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What Answer?

Anna E. Dickinson

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  Anna E. Dickinson




  "_In flower of youth and beauty's pride._"


  A crowded New York street,--Fifth Avenue at the height of the afternoon;a gallant and brilliant throng. Looking over the glittering array, thepurple and fine linen, the sweeping robes, the exquisite equipages, thestately houses; the faces, delicate and refined, proud, self-satisfied,that gazed out from their windows on the street, or that glanced fromthe street to the windows, or at one another,--looking over all this,being a part of it, one might well say, "This is existence, and besideit there is none other. Let us dress, dine, and be merry! Life is good,and love is sweet, and both shall endure! Let us forget that hunger andsin, sorrow and self-sacrifice, want, struggle, and pain, have place inthe world." Yet, even with the words, "poverty, frost-nipped in a summersuit," here and there hurried by; and once and again through therestless tide the sorrowful procession of the tomb made way.

  More than one eye was lifted, and many a pleasant greeting passedbetween these selected few who filled the street and a young man wholounged by one of the overlooking windows; and many a comment wasuttered upon him when the greeting was made:--

  "A most eligible _parti_!"

  "Handsome as a god!"

  "O, immensely rich, I assure you!"

  "_Isn't_ he a beauty!"

  "Pity he wasn't born poor!"


  "O, because they say he carried off all the honors at college andlaw-school, and is altogether overstocked with brains for a man who hasno need to use them."

  "Will he practise?"

  "Doubtful. Why should he?"

  "Ambition, power,--gratify one, gain the other."

  "Nonsense! He'll probably go abroad and travel for a while, come back,marry, and enjoy life."

  "He does that now, I fancy."

  "Looks so."

  And indeed he did. There was not only vigor and manly beauty, splendidin its present, but the "possibility of more to be in the full processof his ripening days,"--a form alert and elegant, which had not yet allof a man's muscle and strength; a face delicate, yet strong,--refined,yet full of latent power; a mass of rippling hair like burnished gold,flung back on the one side, sweeping low across brow and cheek on theother; eyes

  "Of a deep, soft, lucent hue,-- Eyes too expressive to be blue, Too lovely to be gray."

  People involuntarily thought of the pink and flower of chivalry as theylooked at him, or imagined, in some indistinct fashion, that they heardthe old songs of Percy and Douglas, or the later lays of the cavaliers,as they heard his voice,--a voice that was just now humming one of thesesame lays:--

  "Then mounte! then mounte, brave gallants, all, And don your helmes amaine; Death's couriers, Fame and Honor, call Us to the field againe."

  "Stuff!" he cried impatiently, looking wistfully at the men's facesgoing by,--"stuff! _We_ look like gallants to ride a tilt at the world,and die for Honor and Fame,--we!"

  "I thank God, Willie, you are not called upon for any such sacrifice."

  "Ah, little mother, well you may!" he answered, smiling, and taking herhand,--"well you may, for I am afraid I should fall dreadfully shortwhen the time came; and then how ashamed you'd be of your big boy, whotook his ease at home, with the great drums beating and the trumpetsblowing outside. And yet--I should like to be tried!"

  "See, mother!" he broke out again,--"see what a life it is, getting andspending, living handsomely and doing the proper thing towards society,and all that,--rubbing through the world in the old hereditary way;though I needn't growl at it, for I enjoy it enough, and find it apleasant enough way, Heaven knows. Lazy idler! enjoying the sunshinewith the rest. Heigh-ho!"

  "You have your profession, Willie. There's work there, and opportunitysufficient to help others and do for yourself."

  "Ay, and I'll _do_ it! But there is so much that is poor and mean, andbase and tricky, in it all,--so much to disgust and tire one,--all thetime, day after day, for years. Now if it were only a huge giant thatstands in your way, you could out rapier and have at him at once, andthere an end,--laid out or triumphant. That's worth while!"

  "O youth, eager and beautiful," thought the mother who listened, "thatin this phase is so alike the world over,--so impatient to do, so readyto brave encounters, so willing to dare and die! May the doing befaithful, and the encounters be patiently as well as bravely fought, andthe fancy of heroic death be a reality of noble and earnest life. Godgrant it! Amen."

  "Meanwhile," said the gay voice,--"meanwhile it's a pleasant world; letus enjoy it! and as to do this is within the compass of a man's wit,therefore will I attempt the doing."

  While he was talking he had once more come to the window, and, lookingout, fastened his eyes unconsciously but intently upon the face of ayoung girl who was slowly passing by,--unconsciously, yet so intentlythat, as if suddenly magnetized, a flicker of feeling went over it; themouth, set with a steady sweetness, quivered a little; the eyes--dark,beautiful eyes--were lifted to his an instant, that was all. The motherbeside him did not see; but she heard a long breath, almost a sigh,break from him as he started, then flashed out of the room, snatchinghis hat in the hall, and so on to the street, and away.

  Away after her, through block after block, across the crowded avenue toBroadway. "Who is she? where did she come from? _I_ never saw herbefore. I wonder if Mrs. Russell knows her, or Clara, or anybody! I willknow where she lives, or where she is going at least,--that will be someclew! There! she is stopping that stage. I'll help her in! no, Iwon't,--she will think I am chasing her. Nonsense! do you suppose shesaw you at the window? Of course! No, she didn't; don't be a fool!There! I'll get into the next stage. Now I'll keep watch of that, andshe'll not know. So--all right! Go ahead, driver." And happy with somenew happiness, eager, bright, the handsome young fellow sat watchingthat other stage, and the stylish little lace bonnet that was all hecould see of his magnet, through the interminable journey down Broadway.

  How clear the air seemed! and the sun, how splendidly it shone! andwhat a glad look was upon all the people's faces! He felt like breakingout into gay little snatches of song, and moved his foot to the waltzmeasure that beat time in his brain till the irate old gentlemanopposite, whom nature had made of a sour complexion and art assisted tocorns, broke out with an angry exclamation. That drew his attention fora moment. A slackening of speed, a halt, and the stage was wedged in oneof the inextricable "jams" on Broadway. Vain the search for _her_ stagethen; looking over the backs of the poor, tired horses, or from thesidewalk,--here, there, at this one and that one,--all for naught! Stageand passenger, eyes, little lace bonnet, and all, had vanished away, asWilliam Surrey confessed, and confessed with reluctance and discontent.

  "No matter!" he said presently,--"no matter! I shall see her again. Iknow it! I feel it! It is written in the book of the Fates! So now Ishall content me with something"--that looks like her he did not saydefinitely, but felt it none the less, as, going over to theflower-basket near by, he picked out a little nosegay of mignonette andgeranium, with a tea-rosebud in its centre, and pinned it at hisbutton-hole. "Delicate and fine!" he thought,--"delicate and fine!" andwith the repetition he looked from it down the long street after theinterminable line of stages; and somehow the faint, sweet perfume, andthe fair flower, and the dainty lace bonnet, were mingled in wild andcharming confusion in his brain, till he shook himself, and laughed athimself, and quoted Shakespeare to excuse himself,--"A mad world, mymasters!"--seeing this poor old earth of ours, as people always do,through their own eyes.

  "God bless ye! and long life to yer honor! and may the blessed Virgingive ye the desire of yer heart!" called the Irishwoman after him, as heput back the change in her hand and went gayly up the street. "Sure,he's somebody's darlint, the beauty! the saints preserve him!" she said,as she looked from the gold piece in her palm to the fair, sunny head,watching it till it was lost in the crowd from her grateful eyes.

  Evidently this young man was a favorite, for, as he passed along, many aface, worn by business and care, brightened as he smiled and spoke; manya countenance stamped with the trade-mark, preoccupied and hard, relaxedin a kindly recognition as he bowed and went by; and more than one foundtime, even in that busy whirl, to glance for a moment after him, or toremember him with a pleasant feeling, at least till the pavement hadbeen crossed on which they met,--a long space at that hour of the day,and with so much more important matters--Bull and Bear, rise and fall,stock and account--claiming their attention.

  Evidently a favorite, for, turning off into one of the side streets,coming into his father's huge foundry, faces heated and dusty, tired,stained, and smoke-begrimed, glanced up from their work, from forge andfire and engine, with an expression that invited a look or word,--andlook and word were both ready.

  "The boss is out, sir," said one of the foremen, "and if you please,and have got the time to spare, I'd like to have a word with you beforehe comes in."

  "All right, Jim! say your say."

  "Well, sir, you'll likely think I'm sticking my nose into what doesn'tconcern me. 'Tain't a very nice thing I've got to say, but if I don'tsay it I don't know who in thunder will; and, as it's my private opinionthat somebody ought to, I'll just pitch in."

  "Very good; pitch in."

  "Very good it is then. Only it ain't. Very bad, more like. It's a nastymess, and no mistake! and there's the cause of it!" pointing his brawnyhand towards the door, upon which was marked, "Office. Private," andsniffing as though he smelt something bad in the air.

  "You don't mean my father!" flame shooting from the clear eyes.

  "Be damned if I do. Beg pardon. Of course I don't. I mean the fellow asis perched up on a high stool in that there office, this very minute,poking into his books."


  "You've hit it. Franklin,--Abe Franklin,--that's the ticket."

  "What's the matter with him? what has he done?"

  "Done? nothing! not as I know of, anyway, except what's right andproper. 'Tain't what he's done or's like to do. It's what he is."

  "And what may that be?"

  "Well, he's a nigger! there's the long and short of it. Nobody here'dobject to his working in this place, providing he was a runner, or anerrand-boy, or anything that it's right and proper for a nigger to be;but to have him sitting in that office, writing letters for the boss,and going over the books, and superintending the accounts of thefellows, so that he knows just what they get on Saturday nights, andbeing as fine as a fiddle, is what the boys won't stand; and they swearthey'll leave, every man of 'em, unless he has his walkingpapers,--double-quick too."

  "Very well; let them. There are other workmen, good as they, in thiscity of New York."

  "Hold on, sir! let me say my say first. There are seven hundred menworking in this place: the most of 'em have worked here a long while.Good work, good pay. There ain't a man of 'em but likes Mr. Surrey, andwould be sorry to lose the place; so, if they won't bear it, there ain'tany that will. Wait a bit! I ain't through yet."

  "Go on,"--quietly enough spoken, but the mouth shook under its silkyfringe, and a fiery spot burned on either cheek.

  "All right. Well, sir, I know all about Franklin. He's a bright one,smart enough to stock a lot of us with brains and have some to spare; hedon't interfere with us, and does his work well, too, I reckon,--thoughthat's neither here nor there, nor none of our business if the boss issatisfied; and he looks like a gentleman, and acts like one, there's nodenying that! and as for his skin,--well!" a smile breaking over hisgood-looking face, "his skin's quite as white as mine now, anyway,"smearing his red-flannel arm over his grimy phiz; "but then, sir, itwon't rub off. He's a nigger, and there's no getting round it.

  "All right, sir! give you your chance directly. Don't speak yet,--ain'tthrough, if _you_ please. Well, sir, it's agen nature,--you may talkagen it, and work agen it, and fight agen it till all's blue, and whatgood'll it do? You can't get an Irishman, and, what's more, a free-bornAmerican citizen, to put himself on a level with a nigger,--not by nomanner of means. No, sir; you can turn out the whole lot, and getanother after it, and another after that, and so on to the end of thechapter, and you can't find men among 'em all that'll stay and have himstrutting through 'em, up to his stool and his books, grand as apeacock."

  "Would they work _with_ him?"

  "At the same engines, and the like, do you mean?"


  "Nary time, so 'tain't likely they'll work under him. Now, sir, you seeI know what I'm saying, and I'm saying it to _you_, Mr. Surrey, and notto your father, because he won't take a word from me nor nobodyelse,--and here's just the case. Now I ain't bullying, you understand,and I say it because somebody else'd say it, if I didn't, uglier androugher. Abe Franklin'll have to go out of this shop in precious shortorder, or every man here'll bolt next Saturday night. There! now I'vedone, sir, and you can fire away."

  But as he showed no signs of "firing away," and stood still, pondering,Jim broke out again:--

  "Beg pardon, sir. If I've said anything you don't like, sorry for it.It's because Mr. Surrey is so good an employer, and, if you'll let mesay so, because I like you so well," glancing over himadmiringly,--"for, you see, a good engineer takes to a clean-builtmachine wherever he sees it,--it's just because of this I thought it wasbetter to tell you, and get you to tell the boss, and to save any row;for I'd hate mortally to have it in this shop where I've worked, man andboy, so many years. Will you please to speak to him, sir? and I hope youunderstand."

  "Thank you, Jim. Yes, I understand; and I'll speak to him."

  Was it that the sun was going down, or that some clouds were in the sky,or had the air of the shop oppressed him? Whatever it was, as he cameout he walked with a slower step from which some of the spring had gone,and the people's faces looked not so happy; and, glancing down at hisrosebud, he saw that its fair petals had been soiled by the smoke andgrime in which he had been standing; and, while he looked a dead marchcame solemnly sounding up the street, and a soldier's funeral wentby,--rare enough, in that autumn of 1860, to draw a curious crowd oneither side; rare enough to make him pause and survey it; and as theline turned into another street, and the music came softened to his ear,he once more hummed the words of the song which had been haunting himall the day:--

  "Then mounte! then mounte, brave gallants, all, And don your helmes amaine; Death's couriers, Fame and Honor, call Us to the field againe,"--

  sang them to himself, but not with the gay, bright spirit of themorning. Then he seemed to see the cavaliers, brilliant and brave,riding out to the encounter. Now, in the same dim and fanciful way, hebeheld them stretched, still and dead, upon the plain.