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What Answer?, Page 2

Anna E. Dickinson


  "_Thou--drugging pain by patience._"


  "Laces cleaned, and fluting and ruffling done here,"--that was what thelittle sign swinging outside the little green door said. And, comingunder it into the cosey little rooms, you felt this was just the placein which to leave things soiled and torn, and come back to find them, bysome mysterious process, immaculate and whole.

  Two rooms, with folding-doors between, in which through the day stood acounter, cut up on the one side into divers pigeon-holes rilled withsmall boxes and bundles, carefully pinned and labelled,--owner's name,time left, time to be called for, money due; neat and nice as a new pin,as every one said who had any dealings there.

  The counter was pushed back now, as always after seven o'clock, for thepeople who came in the evening were few; and then, when that was out ofthe way, it seemed more home-like and less shoppy, as Mrs. Franklin saidevery night, as she straightened things out, and peered through thewindow or looked from the front door, and wondered if "Abram weren'tlater than usual," though she knew right well he was punctual asclock-work,--good clock-work too,--when he was going to his toil orhurrying back to his home.

  Pleasant little rooms, with the cleanest and brightest of rag carpets onthe floor; a paper on the walls, cheap enough, but gay with scarletrosebuds and green leaves, rivalled by the vines and berries on thepretty chintz curtains; chairs of a dozen ages and patterns, but all ofthem with open, inviting countenances and a hospitable air; a wood firethat _looked_ like a wood fire crackling and sparkling on the hearth,shining and dancing over the ceiling and the floor and the walls,cutting queer capers with the big rocking-chair,--which turned into agiant with long arms,--and with the little figures on the mantel-shelf,and the books in their cases, softening and glorifying the two grandfaces hanging in their frames opposite, and giving just light enoughbelow them to let you read "John Brown" and "Phillips," if you had anyoccasion to read, and did not know those whom the world knows; and firstand last, and through all, as if it loved her, and was loath to partwith her for a moment, whether she poked the flame, or straightened achair, or went out towards the little kitchen to lift a lid and smell amost savory stew, or came back to the supper-table to arrange andrearrange what was already faultless in its cleanliness and simplicity,wherever she went and whatever she did, this firelight fell warm about awoman, large and comfortable and handsome, with a motherly look to herperson, and an expression that was all kindness in her comely face anddark, soft eyes,--eyes and face and form, though, that might as wellhave had "Pariah" written all over them, and "leper" stamped on theirfront, for any good, or beauty, or grace, that people could find inthem; for the comely face was a dark face, and the voice, singing an oldMethodist hymn, was no Anglo-Saxon treble, but an Anglo-African voice,rich and mellow, with the touch of pathos or sorrow always heard inthese tones.

  "There!" she said, "there he is!" as a step, hasty yet halting, washeard on the pavement; and, turning up the light, she ran quickly toopen the door, which, to be sure, was unfastened, and to give thegreeting to her "boy," which, through many a year, had never beenomitted.

  _Her_ boy,--you would have known that as soon as you saw him,--the sameeyes, same face, the same kindly look; but the face was thinner andfiner, and the brow was a student's brow, full of thought andspeculation; and, looking from her hearty, vigorous form, you saw thathis was slight to attenuation.

  "Sit down, sonny, sit down and rest. There! how tired you look!"bustling round him, smoothing his thin face and rough hair. "Now don'tdo that! let your old mother do it!" It pleased her to call herself old,though she was but just in her prime. "You've done enough for one day,I'm sure, waiting on other people, and walking with your poor lame foottill you're all but beat out. You be quiet now, and let somebody elsewait on you." And, going down on her knees, she took up the lame foot,and began to unlace the cork-soled, high-cut shoe, and, drawing it out,you saw that it was shrunken and small, and that the leg was shorterthan its fellow.

  "Poor little foot!" rubbing it tenderly, smoothing the stocking over it,and chafing it to bring warmth and life to its surface. Her "baby," shecalled it, for it was no bigger than when he was a little fellow. "Poor,tired foot! ain't it a dreadful long walk, sonny?"

  "Pretty long, mother; but I'd take twice that to do such work at theend."

  "Yes, indeed, it's good work, and Mr. Surrey's a good man, and a kindone, that's sure! I only wish some others had a little of his spirit.Such a shame to have you dragging all the way up here, when any dirtyfellow that wants to can ride. I don't mind for myself so much, for Ican walk about spry enough yet, and don't thank them for their oldomnibuses nor cars; but it's too bad for you, so it is,--too bad!"

  "Never mind, mother! keep a brave heart. 'There's a good time comingsoon, a good time coming!' as I heard Mr. Hutchinson sing the othernight,--and it's true as gospel."

  "Maybe it is, sonny!" dubiously, "but I don't see it,--not a sign ofit,--no indeed, not one! It gets worse and worse all the time, and ittakes a deal of faith to hold on; but the good Lord knows best, andit'll be right after a while, anyhow! And now _that's_ straight!"pulling a soft slipper on the lame foot, and putting its mate by hisside; then going off to pour out the tea, and dish up the stew, and adda touch or two to the appetizing supper-table.

  "It's as good as a feast,"--taking a bite out of her nice home-madebread,--"better'n a feast, to think of you in that place; and I can'tscarcely realize it yet. It seems too fine to be true."

  "That's the way I've felt all the month, mother! It has been just like adream to me, and I keep thinking surely I'm asleep and will waken tofind this is just an air-castle I've been building, or 'a vision of thenight,' as the good book says."

  "Well, it's a blessed vision, sure enough! and I hope to the good Lordit'll last;--but you won't if you make a vision of your supper in thatway. You just eat, Abram! and have done your talking till you'rethrough, if you can't do both at once. Talking's good, but eating'sbetter when you're hungry; and it's my opinion you ought to be hungry,if you ain't."

  So the teacups were filled and emptied, and the spoons clattered, andthe stew was eaten, and the baked potatoes devoured, and thebread-and-butter assaulted vigorously, and general havoc made with thegood things and substantial things before and between them; and then,this duty faithfully performed, the wreck speedily vanished away; andcups and forks, spoons and plates, knives and dishes, cleaned andcupboarded, Mrs. Franklin came, and, drawing away the book over which hewas poring, said, while she smoothed face and hair once more, "Come,Abram, what is it?"

  "What's what, mother?" with a little laugh.

  "Something ails you, sonny. That's plain enough. I know when anything'sgone wrong with ye, sure, and something's gone wrong to-day."

  "O mother! you worry about me too much, indeed you do. If I'm a littletired or out of sorts,--which I haven't any right to be, not here,--orquiet, or anything, you think somebody's been hurting me, or abusing me,or that everything's gone wrong with me, when I do well enough all thetime."

  "Now, Abram, you can't deceive me,--not that way. My eyes is mother'seyes, and they see plain enough, where you're concerned, withoutspectacles. Who's been putting on you to-day? Somebody. You don't carrythat down look in your face and your eyes for nothing, I found that outlong ago, and you've got it on to-night."

  "O mother!"

  "Don't you 'O mother' me! I ain't going to be put off in that way,Abram, an' you needn't think it. Has Mr. Surrey been saying anythinghard to you?"

  "No, indeed, mother; you needn't ask that."

  "Nor none of the foremen?"


  "Has Snipe been round?"

  "Hasn't been near the office since Mr. Surrey dismissed him."

  "Met him anywhere?"

  "Nein!" laughing, "I haven't laid eyes on him."

  "Well, the men have been saying or doing something then."

  "N-no; why, what an inquisitor it is!"

  "'N-no.' You don
't say that full and plain, Abram. Something _has_ beengoing wrong with the men. Now what is it? Come, out with it."

  "Well, mother, if you _will_ know, you will, I suppose; and, as younever get tired of the story, I'll go over the whole tale.

  "So long as I was Mr. Surrey's office-boy, to make his fires, and sweepand dust, and keep things in order, the men were all good enough to meafter their fashion; and if some of them growled because they thought hefavored me, Mr. Given, or some one said, 'O, you know his mother was aservant of Mrs. Surrey for no end of years, and of course Mr. Surrey hasa kind of interest in him'; and that put everything straight again.

  "Well! you know how good Mr. Willie has been to me ever since we werelittle boys in the same house,--he in the parlor and I in the kitchen;the books he's given me, and the chances he's made me, and the way he'sput me in of learning and knowing. And he's been twice as kind to meever since I refused that offer of his."

  "Yes, I know, but tell me about it again."

  "Well, Mr. Surrey sent me up to the house one day, just while Mr. Williewas at home from college, and he stopped me and had a talk with me, andasked me in his pleasant way, not as if I were a 'nigger,' but just ashe'd talk to one of his mates, ever so many questions about myself andmy studies and my plans; and I told him what I wanted,--how hard youworked, and how I hoped to fit myself to go into some little business ofmy own, not a barber-shop, or any such thing, but something that'dsupport you and keep you like a lady after while, and that would help meand my people at the same time. For, of course," I said, "every one ofus that does anything more than the world expects us to do, or better,makes the world think so much the more and better of us all."

  "What did he say to that?"

  "I wish you'd seen him! He pushed back that beautiful hair of his, andhis eyes shone, and his mouth trembled, though I could see he tried hardto hold it still, and put up his hand to cover it; and he said, in asolemn sort of way, 'Franklin, you've opened a window for me, and Isha'n't forget what I see through it to-day.' And then he offered to setme up in some business at once, and urged hard when I declined."

  "Say it all over again, sonny; what was it you told him?"

  "I said that would do well enough for a white man; that he could help,and the white man be helped, just as people were being and doing all thetime, and no one would think a thought about it. But, sir," I said,"everybody says we can do nothing alone; that we're a poor, shiftlessset; and it will be just one of the master race helping a nigger toclimb and to stand where he couldn't climb or stand alone, and I'drather fight my battle alone."

  "Yes, yes! well, go on, go on. I like to hear what followed."

  "Well, there was just a word or two more, and then he put out his handand shook mine, and said good by. It was the first time I ever shookhands with a white _gentleman_. Some white hands have shaken mine, butthey always made me feel that they _were_ white and that mine was black,and that it was a condescension. I felt that, when they didn't mean Ishould. But there was nothing between us. I didn't think of his skin,and, for once in my life, I quite forgot I was black, and didn'tremember it again till I got out on the street and heard a dirty littleragamuffin cry, 'Hi! hi! don't that nagur think himself foine?' Isuspect, in spite of my lameness, I had been holding up my head andwalking like a man."

  In spite of his lameness he was holding up his head and walking like aman now; up and down and across the little room, trembling, excited, thewords rushing in an eager flow from his mouth. His mother sat quietlyrocking herself and knitting. She knew in this mood there was nothingto be said to him; and, indeed, what had she to say save that whichwould add fuel to the flame?

  "Well!"--a long sigh,--"after that Mr. Surrey doubled my wages, and waskinder to me than ever, and watched me, as I saw, quite closely; andthat was the way he found out about Mr. Snipe.

  "You see Mr. Snipe had been very careless about keeping the books; wouldcome down late in the mornings, just before Mr. Surrey came in, and goaway early in the afternoons, as soon as he had left. Of course, thebooks got behindhand every month, and Mr. Snipe didn't want to stay andwork overhours to make them up. One day he found out, by something Isaid, that I understood bookkeeping, and tried me, and then got me totake them home at night and go over them. I didn't know then how bad hewas doing, and that I had no business to shield him, and all went smoothenough till the day I was too sick to get down to the office, and two ofthe books were at home. Then Mr. Surrey discovered the whole thing.There was a great row, it seems; and Mr. Surrey examined the books, andfound, as he was pleased to say, that I'd kept them in first-rate style;so he dismissed Mr. Snipe on the spot, with six months' pay,--for youknow he never does anything by halves,--and put me in his place.

  "The men don't like it, I know, and haven't liked it, but of course theycan't say anything to him, and they haven't said anything to me; butI've seen all along that they looked at me with no friendly eyes, andfor the last day or two I've heard a word here and there which makes methink there's trouble brewing,--bad enough, I'm afraid; maybe to thelosing of my place, though Mr. Surrey has said nothing about it to me."

  Just here the little green door opened, and the foreman whom we havebefore seen--James Given as the register had him entered, Jim Given asevery one knew him--came in; no longer with grimy face and flannelsleeves, but brave in all his Sunday finery, and as handsome a b'hoy,they said, at his engine-house, as any that ran with the machine; havingon his arm a young lady whom he apostrophized as Sallie, as handsome andbrave as he.

  "Evening,"--a nod of the head accompanying. "Miss Howard's traps done?"

  "I wish you wouldn't say 'traps,' Jim," corrected Sallie, _sotto voce_:"it's not proper. It's for a collar and pair of cuffs, Mrs. Franklin,"she added aloud, putting down a little check.

  "Not proper! goodness gracious me! there spoke Snipe! Come, Sallie,you've pranced round with that stuck-up jackanapes till you're gettingspoiled entirely, so you are, and I scarcely know you. Not proper,--Omy!"

  "Spoiled, am I? Thank you, sir, for the compliment! And you don't knowme at all,--don't you? Very well, then I'll say good night, and leave;for it wouldn't be proper to take a young lady you don't know to thetheatre,--now, would it? Good by!"--making for the door.

  "Now don't, Sallie, please."

  "Don't what?"

  "Don't talk that way."

  "Don't yourself, more like. You're just as cross as cross can be, anddisagreeable, and hateful,--all because I happen to know there's someother man in the world besides yourself, and smile at him now and then.'Don't,' indeed!"

  "Come, Sallie, you're too hard on a fellow. It's your own fault, youknow well enough, if you will be so handsome. Now, if you were an uglyold girl, or I was certain of you, I shouldn't feel so bad, nor act soneither. But when there's a lot of hungry chaps round, all gaping togobble you up, and even poor little Snipes trying to peck and bite atyou, and you won't say 'yes' nor 'no' to me, how do you expect a man tokeep cool? Can't do it, nohow, and you needn't ask it. Human nature'shuman nature, I suppose, and mine ain't a quiet nor a patient one, notby no manner of means. Come, Sallie, own up; you wouldn't like me sowell as I hope you do if it was,--now, would you?"

  Mrs. Franklin smiled, though she had heard not a word of the lovers'quarrel, as she put a pin in the back of the ruffled collar which Salliehad come to reclaim. A quarrel it had evidently been, and as evidentlythe lady was mollified, for she said, "Don't be absurd, Jim!" and Jimlaughed and responded, "All right, Sallie, you're an angel! But come, wemust hurry, or the curtain'll be up,"--and away went the dashing andhandsome couple.

  Abram, shutting in the shutters, and fastening the door, sat down to aquiet evening's reading, while his mother knitted and sewed,--an eveningthe likeness of a thousand others of which they never tired; for thismother and son, to whom fate had dealt so hard a measure, upon whom theworld had so persistently frowned, were more to each other than mostmothers and sons whose lines had fallen in pleasanterplaces,--compensation, as Mr. Emerson says, being the law
of existencethe world over.