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Justice in the By-Ways, a Tale of Life online

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sure to get a shattering. To be honest in temptation, Tom, is one of
the noblest attributes of our nature; and to be capable of forming
and maintaining a resolution to shake off the thraldom of vice, and
to place oneself in the serener atmosphere of good society, is
equally worthy of the highest commendation."

Tom received this in silence, and seemed hesitating between what he
conceived an imperative demand and the natural inclination of his

"Give me your hand, and with it your honor-I know you yet retain the
latent spark-and promise me you will lock up the cup - "

"You'll give a body a furlough, by the way of blowing off the fuddle
he has on hand?"

"I do not withhold from you any discretionary indulgence that may
bring relief - "

Tom interrupts by saying, "My mother, you know!"

"I will see her, and plead with her on your behalf; and if she have
a mother's feelings I can overcome her prejudice."

Tom says, despondingly, he has no home to go to. It's no use seeing
his mother; she's all dignity, and won't let it up an inch. "If I
could only persuade her - " Tom pauses here and shakes his head.

"Pledge me your honor you'll from this day form a resolution to
reform, Tom; and if I do not draw from your mother a reconciliation,
I will seek a home for you elsewhere."

"Well, there can't be much harm in an effort, at all events; and
here's my hand, in sincerity. But it won't do to shut down until I
get over this bit of a fog I'm now in." With child-like simplicity,
Tom gives his hand to the young man, who, as old Spunyarn enters the
cell to, as he says, get the latitude of his friend's nerves,
departs in search of Mrs. Swiggs.

Mrs. Swiggs is the stately old member of a crispy old family, that,
like numerous other families in the State, seem to have outlived two
chivalrous generations, fed upon aristocracy, and are dying out
contemplating their own greatness. Indeed, the Swiggs family, while
it lived and enjoyed the glory of its name, was very like the
Barnwell family of this day, who, one by one, die off with the very
pardonable and very harmless belief that the world never can get
along without the aid of South Carolina, it being the parthenon from
which the outside world gets all its greatness. Her leading and very
warlike newspapers, (the people of these United States ought to
know, if they do not already,) it was true, were editorialized, as
it was politely called in the little State-militant, by a species of
unreputationized Jew and Yankee; but this you should know-if you do
not already, gentle reader-that it is only because such employments
are regarded by the lofty-minded chivalry as of too vulgar a nature
to claim a place in their attention.

The clock of old Saint Michels, a clock so tenacious of its dignity
as to go only when it pleases, and so aristocratic in its habits as
not to go at all in rainy weather; - a clock held in great esteem by
the "very first families," has just struck eleven. The young,
pale-faced missionary inquiringly hesitates before a small,
two-story building of wood, located on the upper side of Church
street, and so crabbed in appearance that you might, without
endangering your reputation, have sworn it had incorporated in its
framework a portion of that chronic disease for which the State has
gained for itself an unenviable reputation. Jutting out of the
black, moss-vegetating roof, is an old-maidish looking window, with
a dowdy white curtain spitefully tucked up at the side. The
mischievous young negroes have pecked half the bricks out of the
foundation, and with them made curious grottoes on the pavement.
Disordered and unpainted clapboards spread over the dingy front,
which is set off with two upper and two lower windows, all blockaded
with infirm, green shutters. Then there is a snuffy door, high and
narrow (like the State's notions), and reached by six venerable
steps and a stoop, carefully guarded with a pine hand-rail,
fashionably painted in blue, and looking as dainty as the State's
white glove. This, reader, is the abode of the testy but extremely
dignified Mrs. Swiggs. If you would know how much dignity can be
crowded into the smallest space, you have only to look in here and
be told (she closely patterns after the State in all things!) that
fifty-five summers of her crispy life have been spent here, reading
Milton's Paradise Lost and contemplating the greatness of her
departed family.

The old steps creak and complain as the young man ascends them,
holding nervously on at the blue hand-rail, and reaching in due time
the stoop, the strength of which he successively tests with his
right foot, and stands contemplating the snuffy door. A knocker
painted in villanous green-a lion-headed knocker, of grave
deportment, looking as savage as lion can well do in this chivalrous
atmosphere, looks admonitiously at him. "Well!" he sighs as he
raises it, "there's no knowing what sort of a reception I may get."
He has raised the monster's head and given three gentle taps.
Suddenly a frisking and whispering, shutting of doors and tripping
of feet, is heard within; and after a lapse of several minutes the
door swings carefully open, and the dilapidated figure of an old
negro woman, lean, shrunken, and black as Egyptian darkness - with
serious face and hanging lip, the picture of piety and starvation,
gruffly asks who he is and what he wants?

Having requested an interview with her mistress, this decrepit
specimen of human infirmity half closes the door against him and
doddles back. A slight whispering, and Mrs. Swiggs is heard to
say - "show him into the best parlor." And into the best parlor, and
into the august presence of Mrs. Swiggs is he ushered. The best
parlor is a little, dingy room, low of ceiling, and skirted with a
sombre-colored surbase, above which is papering, the original color
of which it would be difficult to discover. A listen carpet, much
faded and patched, spreads over the floor, the walls are hung with
several small engravings, much valued for their age and
associations, but so crooked as to give one the idea of the house
having withstood a storm at sea; and the furniture is made up of a
few venerable mahogany chairs, a small side-table, on which stands,
much disordered, several well-worn books and papers, two
patch-covered foot-stools, a straightbacked rocking-chair, in which
the august woman rocks her straighter self, and a great tin cage,
from between the bars of which an intelligent parrot chatters - "my
lady, my lady, my lady!" There is a cavernous air about the place,
which gives out a sickly odor, exciting the suggestion that it might
at some time have served as a receptacle for those second-hand
coffins the State buries its poor in.

"Well! who are you? And what do you want? You have brought letters,
I s'pose?" a sharp, squeaking voice, speaks rapidly.

The young man, without waiting for an invitation to sit down, takes
nervously a seat at the side-table, saying he has come on a mission
of love.

"Love! love! eh? Young man-know that you have got into the wrong
house!" Mrs. Swiggs shakes her head, squeaking out with great

There she sits, Milton's "Paradise Lost" in her witch-like fingers,
herself lean enough for the leanest of witches, and seeming to have
either shrunk away from the faded black silk dress in which she is
clad, or passed through half a century of starvation merely to
bolster up her dignity. A sharp, hatchet-face, sallow and
corrugated; two wicked gray eyes, set deep in bony sockets; a long,
irregular nose, midway of which is adjusted a pair of broad,
brass-framed spectacles; a sunken, purse - drawn mouth, with two
discolored teeth protruding from her upper lip; a high, narrow
forehead, resembling somewhat crumpled parchment; a dash of dry,
brown hair relieving the ponderous border of her steeple-crowned
cap, which she seems to have thrown on her head in a hurry; a
moth-eaten, red shawl thrown spitefully over her shoulders,
disclosing a sinewy and sassafras-colored neck above, and the small
end of a gold chain in front, and, reader, you have the august Mrs.
Swiggs, looking as if she diets on chivalry and sour krout. She is
indeed a nice embodiment of several of those qualities which the
State clings tenaciously to, and calls its own, for she lives on the
labor of eleven aged negroes, five of whom are cripples.

The young man smiles, as Mrs. Swiggs increases the velocity of her
rocking, lays her right hand on the table, rests her left on her
Milton, and continues to reiterate that he has got into the wrong

"I have no letter, Madam - "

"I never receive people without letters-never!" she interrupts,

"But you see, Madam - "

"No I don't. I don't see anything about it!" again she interposes,
adjusting her spectacles, and scanning him anxiously from head to
foot. "Ah, yes (she twitches her head), I see what you are - "

"I was going to say, if you please, Madam, that my mission may serve
as a passport - "

"I'm of a good family, you must know, young man. You could have
learned that of anybody before seeking this sort of an introduction.
Any of our first families could have told you about me. You must go
your way, young man!" And she twitches her head, and pulls closer
about her lean shoulders the old red shawl.

"I (if you will permit me, Madam) am not ignorant of the very high
standing of your famous family - " Madam interposes by saying, every
muscle of her frigid face unmoved the while, she is glad he knows
something, "having read of them in a celebrated work by one of our
more celebrated genealogists - "

"But you should have brought a letter from the Bishop! and upon that
based your claims to a favorable reception. Then you have read of
Sir Sunderland Swiggs, my ancestor? Ah! he was such a Baron, and
owned such estates in the days of Elizabeth. But you should have
brought a letter, young man." Mrs. Swiggs replies rapidly,
alternately raising and lowering her squeaking voice, twitching her
head, and grasping tighter her Milton.

"Those are his arms and crest." She points with her Milton to a
singular hieroglyphic, in a wiry black frame, resting on the
marble-painted mantelpiece. "He was very distinguished in his time;
and such an excellent Christian." She shakes her head and wipes the
tears from her spectacles, as her face, which had before seemed
carved in wormwood, slightly relaxes the hardness of its muscles.

"I remember having seen favorable mention of Sir Sunderland's name
in the book I refer to - "

She again interposes. The young man watches her emotions with a
penetrating eye, conscious that he has touched a chord in which all
the milk of kindness is not dried up.

"It's a true copy of the family arms. Everybody has got to having
arms now-a-days. (She points to the indescribable scrawl over the
mantelpiece.) It was got through Herald King, of London, who they
say keeps her Majesty's slippers and the great seal of State. We
were very exact, you see. Yes, sir-we were very exact. Our vulgar
people, you see-I mean such as have got up by trade, and that sort
of thing-went to a vast expense in sending to England a man of great
learning and much aforethought, to ransack heraldry court and trace
out their families. Well, he went, lived very expensively, spent
several years abroad, and being very clever in his way, returned,
bringing them all pedigrees of the very best kind. With only two
exceptions, he traced them all down into noble blood. These two, the
cunning fellow had it, came of martyrs. And to have come of the
blood of martyrs, when all the others, as was shown, came of noble
blood, so displeased-the most ingenious (the old lady shakes her
head regrettingly) can't please everybody-the living members of
these families, that they refused to pay the poor man for his
researches, so he was forced to resort to a suit at law. And to this
day (I don't say it disparagingly of them!) both families stubbornly
refuse to accept the pedigree. They are both rich grocers, you see!
and on this account we were very particular about ours."

The young man thought it well not to interrupt the old woman's
display of weakness, inasmuch as it might produce a favorable change
in her feelings.

"And now, young man, what mission have you besides love?" she
inquires, adding an encouraging look through her spectacles.

"I am come to intercede - "

"You needn't talk of interceding with me; no you needn't! I've
nothing to intercede about" - she twitches her head spitefully.

"In behalf of your son."

"There-there! I knew there was some mischief. You're a Catholic! I
knew it. Never saw one of your black-coated flock about that there
wasn't mischief brewing-never! I can't read my Milton in peace for
you - "

"But your son is in prison, Madam, among criminals, and subject to
the influence of their habits - "

"Precisely where I put him-where he won't disgrace the family; yes,
where he ought to be, and where he shall rot, for all me. Now, go
your way, young man; and read your Bible at home, and keep out of
prisons; and don't be trying to make Jesuits of hardened scamps like
that Tom of mine."

"I am a Christian: I would like to extend a Christian's hand to your
son. I may replace him on the holy pedestal he has fallen from - "

"You are very aggravating, young man. Do you live in South

The young man says he does. He is proud of the State that can boast
so many excellent families.

"I am glad of that," she says, looking querulously over her
spectacles, as she twitches her chin, and increases the velocity of
her rocking. "I wonder how folks can live out of it."

"As to that, Madam, permit me to say, I am happy to see and
appreciate your patriotism; but if you will grant me an order of
release - "

"I won't hear a word now! You're very aggravating, young man-very!
He has disgraced the family; I have put him where he is seven times;
he shall rot were he is! He never shall disgrace the family again.
Think of Sir Sunderland Swiggs, and then think of him, and see what
a pretty level the family has come to! That's the place for him. I
have told him a dozen times how I wished him gone. The quicker he is
out of the way, the better for the name of the family."

The young man waits the end of this colloquy with a smile on his
countenance. "I have no doubt I can work your son's reform-perhaps
make him an honor to the family - "

"He honor the family!" she interrupts, twitches the shawl about her
shoulders, and permits herself to get into a state of general
excitement. "I should like to see one who has disgraced the family
as much as he has think of honoring it - "

"Through kindness and forbearance, Madam, a great deal may be done,"
the young man replies.

Now, you are very provoking, young man-very. Let other people alone;
go your way home, and study your Bible." And with this the old lady
calls Rebecca, the decrepit slave who opened the door, and directs
her to show the young man out. "There now!" she says testily,
turning to the marked page of her Milton.

The young man contemplates her for a few moments, but, having no
alternative, leaves reluctantly.

On reaching the stoop he encounters the tall, handsome figure of a
man, whose face is radiant with smiles, and his features ornamented
with neatly-combed Saxon hair and beard, and who taps the old
negress under the chin playfully, as she says, "Missus will be right
glad to see you, Mr. Snivel-that she will." And he bustles his way
laughing into the presence of the old lady, as if he had news of
great importance for her.



DISAPPOINTED, and not a little chagrined, at the failure of his
mission, the young man muses over the next best course to pursue. He
has the inebriate's welfare at heart; he knows there is no state of
degradation so low that the victim cannot, under proper care, be
reclaimed from it; and he feels duty calling loudly to him not to
stand trembling on the brink, but to enter the abode of the victim,
and struggle to make clean the polluted. Vice, he says to himself,
is not entailed in the heart; and if you would modify and correct
the feelings inclined to evil, you must first feed the body, then
stimulate the ambition; and when you have got the ambition right,
seek a knowledge of the heart, and apply to it those mild and
judicious remedies which soften its action, and give life to new
thoughts and a higher state of existence. Once create the vine of
moral rectitude, and its branches will soon get where they can take
care of themselves. But to give the vine creation in poor soil, your
watching must exhibit forbearance, and your care a delicate hand.
The stubbornly-inclined nature, when coupled with ignorance, is that
in which vice takes deepest root, as it is, when educated, that
against which vice is least effectual. To think of changing the
natural inclination of such natures with punishment, or harsh
correctives, is as useless as would be an attempt to stop the ebbing
and flowing of the tide. You must nurture the feelings, he thought,
create a susceptibility, get the heart right, by holding out the
value of a better state of things, and make the head to feel that
you are sincere in your work of love; and, above all, you must not
forget the stomach, for if that go empty crime will surely creep
into the head. You cannot correct moral infirmity by confining the
victim of it among criminals, for no greater punishment can be
inflicted on the feelings of man; and punishment destroys rather
than encourages the latent susceptibility of our better nature. In
nine cases out of ten, improper punishment makes the hardened
criminals with which your prisons are filled, destroying forever
that spark of ambition which might have been fostered into a means
to higher ends.

And as the young man thus muses, there recurs to his mind the
picture of old Absalom McArthur, a curious old man, but excessively
kind, and always ready to do "a bit of a good turn for one in need,"
as he would say when a needy friend sought his assistance. McArthur
is a dealer in curiosities, is a venerable curiosity himself, and
has always something on hand to meet the wants of a community much
given to antiquity and broken reputations.

The young theologian will seek this good old man. He feels that time
will work a favorable revolution in the feelings of Tom's mother;
and to be prepared for that happy event he will plead a shelter for
him under McArthur's roof.

And now, generous reader, we will, with your permission, permit him
to go on his errand of mercy, while we go back and see how Tom
prospers at the old prison. You, we well know, have not much love of
prisons. But unless we do now and then enter them, our conceptions
of how much misery man can inflict upon man will be small indeed.

The man of sailor-like deportment, and whom the prisoners salute
with the sobriquet of "Old Spunyarn," entered, you will please
remember, the cell, as the young theologian left in search of Mrs.
Swiggs. "I thought I'd just haul my tacks aboard, run up a bit, and
see what sort of weather you were making, Tom," says he, touching
clumsily his small-brimmed, plait hat, as he recognizes the young
man, whom he salutes in that style so frank and characteristic of
the craft. "He's a bit better, sir-isn't he?" inquires Spunyarn, his
broad, honest face, well browned and whiskered, warming with a glow
of satisfaction.

Receiving an answer in the affirmative, he replies he is right glad
of it, not liking to see a shipmate in a drift. And he gives his
quid a lurch aside, throws his hat carelessly upon the floor, shrugs
his shoulders, and as he styles it, nimbly brings himself to a
mooring, at Tom's side. "It's a hard comforter, this state. I don't
begrudge your mother the satisfaction she gets of sending you here.
In her eyes, ye see, yeer fit only to make fees out on, for them ar
lawyer chaps. They'd keep puttin' a body in an' out here during his
natural life, just for the sake of gettin' the fees. They don't care
for such things as you and I. We hain't no rights; and if we had,
why we hain't no power. This carryin' too much head sail, Tom, won't
do-'twon't!" Spunyarn shakes his head reprovingly, fusses over Tom,
turns him over on his wales, as he has it, and finally gets him on
his beam's ends, a besotted wreck unable to carry his canvas. "Lost
yeer reckonin', eh, Tom?" he continues as that bewildered individual
stares vacantly at him. The inebriate contorts painfully his face,
presses and presses his hands to his burning forehead, and says they
are firing a salute in his head, using his brains for ammunition.

"Well, now Tom, seein' as how I'm a friend of yourn - "

"Friend of mine?" interrupts Tom, shaking his head, and peering
through his fingers mistrustfully.

"And this is a hard lee shore you've beached upon; I'll lend ye a
hand to get in the head sail, and get the craft trimmed up a little.
A dash of the same brine will help keep the ballast right, then a
skysail-yard breakfast must be carefully stowed away, in order to
give a firmness to the timbers, and on the strength of these two
blocks for shoring up the hull, you must begin little by little, and
keep on brightening up until you have got the craft all right again.
And when you have got her right you must keep her right. I say,
Tom! - it won't do. You must reef down, or the devil 'll seize the
helm in one of these blows, and run you into a port too warm for
pea-jackets." For a moment, Spunyarn seems half inclined to grasp
Tom by his collarless coat and shake the hydrophobia, as he calls
it, out of him; then, as if incited by a second thought, he draws
from his shirt-bosom a large, wooden comb, and humming a tune
commences combing and fussing over Tom's hair, which stands erect
over his head like marline-spikes. At length he gets a craft-like
set upon his foretop, and turning his head first to the right, then
to the left, as a child does a doll, he views him with an air of
exultation. "I tell you what it is, Tom," he continues, relieving
him of the old coat, "the bright begins to come! There's three
points of weather made already."

"God bless you, Spunyarn," replies Tom, evidently touched by the
frankness and generosity of the old sailor. Indeed there was
something so whole-hearted about old Spunyarn, that he was held in
universal esteem by every one in jail, with the single exception of
Milman Mingle, the vote-cribber.

"Just think of yourself, Tom-don't mind me," pursues the sailor as
Tom squeezes firmly his hand. "You've had a hard enough time of it - "
Tom interrupts by saying, as he lays his hands upon his sides, he is
sore from head to foot.

"Don't wonder," returns the sailor. "It's a great State, this South
Carolina. It seems swarming with poor and powerless folks. Everybody
has power to put everybody in jail, where the State gives a body two
dog's-hair and rope-yarn blankets to lay upon, and grants the
sheriff, Mr. Hardscrable, full license to starve us, and put the
thirty cents a day it provides for our living into his breeches
pockets. Say what you will about it, old fellow, it's a brief way of
doing a little profit in the business of starvation. I don't say
this with any ill-will to the State that regards its powerless and
destitute with such criminal contempt-I don't." And he brings water,
gets Tom upon his feet, forces him into a clean shirt, and regards
him in the light of a child whose reformation he is determined on
perfecting. He sees that in the fallen man which implies a hope of
ultimate usefulness, notwithstanding the sullen silence, the gloomy
frown on his knitted brow, and the general air of despair that
pervades the external man.

"There!" he exclaims, having improved the personal of the inebriate,
and folding his arms as he steps back apace to have a better view of
his pupil - "now, don't think of being triced up in this dreary vault.
Be cheerful, brace up your resolution-never let the devil think you
know he is trying to put the last seal on your fate-never!" Having
slipped the black kerchief from his own neck, he secures it about
Tom's, adjusts the shark's bone at the throat, and mounts the braid
hat upon his head with a hearty blow on the crown. "Look at
yourself! They'd mistake you for a captain of the foretop," he
pursues, and good-naturedly he lays his broad, browned hands upon
Tom's shoulders, and forces him up to a triangular bit of glass
secured with three tacks to the wall.

Tom's hands wander down his sides as he contemplates himself in the

Online LibraryF. Colburn AdamsJustice in the By-Ways, a Tale of Life → online text (page 3 of 29)