled for a carriage.
It drew up, and he and his mate proceeded to lift the girl into it. Her limbs had failed her in the street.
They lifted her above the crowd, and in so doing they turned full upon me the face of Airy, beautiful as ever, but pale as death, and so rigid in its despair that it seemed cut out of marble.
Unable to get near her for the crowd, I could do nothing but make inquiries. But the people knew nothing. Thereupon I fell to guessing, and, as usual, my guesses were colored by egotism. Something had happened to Barney McCabe, and Airy was wanted as a witness. Yes, he had been murdered in some bar-room riot. Poor fellow! What a pity! Airy was free.
I ordered my man to bring the morning papers up to my bedroom as soon as they could be got; and I searched them for news of the murder of the hapless McCabe, whom I had envied, and could now afford to pity. I did not find it--not for want of murders, for they were greatly in vogue that week; but there was no McCabe concerned in them, either actively or passively. In short, I could find no trace of the crime I was looking for.
At last, in a corner of the police intelligence, I lighted on these words:
"Yesterday a shop-girl in the employ of Small Brothers & Co. was arrested on a charge of stealing a large quantity of valuable lace."
These words struck me first feebly, then smartly, then violently. There was no name; but the coincidences were so many and so strong. Airy was employed by that very house, was trusted with lace, and was arrested. Her face of terror rose again before me, and I sprang out of bed with a cry of dismay.
In a very short time I was being driven downtown as fast as two blood horses could take me. I soon reached the prison where Airy was incarcerated. In spite of my appearance and respectability I soon found out that, not being a politician, I could do nothing with the pompous officials. I wanted to see Airy, and hear her version of the story before the Court opened. However, this was not allowed. The officers in charge of the prison seemed to be of the opinion that my only object was to effect a rescue of some of their prisoners. A word, however, dropped from one of them gave me a hint. "Ef ye wur the prisoner's lawyer, or in company with him, then ye could be afther seeing her." I saw the drift; for while the officer was speaking a seedy-looking individual approached us. The latter stated to me in a whisper that he was a lawyer, and allowed to plead in court. He volunteered his services; but I turned away from his red nose and whisky-perfumed breath in disgust.
The thing to be done was to find an honest lawyer. There was my nephew, George Barlow; he, it is true, lacked experience, but I knew I could depend on his integrity.
In less than half an hour I was again at the prison, in company with George. There was no trouble now in gaining admittance to the cells. There a sight burst on my vision that I pray Heaven I may never witness again. Huddled together in every conceivable position along the corridors, waiting for their doom, was a promiscuous throng of the lowest dregs of humanity. There was a plentiful sprinkling of vile, pimple-faced wretches in the garb of womanhood, uttering such horrid blasphemies that my very blood ran cold. The bare memory of that sight makes my heart faint.
It was certainly a relief, after scrutinizing the faces of the throng, to find Airy's was not among them.
But there was a female figure crouching apart from those hardened sinners, and hiding her face entirely in her shawl.
Her shrinking from the others attracted my attention, and then I knew her at a glance, though I could not see her face.
I went up to her, and laid my hand gently on her shoulder and spoke tenderly to her. She trembled all over directly and looked up at me with a face so changed and colorless that I was scared almost out of my life. She seemed stunned, as if from a blow, and hardly to know me. When she at length roused herself she staggered to her feet, extending her hands toward me beseechingly.
Her first words were, "Oh, Mr. Barlow, do they know? Please do not tell them that I am here! I would rather they thought me dead than have them to know I am in this horrid place!" Then she began to wring her hands and sob. "I shall never, never be able to look in their honest old faces again! My heart is broken--I wish I could die! Oh, it was so cruel of them to put me here when I did not steal the lace! Indeed, sir, I tell the truth! Oh, sir, you believe me! I am so glad! so glad!"
Having relieved her mind, and knowing that she had a true friend in me, she began to cry and quiver all over. I put my arm around her, for she seemed scarcely able to stand.
Her condition was now observed by some of her fellow-prisoners.
One horrid, blear-eyed woman brought her a cup of water and uttered a few words of rough consolation.
"Sure, the creature is not used to the loikes. They have taken the wrong bird. This one niver did a wrong thing in her life."
Then up tripped a girl, all draggled finery. "Never fear, she will soon get used to it. I was just as lamblike as she is the first time I was sent up. Now I don't care. It's fun to get in here once in a while." She offered Airy her salts; but I shuddered when this woman's bejeweled hand came near that modest face. She was far more to be feared in her tawdry finery than those of a lower order.
"Airy," I said, as soon as she was calm, "you must tell my nephew here all about your case. He is a lawyer, and will be able to help you establish your innocence."
Airy's story was quite simple, and, told in her straightforward way, easy enough to understand.
It seems that the firm of Small Brothers & Co. had from time to time missed valuable lace. Airy had been in the habit of taking the same kind of goods home to work. In this way the lace missed had been traced to her, and enough had been lost to make it a case of grand larceny.
My nephew listened attentively to Airy's story, carefully making notes of all she said.
Airy looked her thanks. Her heart seemed too full for words. It pained me more than I can tell to leave her.
Three o'clock was the hour appointed to hear the case. We were at the Courthouse exactly to the minute. I was quietly following my nephew inside the railing when a pompous official pushed me roughly back. In spite of George's remonstrance I was forced to take a seat outside, while he, by virtue of his profession, took a seat inside. I was not aware at the time that a slight-of-hand movement from my pocket to that of the officer would have given me a free pass.
A dense throng of impatient people, both inside and outside the railings, were waiting to be heard. However, that important functionary to a trial--I mean the judge--was wanting. The hour was past, but still he came not.
"Surely," I said to myself, "unless he is ill, the people ought not to be kept waiting."
I little knew then what dirt under his feet he considered the people. However, after waiting half an hour, we were relieved by the august presence.
That presence amazed me. The function of a judge is almost superhuman. Power so great should be associated with wisdom, experience, and rare self-government; and, in picturing a judge to one's self, one naturally imagines gray hairs, a profound brow, a calm eye, and an impressive dignity. In place of all this the State of New York gave us on this occasion a young man with a smooth face, a foppish air, and offensive manners. From first taking his seat in the judge's chair he showed an arrogance that was simply aggravating. One contemptuous glance round the court-room, then he began to sign warrants or some other legal documents. One thing I noticed very particularly, which was, that he never read the papers he signed. A wooden automaton would have done just as well; it would have evinced as much interest in judicial business as did that fledgling judge. Having pushed the last paper from him, he raised his steel-gray eyes and cast another piercing glance round the court-room. What a smile of conceit there was on his smooth, classical features! The scum of the city were to be brought before him for trial--those who could not procure bail.
I often hear it said that one ought not to expect either dignity or decorum in a police-court. Perhaps this is right; but then one might at least expect decency. Here unpunctuality and delay were followed by reckless haste. He could not come to time, but was in an alarming hurry to get through. It took my breath away to watch the celerity with which he passed case after case.
The first prisoner was an innocent-looking German who could not speak English. He had stopped a car-horse, probably to prevent himself from being run over. There was no time for defense. The penalty came like a flash of lightning; it was ten days or ten dollars. "See if he can understand that. Take him below! take him below!" from the judge.
As long as I live I shall never forget the look on that poor prisoner's face as he was being dragged out; he was simply stupefied.
The next case was an assault on an officer. The prisoner had evidently just slept off the effects of the fighting whisky he had imbibed, and felt ashamed of himself. He tried to conciliate the judge; he even flourished a handful of greenbacks in his face. It only hastened his doom: "Six months and a hundred dollars fine," quicker than lightning. The prisoner wilted at once and was about to beg for mercy, but the inevitable "Take him below! take him below!" from the galloping judge prevented the least appeal.
The next defendant was a large, powerfully-built woman. Her face was bloated, with a monstrous lower jaw, over which the upper projected. Her lips were short and thick, leaving bare a double row of gleaming dog-like teeth. A more hideous being of the human species I never saw in my life. This woman had committed an assault with a murderous weapon. The complainant, with the marks still on her face, stood ready with her witnesses. She was a patient, innocent-looking woman, evidently in the middle walk of life.
This was the first case that interested the Daniel of the police-court. He was no longer in a hurry but listened patiently to the defendant's lawyer, who spoke in a confidential whisper in his ear.
"That will do," said the judge, blandly. "The lady must find three hundred dollars bail, to appear at the General Sessions."
"But I am ready for trial," said the complainant. "My witnesses are all here, your honor. God help me! if she is let out on bail I am a dead woman!"
The youthful face of the judge puckered itself into a sneer at once. "You are not in a tenement house now, my good woman, that you need speak so loud. Go! The case is disposed of. Another word, and I will commit you for contempt."
The furious gestures of the unjust judge frightened the poor woman. For her life she dared not utter another word. At the same time I was a good deal surprised to see the ferocious defendant pass out of court unaccompanied by an officer.
"That's the last the court will ever see of her," said a man at my elbow. Then he gave me the clew to this defeat of justice. That virago's husband was a public man, being nothing less than an officer in the park. Beside this, he was a small politician, with great power at the polls in election time.
I could not help saying--of course to myself--"So this is your galloping justice! Peccadilloes punished like crime, and crime let loose;" and I fell into a little reverie.
I was roused by the grating voice of the galloping judge. While I was reflecting the galloping judge was acting--after his kind. "Take her below!" he cried. The prisoner he was so ready to dispose of was Airy. She was standing before the bar. She had just turned her head, and was casting an agonizing look round the Courtroom. Her face had grown sharper and was more distinctly defined since morning. Her lips, usually so full and fresh, were now parched and shriveled, like one in a fever. How slender and delicate she looked--how differing in every respect from the other prisoners I had seen there that afternoon! She might, in her pitiful condition, have melted the heart of a stone; but the only impression she made on the Court was to deepen the sneer on the aquiline features of the youthful judge.
My nephew did his best to delay the case; but, not being a political power, little notice was taken of what he said.
"This is a waste of time," said the judge. "She can't find bail, so take her below."
The officer laid his hand upon her shoulder.
I made a rush at the grating.
An officer pushed me roughly back.
"Wait till your case is called."
"This is my case," I said. Then I roared to the judge, "I'm her bail, to any amount you like!"
The judge sneered, and said something in an undertone--complimentary, no doubt. But, for all that, in five minutes my name was to a bail-bond, and Airy was in a private room, crying with gratitude on my shoulder, and I was a happy man.
She pressed my hand eloquently, and we parted; for her main thought was to run home and hide her face in her mother's bosom.
I went to see her next day.
She was in bed.
Her father told me she had taken a chill in the prison. Her mother said the chill was in her heart, to be so disgraced. Both the old people seemed quite stupefied with grief. They attached little value to the reprieve. Airy was accused. Airy would be tried, and doubtless condemned. What chance had she against "Small Brothers?"
Absurd as it may appear, this was a revelation to me, and I returned home dejected. I sent for George and consulted him. He said the first thing we ought to do was to go to "Small Brothers" and hear their story, and, by keeping our eyes and ears open, try to pick up some evidence, or at least some facts, to weaken or puzzle the evidence on the other side.
Next morning early we drove down Broadway, and my coachman reined up the horses in front of a marble palace. It was the store of "Small Brothers & Co.," Broadway.
The judge was perfectly right in showing his contempt for such a worm as Airy. What was she in comparison to the "Smalls," who, no doubt, counted their wealth by millions?
The elder Small only was to be seen. We found him yawning over the morning paper, before a hot anthracite fire, in a sumptuously-furnished parlor detached from his store.
Mr. Small had a speculative eye--an eye that seemed to take no notice of outward things. The words "a selfish eye" will convey an idea of what I mean better than anything else. It was plain to see the hinge on which every movement of his mind turned, which was money. Bones, muscles, nerves, reputations, and even the human soul itself--all went for nothing when weighed against lucre.
I told him I came about Airy Murphy.
"Airy Murphy!" said Mr. Small. "Who is that?"
"What!" I said, "had you no hand in the arrest of the poor seamstress the day before yesterday?"
"Oh! I see. You mean the girl who stole the lace? You must consult my manager about her. I never bother my head about such trifles."
"You call it a trifle, do you, to immure an innocent, lady-like girl in a prison, among the worst wretches ever thrown together in a great city?"
Mr. Small did not even deign to answer. He rose very deliberately, and went to the door and called "Mr. Raffles!"
A tall, lean-looking man of thirty-five soon appeared.
"Mr. Raffles," said Mr. Small to this person, "these men are interested in the thief that stole the lace. Mind they don't bully you," he added, in his cool, aggravating way.
Mr. Raffles was comparatively polite; he said we should have to see the forewoman. We found that important functionary on the fourth floor of the building. She was presiding over at least a hundred neatly-dressed young ladies. They were all as busy as bees, and the hum of their machines was deafening. I looked in vain for one sloven among them. They were one and all genteel and lady-like in their deportment, and as like one another as new pins.
We were made acquainted with Mrs. Jenny, the forewoman, by Mr. Raffles. The lady was evidently Irish, if one might judge from her looks, and the slight tinge of the brogue on her tongue when speaking.
My nephew's first questions to the forewoman were as to the quantity of lace missing and the means used to fix the theft on Miss Murphy.
"We have lost thousands of dollars' worth," said Mrs. Jenny. "We never could have suspected Airy, only for the trap we set for her."
"Ho, ho! So you set a trap for her, did you? May I be so bold as to ask the kind of trap you set?"
"Why, you see, it takes so many yards of lace to make a certain number of collars. For weeks and weeks Airy has not returned the proper count. The number of yards in plain figures is first put down in our book, then in the work-girl's book, so that there can be no mistake."
As she spoke, Mrs. Jenny produced two books. One belonged to the firm, while the other was Airy's. The moment I saw the latter's little dog-eared account-book, I considered her case lost. George, too, was staggered for a moment. Then he gave me a look, and asked to see a package of the lace.
Mrs. Jenny hesitated, and looked at Mr. Raffles.
"Better let them see it," said he; "he is her lawyer, you know." I fancied, though, that Mrs. Jenny's hand trembled a little as she selected a small key from a number attached to her watch-chain; she was very slow in opening her desk, but at length a package of lace was produced. I was surprised when Raffles told us its value, and my heart sank within me when he said that it was just such material Miss Murphy had been in the habit of using.
"The figures on the package, I take it for granted," said my nephew, "describe the number of yards it contains?"
"To be sure," said Mrs. Jenny, tartly. "What else would they be for?"
Then she went on to explain the difference between ells Flemish and English yards.
My nephew took the package and examined it minutely; then, fixing his eye on Mrs. Jenny, he said, "You will be able to swear in court, when the trial comes off, that this package of lace has never been tampered with since it left the hands of the manufacturer?"
"In course we can swear that; cannot we, Mr. Raffles?"
Mr. Raffles said, quietly, "It will not be necessary for me to swear to that, Mrs. Jenny. Your oath will be sufficient."
Thereupon my nephew seized a yard-measure that lay on the desk and began deliberately to count off the number of yards in the package. It was a trying moment, for we all knew that Airy's guilt or innocence depended on this test, to a certain extent. I hardly breathed while the monotonous "One, two, three, four" of my nephew went on.
"Why, this package lacks over a yard to make up the number marked on the label." George said this in a ringing voice, and his eyes flashed fire on the pair.
Mrs. Jenny turned red as fire, then white as the collar on her bovine neck, then red again; and, rousing her Irish courage, she expressed herself in a very unlady-like manner. My nephew, however, quickly stopped her.
"It will be no good for you to bluster, madam. It is plain that your lace has been tampered with before it ever reached the hands of your work-woman Murphy."
"You have made a mistake, sir," said Raffles, in a bullying tone. "It is not so easy to measure lace as you think." As he spoke he took up the yard-measure with an air of confidence. It was rather comical, though, to see the blank look on his face when, being closely watched by George and me, he made out the same number of yards George had done.
"That will do," I said. "Now let us go downstairs, and see if Mr. Small can explain why there should be such a difference between the marks on his goods and their true measurement."
I told the proprietor, sharply and decisively, the discovery we had made.
Mr. Small was taken aback. "Here's a business," said he; "I don't know what to do."
"Why, just go upstairs, and overhaul all the lace in your forewoman's charge. You will very likely find more packages there short."
Mr. Small recovered himself. "It seems to me," he said, "that you are taking quite an interest in my business."
"I take an interest in Miss Airy Murphy's guilt or innocence. If it costs a thousand dollars to sift this matter to its foundation I will disburse it willingly, or ten times the sum," I said.
"It is quite usual for old men to take an interest in unprotected seamstresses in this city," said Mr. Small, in the most biting and sarcastic manner. I took no direct notice of the insult, but told him plainly that if he did not move in the matter I would publish the business. This threat had the desired effect. The great man at once led the way upstairs to the workroom. Had a hawk pounced upon a poultry-yard there could not have been greater consternation than when Small entered the room among his operators. No better proof was wanting in my mind that the man was a tyrant. The way those poor girls watched his every movement made my heart ache. No doubt they expected an example would be made, and the question with each was, whose mouth would next be deprived of bread?
We began at once to measure the lace in Mrs. Jenny's charge, and piece after piece of the costly fabric was found deficient.
Both Raffles and Mrs. Jenny looked scared, while Small's face was haggard, and he asked Mrs. Jenny, in a whining, helpless way, what it all meant.
"It is plain enough, sir," said the woman, boldly, "some one about the premises must have false keys. Come to think of it, I have found the things in my desk pulled about more than once."
Poor Small caught at his forewoman's suggestion like a hungry fish at a baited hook. He drew himself up haughtily when my nephew intimated that the complaint against Miss Murphy ought to be withdrawn.
"If the girl did not steal the lace it will be made plain enough at the trial," he said. "There is a thief somewhere about, and an example must be made of some one."
"But," I said, "it is as plain as the nose on your face that there is no dependence to be put on your figures. Why, then, put the poor girl to the disgrace of a trial, when she has suffered so much already?"
This reference to his nose, which was a preposterous one, brought Mr. Small's patience to a climax.
"You must leave me to manage my own affairs," he said. "Good-day!"
I was about to remonstrate, but he turned to Raffles, and roared, in a voice that was heard all over the room, "Show these impertinent fellows out. If they do not go at once, call an officer."
Of course there was no alternative left for us now but to go.
Raffles and Mrs. Jenny stood grinning as we walked away, evidently well pleased with their victory.
"Dine with me," said I to George, "and, meantime, think it over."
After dinner we went into it. George said, "Small is in the power of the manager and his forewoman. He hardly dare call his soul his own in their presence."
"You don't think then that Airy has had anything to do with burglars?"
"The only burglars that have ever entered the place are Mrs. Jenny and Raffles."
"But what is to be done?"
"Oh. I'm clear on that. We must have them shadowed."
"Set detectives on 'em both."
"I'll shadow the vagabonds," I said, emphatically; "I don't care what it costs. Poor little Airy!"
So I gave George the wherewithal to employ as many detectives as he thought proper, and inside of ten days the following was the result:
Mrs. Jenny was carrying on a branch lace factory uptown under an assumed name. The lace used was the same as that imported by Small Brothers & Co. The forewoman was seen carrying home from the store, almost every night, very suspicious-looking little packages.
One night, after due consideration and misgivings, we took a liberty with the law and seized one of these parcels. It contained rich lace. We took it to Mr. Small's private house. He recognized it as his, and was ungrateful to us, but vowed vengeance on the thieves: but they were beforehand with him. Next morning they got into the store two hours before his time, and levanted with property worth ten thousand dollars.
The thieves being so manifestly declared, we again applied to Small Brothers to withdraw the charge against Airy Murphy.
This elicited human perversity. Small Senior elected to say to himself, not that I was his benefactor on a grand scale, present and future, but that I, by meddling, had driven the thieves to levant with a large booty, whereas he would have managed matters better if I had let him alone. So, to spite me, he refused to withdraw the charge.
Upon this I consulted George no more, but laid it before certain literary friends of mine. The result was that one morning an interesting article appeared in a powerful journal, relating the facts, and putting all the great houses on their guard, and promising fresh disclosures.
Two hours after publication comes by messenger a mighty submissive letter from Small Senior, engaging to withdraw the charge against Murphy--so he designated that injured angel--and begging me to let the affair drop.
I sent George a line, "Small has caved," and drove like the wind with the good news to Airy.
I found the old people seated by the fire, and Barney McCabe, with his head in his hands, at the window.
All three seemed stupid with woe.
"Come, cheer up; it is all right," said I. "I've good news for you: the charge is withdrawn. The real thieves are found out. Airy is free."
"God bless you, sir!" said Barney. "Ye've cleared her good name, any way."
But the old people received it like nothing at all. "It is little that matters now," said Mrs. Murphy. "Shure we always knew the darling was no thief. We thank you all the same, sorr. Ye were always a good frind to her and to uz."
A horror seized me. I began to fear Airy was dead.
"Is she--ill?" said I.
"Is she ill?" cried the mother, despairingly. Then she gravely opened a cupboard, and took out a large paper parcel pinned together, and put it on my lap.
I undid it and stared at the contents-- a woman's abundant hair. There was no mistaking it; it was Airy's glorious hair all cut off. I was affected to tears.
That set the mother off, you may be sure, and we mingled our tears over the piteous sight.
"Don't tell me she is no more!" I cried piteously.
"No, sir, she is not dead intirely," said the old man. "But the faver is strong, too strong for the cracher intirely. Them that took her to prison they took her to her grave."
Somehow I have made a few friends in each profession; and among the rest a physician, young, but able, who is capable of putting himself out of the way a very little to oblige me.
I told him Airy's case and handed her over to his care. He was to visit her every day, and send me the bill. He was also to let me have a short bulletin every day.
His first report let me know that the patient was in imminent danger, but that this might be partly owing to the treatment--it had been all wrong. He had ordered her bark and port-wine, etc.
I sent him a sharp reply. "If you value my friendship don't order her things in that out-of-the-way place, but take them to her."
In the course of a day or two, to my great joy, he recorded an improvement, but threw out a mysterious hint that there was something else in danger besides the patient's life.
"Never mind that," said I. "You save her life. I ask no more."
Three days after this I received a dry note from him.
"I consider the patient, Airy Murphy, out of danger; and, since that is all you require, I now retire from the case until further orders."
My joy at this missive was so great, I paid little attention to his innuendo.
That very day I visited the Irish colony, and, to my delight, I found Airy downstairs. Barney had made her a sort of couch, and she lay on it.
Her face was deadly pale, but as lovely as ever. Her mother had made her a little cap; and I ceased, on the spot, to wonder, as I used, that fifty years ago girls wore caps. She was lovelier in this cap than pen can describe. But her eyes! They seemed now preternaturally large, and as beautiful as ever, but their expression vague and unintelligible.
I spoke to her; she smiled, and stared, but did not know me.
Her mother begged me not to be offended, for the cracher did not know any of them.
The old people, however, were now resigned. Death had spared her. To be sure, her mind was away. But she was alive; and her reason might come back one day or other; she was so young.
To me, on the contrary, the sight of this sweet girl's body without her mind was inexpressibly painful, and I went away very soon.
However, I came back in two days, and found all the party there, and now much distressed at Airy's condition. They had, no doubt, been trying in every way to revive her recollection for when I came, they said, "Shore, it is Mr. Barlow. D'ye hear that, darlint? This is Mr. Barlow himself, that got ye out of the prison. God bless him for that same!"
She gave no sign of intelligence.
We were all at our wit's end, as the saying is, what to do with her.
At last I had a bright idea.
"The accordion!" I cried.
It was brought me directly, and I began to play a favorite air of hers, called "Ireland's music."
As I played, we all kept our eyes on her sweet face, and it was like stirring the waters of a lake. The deep, unmeaning eyes began to cloud and brighten by turns, and to be ruffled just like pools. Ideas seemed struggling, though without success; but still they showed their existence, however unable to rise to the light.
I played on, till a sweet, piteous smile came to her face, and at last her eyes slowly filled and two tears ran down.
Then I left off. But we could all see that it had done her good.
This experiment was so interesting and so charming that I came again next evening and brought some music: I played several melodies with the happiest results.
By-and-by I put the accordion into her hands and guided her fingers. She laughed, or rather crowed, like a child, well pleased at the sound.
But not a tune could she remember by herself, only little bits of tunes.
This went on for some nights, and always with an imperceptible advance; she began to murmur words, not very consecutively.
At last we got her round to play some of her own tunes, and then her progress was more rapid.
She recognized her father and mother first, and me next.
She said, demurely, "This is Mr. Barlow; he loves me, and I love him." Which was rather a pill for Barney McCabe there present.
I felt inflated; but affected to laugh it off.
Mrs. Murphy apologized. I told her demurely there was no offense.
I thought, of course, that would pass over; but the next time I was there she made me a declaration of love before them all, and gave her reasons.
"I was in prison," said she; "they accused me of--of--murdering children, I believe. No matter. He was the one that took me out--and he can play. You can't, not one of you." She swept them all with a disdainful glance.
"Play me a tune," said she suddenly to me, not at all in a loving tone, but very sharp and peremptory.
I smiled, and I did as I was bid, and as I played she bent her lovely eyes on me with such a passionate devotion that they thrilled me through and through.
I began to get alarmed, and to remember the illusions I had already nourished, and what they had cost me.
I discontinued my visits, and sent my servant now and then to inquire. He came back with messages which had, probably, some little meaning as delivered to him, but he relieved them of it on the road.
At last, one fine day, who should call on me but Barney McCabe, dressed in his best.
His errand was a strange one. He soon let me know it--it was to hand his sweetheart over to me.
"It is you she loves now," said he sullenly.
"Nonsense, Barney!" said I, swelling internally like a turkey-cock. "You know she is not in her right mind."
"She wasn't when you seen her last," said he; "but we think she is now. She stands to it, you are the man for her. You took her out of the prison; and she says you love her, and the old people think so too. So I won't stand in the way. You are a good man and a rich man, and proved yourself a friend in time of need; and I'm only a poor fellow, and I was out of the way at the time, worse luck. I was away to get money for her, too; but the cracher can't see that. Well, I've loved her man and boy, and I'd die for her good. But the heart's its own master. I'll never complain; but I'm not the colleen's slave, neither. 'There are as good fish in the sea.' I'll never love another as I love Airy; but I don't want to marry any girl to have it flung in my face that she loved another man better."
"Yes; but," said I, "I don't choose to come between an honest man and his sweetheart."
"What signifies that, if I consent?" said this sensible young man. "Anyway, do come and see her; for she sits and cries by the hour because you don't come near her."
All this, and more, said Barney McCabe, with Irish turns of phrase I cannot undertake to repeat.
"Well," said I, "to oblige you I will come, if it is only to convince you this is a misunderstanding."
Barney thanked me in a dogged sort of way, very unlike gratitude, and went his way.
As for me, conscience held me back; affection and gratified vanity pulled me on.
I elected to go; but I was ashamed to hurry. I coquetted with the situation.
Now, coquetting with your desires is a practice I cannot recommend to men in their dealings with women. Women coquet with their own wishes; and for that very reason we ought never to do it, because women, somehow, always punish a man if he plays the woman.
However, I went at last to accept my conquest.
I found her sitting on Barney's knee, lavishing divine caresses on his commonplace mug and curly hair.
She started, sitting, but did not even get off his knee. She only blushed like a rose, and put out her hand to me.
"Forgive me, sir," said she. "They tell me I have been talking sad nonsense about you," and she buried her face on Barney's shoulder.
"Oh, bother!" said the old woman. "Ye needn't be hiding your head for that, mavourneen. Shure a friend in need is a friend indeed; and the jintle-man was your friend in throuble, and gratitude doesn't measure its words, and why would it? The Lord bless him! the saints bless him! and the holy Virign watch over him, for his goodness to my colleen!"
Hitherto I had stood benumbed. Now I caught at the old woman's words and put the best face on it I could.
"I am most happy to have been of service to you," said I, "and I hope you will always look on me as a friend."
I closed the interview as quickly as possible, and went away superficially serene, and sick at heart.
It has been my good fortune through life that I have always had the inclination, and also--by no merit of my own--the means, to turn my back on trouble.
So I left New York, and made a sort of artistical progress through the principal cities of the States, prying into all instructive things except lovely women.
On my return next year I found a young woman had called on me more than once, and given her name, Mrs. McCabe. Besides her name she had, on one occasion, left some flowers and fruit.
I made inquiries, and found her husband had bought a market-garden, and that they sold the produce, and also poultry, in New York on certain days.
I had a wish to see her; but, true to my line of self-defense, I resisted it manfully.
She had been married nearly two years before I cast eyes on her again.
One glorious September day she called on me in a vehicle. She was driving it; it was neither a cart nor a gig, but between the two, and filled with produce.
I came down to her, for she was alone, and could not leave her pony.
Her beauty had ripened, and she was a glorious woman; only she was Hebe no more, but Pomona, and the finer bloom of poetry had left her buxom face and her hands, living two years with that clod, and nearly always out in the air.
Her honest eyes glistened at sight of me; and she welcomed me home, and forced on me a basket of muscatel grapes, each one large as a walnut, and an incredible pumpkin.
Well I had earned them, for I had not only done, but suffered.
We shook hands, and she drove away; and I felt at the time, as I feel now, that I ought then and there to fall into a train of reflections salutary to myself, and, if published, beneficial to mankind.
But "ought goes for nothing," and "the truth is the truth." So what I really did say to myself, word for word and syllable for syllable, was this--
"Well, she is considerably sun-burned--that's one comfort."
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