Unknown.

The Best American Humorous Short Stories online

. (page 17 of 25)
Online LibraryUnknownThe Best American Humorous Short Stories → online text (page 17 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


generally accepted that the losing party would have been only too glad
to have the Colonel on their side. And Colonel Starbottle knew this,
as, perspiring, florid, and panting, he rebuttoned the lower buttons
of his blue frock-coat, which had become loosed in an oratorical
spasm, and readjusted his old-fashioned, spotless shirt frill above it
as he strutted from the court-room amidst the hand-shakings and
acclamations of his friends.

And here an unprecedented thing occurred. The Colonel absolutely
declined spirituous refreshment at the neighboring Palmetto Saloon,
and declared his intention of proceeding directly to his office in the
adjoining square. Nevertheless the Colonel quitted the building alone,
and apparently unarmed except for his faithful gold-headed stick,
which hung as usual from his forearm. The crowd gazed after him with
undisguised admiration of this new evidence of his pluck. It was
remembered also that a mysterious note had been handed to him at the
conclusion of his speech - evidently a challenge from the State
Attorney. It was quite plain that the Colonel - a practised
duellist - was hastening home to answer it.

But herein they were wrong. The note was in a female hand, and simply
requested the Colonel to accord an interview with the writer at the
Colonel's office as soon as he left the court. But it was an
engagement that the Colonel - as devoted to the fair sex as he was to
the "code" - was no less prompt in accepting. He flicked away the dust
from his spotless white trousers and varnished boots with his
handkerchief, and settled his black cravat under his Byron collar as
he neared his office. He was surprised, however, on opening the door
of his private office to find his visitor already there; he was still
more startled to find her somewhat past middle age and plainly
attired. But the Colonel was brought up in a school of Southern
politeness, already antique in the republic, and his bow of courtesy
belonged to the epoch of his shirt frill and strapped trousers. No one
could have detected his disappointment in his manner, albeit his
sentences were short and incomplete. But the Colonel's colloquial
speech was apt to be fragmentary incoherencies of his larger
oratorical utterances.

"A thousand pardons - for - er - having kept a lady waiting - er!
But - er - congratulations of friends - and - er - courtesy due to
them - er - interfered with - though perhaps only heightened - by
procrastination - pleasure of - ha!" And the Colonel completed his
sentence with a gallant wave of his fat but white and well-kept hand.

"Yes! I came to see you along o' that speech of yours. I was in court.
When I heard you gettin' it off on that jury, I says to myself that's
the kind o' lawyer _I_ want. A man that's flowery and convincin'! Just
the man to take up our case."

"Ah! It's a matter of business, I see," said the Colonel, inwardly
relieved, but externally careless. "And - er - may I ask the nature of
the case?"

"Well! it's a breach-o'-promise suit," said the visitor, calmly.

If the Colonel had been surprised before, he was now really startled,
and with an added horror that required all his politeness to conceal.
Breach-of-promise cases were his peculiar aversion. He had always held
them to be a kind of litigation which could have been obviated by the
prompt killing of the masculine offender - in which case he would have
gladly defended the killer. But a suit for damages! - _damages!_ - with
the reading of love-letters before a hilarious jury and court, was
against all his instincts. His chivalry was outraged; his sense of
humor was small - and in the course of his career he had lost one or
two important cases through an unexpected development of this quality
in a jury.

The woman had evidently noticed his hesitation, but mistook its cause.
"It ain't me - but my darter."

The Colonel recovered his politeness. "Ah! I am relieved, my dear
madam! I could hardly conceive a man ignorant enough to - er - er - throw
away such evident good fortune - or base enough to deceive the
trustfulness of womanhood - matured and experienced only in the
chivalry of our sex, ha!"

The woman smiled grimly. "Yes! - it's my darter, Zaidee Hooker - so ye
might spare some of them pretty speeches for _her_ - before the jury."

The Colonel winced slightly before this doubtful prospect, but
smiled. "Ha! Yes! - certainly - the jury. But - er - my dear lady, need
we go as far as that? Cannot this affair be settled - er - out of
court? Could not this - er - individual - be admonished - told that he
must give satisfaction - personal satisfaction - for his dastardly
conduct - to - er - near relative - or even valued personal friend?
The - er - arrangements necessary for that purpose I myself would
undertake."

He was quite sincere; indeed, his small black eyes shone with that
fire which a pretty woman or an "affair of honor" could alone kindle.
The visitor stared vacantly at him, and said, slowly:

"And what good is that goin' to do _us_?"

"Compel him to - er - perform his promise," said the Colonel, leaning
back in his chair.

"Ketch him doin' it!" said the woman, scornfully. "No - that ain't wot
we're after. We must make him _pay_! Damages - and nothin' short o'
_that_."

The Colonel bit his lip. "I suppose," he said, gloomily, "you have
documentary evidence - written promises and protestations - er - er -
love-letters, in fact?"

"No - nary a letter! Ye see, that's jest it - and that's where _you_
come in. You've got to convince that jury yourself. You've got to show
what it is - tell the whole story your own way. Lord! to a man like you
that's nothin'."

Startling as this admission might have been to any other lawyer,
Starbottle was absolutely relieved by it. The absence of any
mirth-provoking correspondence, and the appeal solely to his own
powers of persuasion, actually struck his fancy. He lightly put aside
the compliment with a wave of his white hand.

"Of course," said the Colonel, confidently, "there is strongly
presumptive and corroborative evidence? Perhaps you can give me - er - a
brief outline of the affair?"

"Zaidee kin do that straight enough, I reckon," said the woman; "what
I want to know first is, kin you take the case?"

The Colonel did not hesitate; his curiosity was piqued. "I certainly
can. I have no doubt your daughter will put me in possession of
sufficient facts and details - to constitute what we call - er - a
brief."

"She kin be brief enough - or long enough - for the matter of that,"
said the woman, rising. The Colonel accepted this implied witticism
with a smile.

"And when may I have the pleasure of seeing her?" he asked, politely.

"Well, I reckon as soon as I can trot out and call her. She's just
outside, meanderin' in the road - kinder shy, ye know, at first."

She walked to the door. The astounded Colonel nevertheless gallantly
accompanied her as she stepped out into the street and called,
shrilly, "You Zaidee!"

A young girl here apparently detached herself from a tree and the
ostentatious perusal of an old election poster, and sauntered down
towards the office door. Like her mother, she was plainly dressed;
unlike her, she had a pale, rather refined face, with a demure mouth
and downcast eyes. This was all the Colonel saw as he bowed profoundly
and led the way into his office, for she accepted his salutations
without lifting her head. He helped her gallantly to a chair, on which
she seated herself sideways, somewhat ceremoniously, with her eyes
following the point of her parasol as she traced a pattern on the
carpet. A second chair offered to the mother that lady, however,
declined. "I reckon to leave you and Zaidee together to talk it out,"
she said; turning to her daughter, she added, "Jest you tell him all,
Zaidee," and before the Colonel could rise again, disappeared from the
room. In spite of his professional experience, Starbottle was for a
moment embarrassed. The young girl, however, broke the silence without
looking up.

"Adoniram K. Hotchkiss," she began, in a monotonous voice, as if it
were a recitation addressed to the public, "first began to take notice
of me a year ago. Arter that - off and on - - "

"One moment," interrupted the astounded Colonel; "do you mean
Hotchkiss the President of the Ditch Company?" He had recognized the
name of a prominent citizen - a rigid ascetic, taciturn, middle-aged
man - a deacon - and more than that, the head of the company he had just
defended. It seemed inconceivable.

"That's him," she continued, with eyes still fixed on the parasol and
without changing her monotonous tone - "off and on ever since. Most of
the time at the Free-Will Baptist church - at morning service,
prayer-meetings, and such. And at home - outside - er - in the road."

"Is it this gentleman - Mr. Adoniram K. Hotchkiss - who - er - promised
marriage?" stammered the Colonel.

"Yes."

The Colonel shifted uneasily in his chair. "Most extraordinary!
for - you see - my dear young lady - this becomes - a - er - most delicate
affair."

"That's what maw said," returned the young woman, simply, yet with the
faintest smile playing around her demure lips and downcast cheek.

"I mean," said the Colonel, with a pained yet courteous smile, "that
this - er - gentleman - is in fact - er - one of my clients."

"That's what maw said, too, and of course your knowing him will make
it all the easier for you," said the young woman.

A slight flush crossed the Colonel's cheek as he returned quickly and
a little stiffly, "On the contrary - er - it may make it impossible for
me to - er - act in this matter."

The girl lifted her eyes. The Colonel held his breath as the long
lashes were raised to his level. Even to an ordinary observer that
sudden revelation of her eyes seemed to transform her face with subtle
witchery. They were large, brown, and soft, yet filled with an
extraordinary penetration and prescience. They were the eyes of an
experienced woman of thirty fixed in the face of a child. What else
the Colonel saw there Heaven only knows! He felt his inmost secrets
plucked from him - his whole soul laid bare - his vanity, belligerency,
gallantry - even his medieval chivalry, penetrated, and yet
illuminated, in that single glance. And when the eyelids fell again,
he felt that a greater part of himself had been swallowed up in them.

"I beg your pardon," he said, hurriedly. "I mean - this matter may be
arranged - er - amicably. My interest with - and as you wisely
say - my - er - knowledge of my client - er - Mr. Hotchkiss - may affect - a
compromise."

"And _damages_," said the young girl, readdressing her parasol, as if
she had never looked up.

The Colonel winced. "And - er - undoubtedly _compensation_ - if you do
not press a fulfilment of the promise. Unless," he said, with an
attempted return to his former easy gallantry, which, however, the
recollection of her eyes made difficult, "it is a question of - er - the
affections?"

"Which?" said his fair client, softly.

"If you still love him?" explained the Colonel, actually blushing.

Zaidee again looked up; again taking the Colonel's breath away with
eyes that expressed not only the fullest perception of what he had
_said_, but of what he thought and had not said, and with an added
subtle suggestion of what he might have thought. "That's tellin'," she
said, dropping her long lashes again. The Colonel laughed vacantly.
Then feeling himself growing imbecile, he forced an equally weak
gravity. "Pardon me - I understand there are no letters; may I know the
way in which he formulated his declaration and promises?"

"Hymn-books," said the girl, briefly.

"I beg your pardon," said the mystified lawyer.

"Hymn-books - marked words in them with pencil - and passed 'em on to
me," repeated Zaidee. "Like 'love,' 'dear,' 'precious,' 'sweet,' and
'blessed,'" she added, accenting each word with a push of her parasol
on the carpet. "Sometimes a whole line outer Tate and Brady - and
_Solomon's Song_, you know, and sich."

"I believe," said the Colonel, loftily, "that the - er - phrases of
sacred psalmody lend themselves to the language of the affections. But
in regard to the distinct promise of marriage - was there - er - no
_other_ expression?"

"Marriage Service in the prayer-book - lines and words outer that - all
marked," said Zaidee. The Colonel nodded naturally and approvingly.
"Very good. Were others cognizant of this? Were there any witnesses?"

"Of course not," said the girl. "Only me and him. It was generally at
church-time - or prayer-meeting. Once, in passing the plate, he slipped
one o' them peppermint lozenges with the letters stamped on it 'I love
you' for me to take."

The Colonel coughed slightly. "And you have the lozenge?"

"I ate it," said the girl, simply.

"Ah," said the Colonel. After a pause he added, delicately:
"But were these attentions - er - confined to - er - -sacred precincts?
Did he meet you elsewhere?"

"Useter pass our house on the road," returned the girl, dropping into
her monotonous recital, "and useter signal."

"Ah, signal?" repeated the Colonel, approvingly.

"Yes! He'd say 'Kerrow,' and I'd say 'Kerree.' Suthing like a bird,
you know."

Indeed, as she lifted her voice in imitation of the call the Colonel
thought it certainly very sweet and birdlike. At least as _she_ gave
it. With his remembrance of the grim deacon he had doubts as to the
melodiousness of _his_ utterance. He gravely made her repeat it.

"And after that signal?" he added, suggestively.

"He'd pass on," said the girl.

The Colonel coughed slightly, and tapped his desk with his pen-holder.

"Were there any endearments - er - caresses - er - such as taking your
hand - er - clasping your waist?" he suggested, with a gallant yet
respectful sweep of his white hand and bowing of his head; - "er -
slight pressure of your fingers in the changes of a dance - I mean,"
he corrected himself, with an apologetic cough - "in the passing of
the plate?"

"No; - he was not what you'd call 'fond,'" returned the girl.

"Ah! Adoniram K. Hotchkiss was not 'fond' in the ordinary acceptance
of the word," said the Colonel, with professional gravity.

She lifted her disturbing eyes, and again absorbed his in her own. She
also said "Yes," although her eyes in their mysterious prescience of
all he was thinking disclaimed the necessity of any answer at all. He
smiled vacantly. There was a long pause. On which she slowly
disengaged her parasol from the carpet pattern and stood up.

"I reckon that's about all," she said.

"Er - yes - but one moment," said the Colonel, vaguely. He would have
liked to keep her longer, but with her strange premonition of him he
felt powerless to detain her, or explain his reason for doing so. He
instinctively knew she had told him all; his professional judgment
told him that a more hopeless case had never come to his knowledge.
Yet he was not daunted, only embarrassed. "No matter," he said,
vaguely. "Of course I shall have to consult with you again." Her eyes
again answered that she expected he would, but she added, simply,
"When?"

"In the course of a day or two," said the Colonel, quickly. "I will
send you word." She turned to go. In his eagerness to open the door
for her he upset his chair, and with some confusion, that was actually
youthful, he almost impeded her movements in the hall, and knocked his
broad-brimmed Panama hat from his bowing hand in a final gallant
sweep. Yet as her small, trim, youthful figure, with its simple
Leghorn straw hat confined by a blue bow under her round chin, passed
away before him, she looked more like a child than ever.

The Colonel spent that afternoon in making diplomatic inquiries. He
found his youthful client was the daughter of a widow who had a small
ranch on the cross-roads, near the new Free-Will Baptist church - the
evident theatre of this pastoral. They led a secluded life; the girl
being little known in the town, and her beauty and fascination
apparently not yet being a recognized fact. The Colonel felt a
pleasurable relief at this, and a general satisfaction he could not
account for. His few inquiries concerning Mr. Hotchkiss only confirmed
his own impressions of the alleged lover - a serious-minded,
practically abstracted man - abstentive of youthful society, and the
last man apparently capable of levity of the affections or serious
flirtation. The Colonel was mystified - but determined of
purpose - whatever that purpose might have been.

The next day he was at his office at the same hour. He was alone - as
usual - the Colonel's office really being his private lodgings,
disposed in connecting rooms, a single apartment reserved for
consultation. He had no clerk; his papers and briefs being taken by
his faithful body-servant and ex-slave "Jim" to another firm who did
his office-work since the death of Major Stryker - the Colonel's only
law partner, who fell in a duel some years previous. With a fine
constancy the Colonel still retained his partner's name on his
door-plate - and, it was alleged by the superstitious, kept a certain
invincibility also through the _manes_ of that lamented and somewhat
feared man.

The Colonel consulted his watch, whose heavy gold case still showed
the marks of a providential interference with a bullet destined for
its owner, and replaced it with some difficulty and shortness of
breath in his fob. At the same moment he heard a step in the passage,
and the door opened to Adoniram K. Hotchkiss. The Colonel was
impressed; he had a duellist's respect for punctuality.

The man entered with a nod and the expectant, inquiring look of a busy
man. As his feet crossed that sacred threshold the Colonel became all
courtesy; he placed a chair for his visitor, and took his hat from his
half-reluctant hand. He then opened a cupboard and brought out a
bottle of whiskey and two glasses.

"A - er - slight refreshment, Mr. Hotchkiss," he suggested, politely. "I
never drink," replied Hotchkiss, with the severe attitude of a total
abstainer. "Ah - er - not the finest bourbon whiskey, selected by a
Kentucky friend? No? Pardon me! A cigar, then - the mildest Havana."

"I do not use tobacco nor alcohol in any form," repeated Hotchkiss,
ascetically. "I have no foolish weaknesses."

The Colonel's moist, beady eyes swept silently over his client's
sallow face. He leaned back comfortably in his chair, and half
closing his eyes as in dreamy reminiscence, said, slowly: "Your
reply, Mr. Hotchkiss, reminds me of - er - sing'lar circumstances that
- er - occurred, in point of fact - at the St. Charles Hotel, New
Orleans. Pinkey Hornblower - personal friend - invited Senator
Doolittle to join him in social glass. Received, sing'larly enough,
reply similar to yours. 'Don't drink nor smoke?' said Pinkey. 'Gad,
sir, you must be mighty sweet on the ladies.' Ha!" The Colonel paused
long enough to allow the faint flush to pass from Hotchkiss's cheek,
and went on, half closing his eyes: "'I allow no man, sir, to discuss
my personal habits,' said Doolittle, over his shirt collar. 'Then I
reckon shootin' must be one of those habits,' said Pinkey, coolly.
Both men drove out on the Shell Road back of cemetery next morning.
Pinkey put bullet at twelve paces through Doolittle's temple. Poor
Doo never spoke again. Left three wives and seven children, they say
- two of 'em black."

"I got a note from you this morning," said Hotchkiss, with badly
concealed impatience. "I suppose in reference to our case. You have
taken judgment, I believe." The Colonel, without replying, slowly
filled a glass of whiskey and water. For a moment he held it dreamily
before him, as if still engaged in gentle reminiscences called up by
the act. Then tossing it off, he wiped his lips with a large white
handkerchief, and leaning back comfortably in his chair, said, with a
wave of his hand, "The interview I requested, Mr. Hotchkiss, concerns
a subject - which I may say is - er - er - at present _not_ of a public
or business nature - although _later_ it might become - er - er - both.
It is an affair of some - er - delicacy."

The Colonel paused, and Mr. Hotchkiss regarded him with increased
impatience. The Colonel, however, continued, with unchanged
deliberation: "It concerns - er - a young lady - a beautiful,
high-souled creature, sir, who, apart from her personal loveliness -
er - er - I may say is of one of the first families of Missouri, and -
er - not - remotely connected by marriage with one of - er - er - my
boyhood's dearest friends. The latter, I grieve to say, was a pure
invention of the Colonel's - an oratorical addition to the scanty
information he had obtained the previous day. The young lady," he
continued, blandly, "enjoys the further distinction of being the
object of such attention from you as would make this interview -
really - a confidential matter - er - er - among friends and - er - er -
relations in present and future. I need not say that the lady I refer
to is Miss Zaidee Juno Hooker, only daughter of Almira Ann Hooker,
relict of Jefferson Brown Hooker, formerly of Boone County, Kentucky,
and latterly of - er - Pike County, Missouri."

The sallow, ascetic hue of Mr. Hotchkiss's face had passed through a
livid and then a greenish shade, and finally settled into a sullen
red. "What's all this about?" he demanded, roughly. The least touch of
belligerent fire came into Starbottle's eye, but his bland courtesy
did not change. "I believe," he said, politely, "I have made myself
clear as between - er - gentlemen, though perhaps not as clear as I
should to - er - er - jury."

Mr. Hotchkiss was apparently struck with some significance in the
lawyer's reply. "I don't know," he said, in a lower and more cautious
voice, "what you mean by what you call 'my attentions' to - any one - or
how it concerns you. I have not exhausted half a dozen words with - the
person you name - have never written her a line - nor even called at her
house." He rose with an assumption of ease, pulled down his waistcoat,
buttoned his coat, and took up his hat. The Colonel did not move. "I
believe I have already indicated my meaning in what I have called
'your attentions,'" said the Colonel, blandly, "and given you my
'concern' for speaking as - er - er mutual friend. As to _your_
statement of your relations with Miss Hooker, I may state that it is
fully corroborated by the statement of the young lady herself in this
very office yesterday."

"Then what does this impertinent nonsense mean? Why am I summoned
here?" said Hotchkiss, furiously.

"Because," said the Colonel, deliberately, "that statement is
infamously - yes, damnably to your discredit, sir!"

Mr. Hotchkiss was here seized by one of those important and
inconsistent rages which occasionally betray the habitually cautious
and timid man. He caught up the Colonel's stick, which was lying on
the table. At the same moment the Colonel, without any apparent
effort, grasped it by the handle. To Mr. Hotchkiss's astonishment, the
stick separated in two pieces, leaving the handle and about two feet
of narrow glittering steel in the Colonel's hand. The man recoiled,
dropping the useless fragment. The Colonel picked it up, fitting the
shining blade in it, clicked the spring, and then rising, with a face
of courtesy yet of unmistakably genuine pain, and with even a slight
tremor in his voice, said, gravely:

"Mr. Hotchkiss, I owe you a thousand apologies, sir, that - er -
a weapon should be drawn by me - even through your own inadvertence -
under the sacred protection of my roof, and upon an unarmed man. I
beg your pardon, sir, and I even withdraw the expressions which
provoked that inadvertence. Nor does this apology prevent you from
holding me responsible - personally responsible - _elsewhere_ for an
indiscretion committed in behalf of a lady - my - er - client."

"Your client? Do you mean you have taken her case? You, the counsel
for the Ditch Company?" said Mr. Hotchkiss, in trembling indignation.

"Having won _your_ case, sir," said the Colonel, coolly,
"the - er - usages of advocacy do not prevent me from espousing the
cause of the weak and unprotected."

"We shall see, sir," said Hotchkiss, grasping the handle of the door
and backing into the passage. "There are other lawyers who - "

"Permit me to see you out," interrupted the Colonel, rising politely.

" - will be ready to resist the attacks of blackmail," continued
Hotchkiss, retreating along the passage.

"And then you will be able to repeat your remarks to me _in the
street_," continued the Colonel, bowing, as he persisted in following
his visitor to the door.

But here Mr. Hotchkiss quickly slammed it behind him, and hurried
away. The Colonel returned to his office, and sitting down, took a
sheet of letter paper bearing the inscription "Starbottle and Stryker,


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

Online LibraryUnknownThe Best American Humorous Short Stories → online text (page 17 of 25)