CHAPTER XV

By Mark Twain
From American Claimant (1892).


Tracy went to bed happy once more, at rest in his mind once more. He had started out on a high emprise--that was to his credit, he argued; he had fought the best fight he could, considering the odds against him--that was to his credit; he had been defeated--certainly there was nothing discreditable in that.

Being defeated, he had a right to retire with the honors of war and go back without prejudice to the position in the world's society to which he had been born. Why not? even the rabid republican chair-maker would do that. Yes, his conscience was comfortable once more.

He woke refreshed, happy, and eager for his cablegram. He had been born an aristocrat, he had been a democrat for a time, he was now an aristocrat again. He marveled to find that this final change was not merely intellectual, it had invaded his feeling; and he also marveled to note that this feeling seemed a good deal less artificial than any he had entertained in his system for a long time. He could also have noted, if he had thought of it, that his bearing had stiffened, over night, and that his chin had lifted itself a shade. Arrived in the basement, he was about to enter the breakfast room when he saw old Marsh in the dim light of a corner of the hall, beckoning him with his finger to approach. The blood welled slowly up in Tracy's cheek, and he said with a grade of injured dignity almost ducal:

"Is that for me?"

"Yes."

"What is the purpose of it?"

"I want to speak to you-in private."

"This spot is private enough for me."

Marsh was surprised; and not particularly pleased. He approached and said:

"Oh, in public, then, if you prefer. Though it hasn't been my way."

The boarders gathered to the spot, interested.

"Speak out," said Tracy. "What is it you want?"

"Well, haven't you--er--forgot something?"

"I? I'm not aware of it."

"Oh, you're not? Now you stop and think, a minute."

"I refuse to stop and think. It doesn't interest me. If it interests you, speak out."

"Well, then," said Marsh, raising his voice to a slightly angry pitch," You forgot to pay your board yesterday--if you're bound to have it public."

Oh, yes, this heir to an annual million or so had been dreaming and soaring, and had forgotten that pitiful three or four dollars. For penalty he must have it coarsely flung in his face in the presence of these people--people in whose countenances was already beginning to dawn an uncharitable enjoyment of the situation.

"Is that all! Take your money and give your terrors a rest."

Tracy's hand went down into his pocket with angry decision. But-it didn't come out. The color began to ebb out of his face. The countenances about him showed a growing interest; and some of them a heightened satisfaction. There was an uncomfortable pause--then he forced out, with difficulty, the words:

"I've--been robbed!"

Old Marsh's eyes flamed up with Spanish fire, and he exclaimed:

"Robbed, is it? That's your tune? It's too old--been played in this house too often; everybody plays it that can't get work when he wants it, and won't work when he can get it. Trot out Mr. Allen, somebody, and let him take a toot at it. It's his turn next, he forgot, too, last night. I'm laying for him."

One of the negro women came scrambling down stairs as pale as a sorrel horse with consternation and excitement:

"Misto Marsh, Misto Allen's skipped out!"

"What!"

"Yes-sah, and cleaned out his room clean; tuck bofe towels en de soap!"

"You lie, you hussy!"

"It's jes' so, jes' as I tells you--en Misto Summer's socks is gone, en Misto Naylor's yuther shirt."

Mr. Marsh was at boiling point by this time. He turned upon Tracy:

"Answer up now-when are you going to settle?"

"To-day-since you seem to be in a hurry."

"To-day is it? Sunday--and you out of work? I like that. Come--where are you going to get the money?"

Tracy's spirit was rising again. He proposed to impress these people:

"I am expecting a cablegram from home."

Old Marsh was caught out, with the surprise of it. The idea was so immense, so extravagant, that he couldn't get his breath at first. When he did get it, it came rancid with sarcasm.

"A cablegram--think of it, ladies and gents, he's expecting a cablegram! He's expecting a cablegram--this duffer, this scrub, this bilk! From his father--eh? Yes--without a doubt. A dollar or two a word--oh, that's nothing--they don't mind a little thing like that--this kind's fathers don't. Now his father is--er--well, I reckon his father--"

"My father is an English earl!"

The crowd fell back aghast-aghast at the sublimity of the young loafer's "cheek." Then they burst into a laugh that made the windows rattle. Tracy was too angry to realize that he had done a foolish thing. He said:

"Stand aside, please. I--"

"Wait a minute, your lordship," said Marsh, bowing low, "where is your lordship going?"

"For the cablegram. Let me pass."

"Excuse me, your lordship, you'll stay right where you are."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that I didn't begin to keep boarding-house yesterday. It means that I am not the kind that can be taken in by every hack-driver's son that comes loafing over here because he can't bum a living at home. It means that you can't skip out on any such--"

Tracy made a step toward the old man, but Mrs. Marsh sprang between, and said:

"Don't, Mr. Tracy, please." She turned to her husband and said, "Do bridle your tongue. What has he done to be treated so? Can't you see he has lost his mind, with trouble and distress? He's not responsible."

"Thank your kind heart, madam, but I've not lost my mind; and if I can have the mere privilege of stepping to the telegraph office--"

"Well, you can't," cried Marsh.

"--or sending--"

"Sending! That beats everything. If there's anybody that's fool enough to go on such a chuckle-headed errand--"

"Here comes Mr. Barrow--he will go for me. Barrow--"

A brisk fire of exclamations broke out--

"Say, Barrow, he's expecting a cablegram!"

"Cablegram from his father, you know!"

"Yes--cablegram from the wax-figger!"

"And say, Barrow, this fellow's an earl--take off your hat, pull down your vest!"

"Yes, he's come off and forgot his crown, that he wears Sundays. He's cabled over to his pappy to send it."

"You step out and get that cablegram, Barrow; his majesty's a little lame to-day."

"Oh stop," cried Barrow; "give the man a chance." He turned, and said with some severity, "Tracy, what's the matter with you? What kind of foolishness is this you've been talking. You ought to have more sense."

"I've not been talking foolishness; and if you'll go to the telegraph office--"

"Oh; don't talk so. I'm your friend in trouble and out of it, before your face and behind your back, for anything in reason; but you've lost your head, you see, and this moonshine about a cablegram--"

"I'll go there and ask for it!"

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Brady. Here, I'll give you a Written order for it. Fly, now, and fetch it. We'll soon see!"

Brady flew. Immediately the sort of quiet began to steal over the crowd which means dawning doubt, misgiving; and might be translated into the words, "Maybe he is expecting a cablegram--maybe he has got a father somewhere--maybe we've been just a little too fresh, just a shade too 'previous'!"

Loud talk ceased; then the mutterings and low murmurings and whisperings died out. The crowd began to crumble apart. By ones and twos the fragments drifted to the breakfast table. Barrow tried to bring Tracy in; but he said:

"Not yet, Barrow-presently."

Mrs. Marsh and Hattie tried, offering gentle and kindly persuasions; but he said;

"I would rather wait-till he comes."

Even old Marsh began to have suspicions that maybe he had been a trifle too "brash," as he called it in the privacy of his soul, and he pulled himself together and started toward Tracy with invitation in his eyes; but Tracy warned him off with a gesture which was quite positive and eloquent. Then followed the stillest quarter of an hour which had ever been known in that house at that time of day. It was so still, and so solemn withal, that when somebody's cup slipped from his fingers and landed in his plate the shock made people start, and the sharp sound seemed as indecorous there and as out of place as if a coffin and mourners were imminent and being waited for. And at last when Brady's feet came clattering down the stairs the sacrilege seemed unbearable. Everybody rose softly and turned toward the door, where stood Tracy; then with a common impulse, moved a step or two in that direction, and stopped. While they gazed, young Brady arrived, panting, and put into Tracy's hand,--sure enough--an envelope. Tracy fastened a bland victorious eye upon the gazers, and kept it there till one by one they dropped their eyes, vanquished and embarrassed. Then he tore open the telegram and glanced at its message. The yellow paper fell from his fingers and fluttered to the floor, and his face turned white. There was nothing there but one word--

"Thanks."

The humorist of the house, the tall, raw-boned Billy Nash, caulker from the navy yard, was standing in the rear of the crowd. In the midst of the pathetic silence that was now brooding over the place and moving some few hearts there toward compassion, he began to whimper, then he put his handkerchief to his eyes and buried his face in the neck of the, bashfulest young fellow in the company, a navy-yard blacksmith, shrieked "Oh, pappy, how could you!" and began to bawl like a teething baby, if one may imagine a baby with the energy and the devastating voice of a jackass.

So perfect was that imitation of a child's cry, and so vast the scale of it and so ridiculous the aspect of the performer, that all gravity was swept from the place as if by a hurricane, and almost everybody there joined in the crash of laughter provoked by the exhibition. Then the small mob began to take its revenge--revenge for the discomfort and apprehension it had brought upon itself by its own too rash freshness of a little while before. It guyed its poor victim, baited him, worried him, as dogs do with a cornered cat. The victim answered back with defiances and challenges which included everybody, and which only gave the sport new spirit and variety; but when he changed his tactics and began to single out individuals and invite them by name, the fun lost its funniness and the interest of the show died out, along with the noise.

Finally Marsh was about to take an innings, but Barrow said:

"Never mind, now--leave him alone. You've no account with him but a money account. I'll take care of that myself."

The distressed and worried landlady gave Barrow a fervently grateful look for his championship of the abused stranger; and the pet of the house, a very prism in her cheap but ravishing Sunday rig, blew him a kiss from the tips of her fingers and said, with the darlingest smile and a sweet little toss of her head:

"You're the only man here, and I'm going to set my cap for you, you dear old thing!"

"For shame, Puss! How you talk! I never saw such a child!"

It took a good deal of argument and persuasion--that is to say, petting, under these disguises--to get Tracy to entertain the idea of breakfast. He at first said he would never eat again in that house; and added that he had enough firmness of character, he trusted, to enable him to starve like a man when the alternative was to eat insult with his bread.

When he had finished his breakfast, Barrow took him to his room, furnished him a pipe, and said cheerily:

"Now, old fellow, take in your battle-flag out of the wet, you're not in the hostile camp any more. You're a little upset by your troubles, and that's natural enough, but don't let your mind run on them anymore than you can help; drag your thoughts away from your troubles by the ears, by the heels, or any other way, so you manage it; it's the healthiest thing a body can do; dwelling on troubles is deadly, just deadly--and that's the softest name there is for it. You must keep your mind amused--you must, indeed."

"Oh, miserable me!"

"Don't! There's just pure heart-break in that tone. It's just as I say; you've got to get right down to it and amuse your mind, as if it was salvation."

"They're easy words to say, Barrow, but how am I going to amuse, entertain, divert a mind that finds itself suddenly assaulted and overwhelmed by disasters of a sort not dreamed of and not provided for? No-no, the bare idea of amusement is repulsive to my feelings: Let us talk of death and funerals."

"No-not yet. That would be giving up the ship. We'll not give up the ship yet. I'm going to amuse you; I sent Brady out for the wherewithal before you finished breakfast."

"You did? What is it?"

"Come, this is a good sign-curiosity. Oh, there's' hope for you yet."








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