Hand looked at the yellow envelope curiously and turned it over and over in his hand. It gave him a feeling of uneasiness and suppressed excitement to see his name through the transparent front. He was not used to receiving telegrams. Instinctively he delayed opening it because he dreaded what it might contain. Some forgotten incident in his childhood made him associate telegrams with bad news. Who could have sent it? And what could it be about? Well, open it, you fool, and find out!
He ripped off the flap and took out the message. He read it quickly, first glancing at the signature. It was from his Uncle Mark Joyner:
“YOUR AUNT MAW DIED LAST NIGHT STOP FUNERAL THURSDAY IN LIBYA HILL STOP COME HOME IF YOU CAN.”
That was all. No explanation of what she had died of. Old age, most likely. Nothing else could have killed her. She hadn’t been sick or’ they would have let him know before this.
The news shook him profoundly. But it was not grief he felt so much as a deep sense of loss, almost impersonal in its quality — a sense of loss and unbelief such as one might feel to discover suddenly that some great force ‘in nature had ceased to operate. He couldn’t take it in. Ever since his mother had died when he was only eight years old, Aunt Maw had been the most solid and permanent fixture in his boy’s universe. She was a spinster, the older sister of his mother and of his Uncle Mark, and she had taken charge of him and brought him up with all the inflexible zeal of her puritanical nature. She had done her best to make a Joyner of him and a credit to the narrow, provincial, mountain clan to which she belonged.-In this she had failed, and his defection from the ways of Joyner righteousness had caused her deep pain. He had known this for a long time; but now he realised, too, more clearly than he had, ever done before, that she had never faltered in her duty to him as she saw it. As he thought about her life the felt an inexpressible pity for her, and a surge of tenderness and affection almost choked him.
As far back as he could remember, Aunt Maw had seemed to him an ageless crone, as old as God. He could still hear her voice — that croaking monotone which had gone on and on in endless stories of her past, peopling his childhood world with the whole host of Joyners dead and buried in the hills of Zebulon in ancient days before the Civil War. And almost every tale she had told him was a chronicle of sickness, death, and sorrow. She had known about all the Joyners for the last hundred years, and whether they had died of consumption, typhoid fever, pneumonia, meningitis, or pellagra, and she had relived each incident in their lives with an air of croaking relish. From her he had got a picture of his mountain kinsmen that was constantly dark with the terrors of misery and sudden death, a picture made ghostly at frequent intervals by supernatural revelations. The Joyners, so she thought, had been endowed with occult powers by the Almighty, and weft for ever popping up on country roads and speaking to people as they passed, only to have it turn out later that they had been fifty miles away at the time. They were for ever hearing voices and receiving premonitions. If a neighbour died suddenly, the Joyners would flock from miles around ‘to sit up with the corpse, and in the flickering light of pine logs on the hearth they would talk unceasingly through the night, their droning voices punctuated by the crumbling of the ash as they told how they had received intimations of the impending death a week before it happened.
This was the image of the Joyner world which Aunt Maw’s tireless memories had built up in the mind and spirit of the boy. And he had felt somehow that although other men would live their day and die, the Joyners were a race apart, not subject to this law. They fed on death and were triumphant over it, and the Joyners would go on for ever. But now Aunt Maw the oldest and most death-triumphant Joyner of them all, was dead . . .
The funeral was to be on Thursday. This was Tuesday. If he took the train today, he would arrive tomorrow. He knew that all the Joyners from the hills of Zebulon County in Old Catawba would be gathering even now to hold their tribal rites of death and sorrow, and if he got there so soon he would not be able to escape the horror of their brooding talk. It would be better to wait a day and turn up just before the funeral.
It was now early September. The new term at the School for Utility Cultures would not begin until after the middle of the month, George had not been back to Libya Hill in several years, and he thought he might remain a week or so to see the town again. But he dreaded the prospect of staying with his Joyner relatives, especially at a time like this. Then he remembered Randy Shepperton, who lived next door. Mr. and Mrs. Shepperton were both dead now, and the older girl had married and moved away. Randy had a good job in the town and lived on in the family place with his sister Margaret, who kept house for him. Perhaps they could put him up. They would understand his feelings. So he sent a telegram to Randy, asking for his hospitality, and telling what train he would arrive on.
By the next afternoon, when George went to Pennsylvania Station to catch his train, he had recovered from the first shock of Aunt Maw’s death. The human mind is a fearful instrument of adaptation, and in nothing is this more clearly shown than in its mysterious powers of resilience, self-protection, and self-healing. Unless an event completely shatters the order of one’s life, the mind, if it has youth and health and time enough, accepts the inevitable and gets itself ready for the next happening like a grimly dutiful American tourist who, on arriving at a new town, looks around him, takes his bearings, and says, “Well, where do I go from here?” So it was with George. The prospect of the funeral filled him with dread, but that was still a day off; meanwhile he had a long train ride ahead of him, and he pushed his sombre feelings into the background and allowed himself to savour freely the eager excitement which any journey by train always gave him.
The station, as he entered it, was murmurous with the immense and distant sound of time. Great; slant beams of mottled light fell ponderously athwart the station’s floor, and the calm voice of time hovered along the walls and ceiling of that mighty room, distilled out of the voices and movements of the people who swarmed beneath. It had the murmur of a distant sea, the languorous lapse and flow of waters on a beach. It was elemental, detached, indifferent to the lives of men. They contributed to it as drops of rain contribute to a river that draws its flood and movement majestically from great depths, out of purple hills at evening.
Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time, and now it seemed to George that there was a superb fitness in the fact that the one which held it better than all others should be a railway station. For here, as nowhere else on earth, men were brought together for a moment at the beginning or end of their innumerable journeys, here one saw their greetings and farewells, here, in a single instant, one got the entire picture of the human destiny. Men came and went, they passed and vanished, and all were moving through the moments of their lives to death, all made small tickings in the sound of time — but the voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed, a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof.
Each man and woman was full of his own journey. He had one way’ to go, one end to reach, through all the shifting complexities of the crowd. For each it was his journey, and he cared nothing about the journeys of the others. Here, as George waited, was a traveller who was afraid that he would miss his train. He was excited, his movements were feverish and abrupt, he shouted to his porter, he went to the window to buy his ticket, he had to wait in line, he fairly pranced with nervousness and kept looking at the clock. Then his wife came quickly towards him over the polished floor. When she was still some distance off, she shouted:
“Have you got the tickets? We haven’t much time! We’ll miss the train!”
“Don’t I know it?” he shouted back in an annoyed tone. “I’m doing the best I can!”’ Then he added bitterly and loudly: “We may make it if this man in front of me ever gets done buying his ticket!”
The man in front turned on him menacingly. “Now wait a minute, wait a minute!” he said. “You’re not the only one who has to make a train, you know! I was here before you were! You’ll have to wait your tarn like everybody else!”
A quarrel now developed between them. The other travellers who were waiting for their tickets grew angry and began to mutter. The ticket agent drummed impatiently on his window and peered out at them with a sour visage. Finally some young tough down the line called out in tones of whining irritation:
“Aw, take it outside f’ Chris’ sake! Give the rest of us a chance! You guys are holdin’ up the line!”
At last the man got his tickets and rushed towards his porter, hot and excited. The negro waited suave and smiling, full of easy reassurance:
“You folks don’t need to hurry now. You got lotsa time to make that train. It ain’t goin’ away without you.”
Who were these travellers for whom time lay coiled in delicate twists of blue steel wire in each man’s pocket? Here were a few of them: a homesick nigger going back to Georgia; a rich young man from an estate on the Hudson who was going to visit his mother in Washington; a district superintendent, and three of his agents, of a farm machinery company, who had been attending a convention of district leaders in the city; the president of a bank in an Old Catawba town which was tottering on the edge of ruin, who had come desperately, accompanied by two local politicians, to petition New York bankers for a loan; a Greek with tan shoes, a cardboard valise; a swarthy face, and eyes glittering with mistrust, who had peered in through the ticket seller’s window, saying: “How mucha you want to go to Pittsburgh, eh?”; an effeminate young man from one of the city universities who was going to make his weekly lecture on the arts of the theatre to a dub of ladies in Trenton, New Jersey; a lady poetess from a town in Indiana who had been to New York for her yearly spree of “bohemianism”; a prize-fighter and his manager on their way to a fight in St. Louis; some Princeton boys just back from a summer in Europe, on their way home for a short visit before returning to college; a private soldier in the United States army, with the cheap, tough, and slovenly appearance of a private soldier in the United States army; the president of a state university in the Middle West who had just made an eloquent appeal for funds to the New York alumni; a young married couple from Mississippi, with everything new — new clothes, new baggage — and a shy, hostile, and bewildered look; two little Filipinos, brown as berries and with the delicate bones of birds, dressed with the foppish perfection of manikins; women from the suburban towns of New Jersey who had come to the city to shop; women and girls from small towns in the South and West, who had come for holidays, sprees, or visits; the managers and agents of clothing stores in little towns all over the country who had come to the city to buy new styles and fashions; New Yorkers of a certain class, flashily dressed, sensual, and with a high, hard finish, knowing and assured, on their way to vacations in Atlantic City; jaded, faded, bedraggled women, scolding and jerking viciously at the puny arms of dirty children; swarthy, scowling, and dominant-looking Italian men with their dark, greasy, and flabby-looking women, sullen but submissive both to lust and beatings; and smartly-dressed American women, obedient to neither bed nor whip, who had assertive, harsh voices, bold glances, and the good figures but not the living curves, either of body or of spirit, of love, lust, tenderness, or any female fullness of the earth whatever.
There were all sorts and conditions of men and travellers: poor people with the hard, sterile faces of all New Jerseys of the flesh and spirit; shabby and beaten-looking devils with cheap suitcases containing a tie, a collar, and a shirt, who had a look of having dropped for ever off of passing trains into the dirty cinders of new towns and the hope of some new fortune; the shabby floaters and drifters of the nation; suave, wealthy, and experienced people who had been too far, too often, on too many costly trains and ships, and who never looked out of windows any more; old men and women from the country on first visits to their children in the city, who looked about them constantly and suspiciously with the quick eyes of birds and animals, alert, mistrustful, and afraid. There were people who saw everything, and people who saw nothing; people who were weary, sullen, sour, and people who laughed, shouted, and were exultant with the thrill of the voyage; people who thrust and jostled, and people who stood quietly and watched and waited; people with amused, superior looks, and people who glared and bristled pugnaciously. Young, old, rich, poor, Jews, Gentiles, Negroes, Italians, Greeks, Americans — they were all there in the station, their infinitely varied destinies suddenly harmonised and given a moment of intense and sombre meaning as they were gathered into the murmurous, all-taking unity of time.
George had a berth in car K19. It was not really different in any respect from any other pullman car, yet for George it had a very special quality and meaning. For every day K19 bound together two points upon the continent — the great city and the small town of Libya Hill where he had been born, eight hundred miles away. It left New York at one-thirty-five each afternoon, and it arrived in Libya Hill at eleven-twenty the next morning.
The moment he entered the pullman he was transported instantly from the vast allness of general humanity in the station into the familiar geography of his home town. One might have been away for years and never have seen ‘an old familiar face; one might have wandered to the far ends of the earth; one might have got with child a mandrake root, or heard mermaids singing, or known the words and music of what songs the Sirens sang; one might have lived and worked alone for ages in the canyons of Manhattan until the very memory of home was lost and far as in a dream: yet the moment that he entered K19 it all came back again, his feet touched earth, and he was home.
It was uncanny. And what was most wonderful and mysterious about it was that one could come here to this appointed meeting each day at thirty-five minutes after one o’clock, one could come here through the humming traffic of the city to the gigantic portals of the mighty station, one could walk through the concourse for ever swarming with its bustle of arrival and departure, one could traverse the great expanses of the station, peopled with Everybody and haunted by the voice of time — and then, down those steep stairs, there in the tunnel’s depth, underneath this hive-like universe of life, waiting in its proper place, no whit different outwardly from all its other grimy brethren, was K19.
The beaming porter took his bag with a cheerful greeting: “Yes, suh, Mistah Webbah! Glad to see you, suh! Comin’ down to see de folks?”
And as they made their way down the green aisle to his seat, George told him that he was going home to his aunt’s funeral. Instantly the negro’s smile was blotted out, and his face took on an expression of deep solemnity and respect.
“I’se sorry to hear dat, Mistah Webbah,” he said, shaking his head. “Yes, suh, I’se pow’ful sorry to hear you say dat.”
Even before these words, were out of mind, another voice from the seat behind was raised in greeting, and George did not have to turn to know who it was. It was Sol Isaacs, of The Toggery, and George knew that he had been up to the city on a buying trip, a pilgrimage that he made four times a year. Somehow the knowledge of this commercial punctuality warmed the young man’s heart, as did the friendly beak-nosed face, the gaudy shirt, the bright neck-tie, and the dapper smartness of the light grey suit — for Sol was what is known as “a snappy dresser”.
George looked around him now to see if there were any others that he knew. Yes, there was the tall, spare, brittle, sandy-complexioned figure of the banker, Jarvis Riggs, and on the seat opposite, engaged in conversation with him, were two other local dignitaries. He recognized the round-featured, weak amiability of the Mayor, Baxter Kennedy; and, sprawled beside him, his long, heavy shanks thrust out into the aisle, the bald crown of his head with its tonsured fringe of black hair thrown back against the top of the seat, his loose-jowled face hanging heavy as he talked, was the large, well-oiled beefiness of Pa on Flack, who manipulated the politics of Libya Hill and was called “Parson” because he never missed a prayer-meeting at the Campbellite Church. They were talking earnestly and loudly, and George could overhear fragments of their conversation:
“Market Street — oh, give me Market Street any day!”
“Gay Rudd is asking two thousand a front foot for his. He’ll get it, too. I wouldn’t take a cent less than twenty-five, and I’m not selling anyway.”
“You mark my word, she’ll go to three before another year is out! And that’s not Al! That’s only the beginning!”
Could this be Libya Hill that they were talking about? It didn’t sound at all like the sleepy little mountain town he had known all his life. He rose from his seat and went over to the group.
“Why, hello, Webber! Hello, son!” Parson Flack screwed up his face into something that was meant for an ingratiating smile and showed his big yellow teeth. “Glad to see you. How are you, son?”
George shook hands all round and stood beside them a moment.
“We heard you speaking to the porter when you came in,” said the Mayor, with a look of solemn commiseration on his weak face. “Sorry, son. We didn’t know about it. We’ve been away a week. Happen suddenly? . . . Yes, yes, of course. Well, your aunt was pretty old. Got to expect that sort of thing at her time of life. She was a good woman, a good woman. Sorry, son, that such a sad occasion brings you home.”
There was a short silence after this, as if the others wished it understood that the Mayor had voiced their sentiments, too. Then, this mark of respect to the dead being accomplished, Jarvis Riggs spoke up heartily:
“You ought to stay around a while, Webber. You wouldn’t know the town. Things are booming down our way. Why, only the other day Mack Judson paid three hundred thousand for the Draper Block. The building is a dump, of course — what he paid for was the land. That’s five thousand a foot. Pretty good for Libya Hill, eh? The Reeves estate has bought up all the land on Parker Street below Parker Hill. They’re going to build the whole thing up with business property. That’s the way it is all over town. Within a few years Libya Hill is going to be the largest and most beautiful city in the state. You mark my words.”
“Yes,” agreed Parson Flack, nodding his head ponderously, knowingly, “and I hear they’ve been trying to buy your uncle’s property on South Main Street, there at the corner of the Square. A syndicate wants to tear down the hardware store and put up a big hotel. Your uncle wouldn’t sell. He’s smart.”
George returned to his seat feeling confused and bewildered. He was going back home for the first time in several years, and he wanted to see the town as he remembered it. Evidently he would find it considerably changed. But what was this that was happening to it? He couldn’t make it out. It disturbed him vaguely, as one is always disturbed and shaken by the sudden realisation of Time’s changes in something that one has known all one’s life.
The train had hurtled like a projectile through its tube beneath the Hudson River to emerge in the dazzling sunlight of a September afternoon, and now it was racing across the flat desolation of the Jersey meadows. George sat by the window and saw the smouldering dumps, the bogs, the blackened factories slide past, and felt that one of the most wonderful things in the world is the experience of being on a train. It is so different from watching a train go by. To anyone outside, a speeding train is a thunderbolt of driving rods, a hot hiss of steam, a blurred flash of coaches, a wall of movement and of noise, a shriek, a wail, and then just emptiness and absence, with a feeling of “There goes everybody!” without knowing who anybody is. And all of a sudden the watcher feels the vastness and loneliness of America, and the nothingness of all those little lives burled past upon the immensity of the continent. But if one is inside the train, everything is different. The train itself is a miracle of man’s handiwork, and everything about it is eloquent of human purpose and direction. One feels the brakes go on when the train is coming to a river, and one knows that the old gloved hand of cunning is at the throttle. One’s own sense of manhood and of mastery is heightened by being on a train. And all the other people, how real they are! One sees the fat black porter with his ivory teeth and the great swollen gland on the back of his neck, and one warms with friendship for him. One looks at all the pretty girls with a sharpened eye and an awakened pulse. One observes all the other passengers with lively interest, and feels that he has known them for ever. In the morning most of them will be gone out of his life; some will drop out silently at night through the dark, drugged snoring of the sleepers; but now all are caught upon the wing and held for a moment in the peculiar intimacy of this pullman-car which has become their common home for a night.
Two travelling salesmen have struck up a chance acquaintance in the smoking-room, entering immediately the vast confraternity of their trade, and in a moment they are laying out the continent as familiarly as if it were their own backyard. They tell about running into So-and-So in St. Paul last July, and ——
“Who do you suppose I met coming out of Brown’s Hotel in Denver just a week ago?”
“You don’t mean it! I haven’t seen old Joe in years!”
“And Jim Withers — they’ve transferred him to the Atlanta office!”
“Going to New Orleans?”
“No, I’ll make it this trip. I was there in May.”
With such talk as this one grows instantly familiar. One enters naturally into the lives of all these people, caught here for just a night and hurtled down together across the continent at sixty miles an hour, and one becomes a member of the whole huge family of the earth.
Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began.
At the far end of the car a man stood up and started back down the aisle towards the washroom. He walked with a slight limp and leaned upon a cane, and with his free hand he held on to the backs of the seats to brace himself against the lurching of the train. As he came abreast of George, who sat there gazing out the window, the man stopped abruptly. A strong, good-natured voice, warm, easy, bantering, unafraid, unchanged — exactly as it was when it was fourteen years of age — broke like a flood of living light upon his consciousness:
“Well I’ll be dogged! Hi, there, Monkus! Where you goin’?”
At the sound of the old jesting nickname George looked up quickly. It was Nebraska Crane. The square, freckled, sunburned visage had the same humorous friendliness it had always had, and the tar-black Cherokee eyes looked out with the same straight, deadly fearlessness. The big brown paw came out and they clasped each other firmly. And, instantly, it was like coming home to a strong and friendly place. In another moment they were seated together, talking with the familiarity of people whom no gulf of years and distance could alter or separate.
George had seen Nebraska Crane only once in all the years since he himself had first left Libya Hill and gone away to college. But he had not lost sight of him. Nobody had lost sight of Nebraska Crane. That wiry, fearless little figure of the Cherokee boy who used to comedown the hill on Locust Street with the bat slung over his shoulder and the well-oiled fielder’s mitt protruding from his hip-pocket had been prophetic of a greater destiny, for Nebraska had become a professional baseball player, he had crashed into the big leagues, and his name had been emblazoned in the papers every day.
The newspapers had had a lot to do with his seeing Nebraska that other time. It was in August 1925, just after George had returned to New York from his first trip abroad. That very night, in fact, a little before midnight, as he was seated in a Childs Restaurant with smoking wheatcakes, coffee, and an ink-fresh copy of next morning’s Herald–Tribune before him, the headline jumped out at him: “Crane Slams Another Homer”. He read the account of the game eagerly, and felt a strong desire to see Nebraska again and to get back in his blood once more the honest tang of America. Acting on a sudden impulse, he decided to call him up. Sure enough, his name was in the book, with an address way up in the Bronx. He gave the number and waited. A man’s voice answered the phone, but at first he didn’t recognise it.
“Hello! . . . Hello! . . . Is Mr. Crane there? . . . Is that you, Bras?”
“Hello.” Nebraska’s voice was hesitant, slow, a little hostile, touched with the caution and suspicion of mountain people when speaking to a stranger. “Who is that? . . . Who? . . . Is that you, Monk?”— suddenly and quickly, as he recognised who it was. “Well I’ll be dogged!” he cried. His tone was delighted, astounded, warm with friendly greeting now, and had the somewhat high and faintly howling quality that mountain people’s voices often have when they are talking to someone over the telephone: the tone was full, sonorous, countrified, and a little puzzled, as if he were yelling to someone on an adjoining mountain peak on a gusty day in autumn when the wind was thrashing through the trees. “Where’d you come from? How the hell are you, boy?” he yelled before George could answer. “Where you been all this time, anyway?”
“I’ve been in Europe. I just got back this morning.”
“Well I’ll be dogged!”— still astounded, delighted, full of howling friendliness. “When am I gonna see you? How about comin’ to the game tomorrow? I’ll fix you up. And say,” he went on rapidly, “if you can stick aroun’ after the game, I’ll take you home to meet the wife and kid. How about it?”
So it was agreed. George went to the game and saw Nebraska knock another home run, but he remembered best what happened afterwards. When the player had had his shower and had dressed, the two friends left the ball park, and as they went out a crowd of young boys who had been waiting at the gate rushed upon them. They were those dark-faced, dark-eyed, dark-haired little urchins who spring up like dragon seed from the grim pavements of New York, but in whose tough little faces and raucous voices there still remains, curiously, the innocence and faith of children everywhere.
“It’s Bras!” the children cried. “Hi, Bras! Hey, Bras!” In a moment they were pressing round him in a swarming horde, deafening the ears with their shrill cries, begging, shouting, tugging at his sleeves, doing everything they could to attract his attention, holding dirty little scraps of paper towards him, stubs of pencils, battered little note-books, asking him to sign his autograph.
He behaved with the spontaneous warmth and kindliness of his character. He scrawled his name out rapidly on a dozen grimy bits of paper, skilfully working his way along through the yelling, pushing, jumping group, and all the time keeping up a rapid fire of banter, badinage, and good-natured reproof:
“All right — give it here, then! . . . Why don’t you fellahs pick on somebody else once in a while? . . . Say, boy!” he said suddenly, turning to look down at one unfortunate child, and pointing an accusing finger at him —“What you doin’ aroun’ here again, today? I signed my name fer you at least a dozen times!”
“No sir, Misteh Crane!” the urchin earnestly replied. “Honest — not me!”
“Ain’t that right?” Nebraska said, appealing to the other children. “Don’t this boy keep comin’ back here every day?”
They grinned, delighted at the chagrin of their fellow petitioner. “Dat’s right, Misteh Crane! Dat guy’s got a whole book wit’ nuttin’ but yoeh name in it!”
“Ah-h!” the victim cried, and turned upon his betrayers bitterly. “What youse guys tryin’ to do — get wise or somep’n? Honest, Misteh Crane!”— he looked up earnestly again at Nebraska —“Don’t believe ’em! I jest want yoeh ottygraph! Please, Misteh Crane, it’ll only take a minute!”
For a moment more Nebraska stood looking down at the child with an expression of mock sternness; at last he took the outstretched note-book, rapidly scratched his name across a page, and handed it back. And as he did so, he put his big paw on the urchin’s head and gave it a clumsy pat; then, gently and playfully, he shoved it from him, and walked off down the street.
The apartment where Nebraska lived was like a hundred thousand others in the Bronx. The ugly yellow brick building had a false front, with meaningless little turrets at the corners of the roof, and a general air of spurious luxury about it. The rooms were rather small and cramped, and were made even more so by the heavy, over-stuffed Grand Rapids furniture. The walls of the living-room, painted a mottled, rusty cream, were bare except for a couple of sentimental coloured prints, while the place of honour over the mantel was reserved for an enlarged and garishly tinted photograph of Nebraska’s little son at the age of two, looking straight and solemnly out at all comers from a gilded oval frame.
Myrtle, Nebraska’s wife, was small and plump, and pretty in a doll-like way. Her corn-silk hair was frizzled in a halo about her face, and her chubby features were heavily accented by rouge and lipstick. But she was simple and natural in her talk and bearing, and George liked her at once. She welcomed him with a warm and friendly smile and said she had heard a lot about him.
They all sat down. The child, who was three or four years old by this time, and who had been shy, holding on to his mother’s dress and peeping out from behind her, now ran across the room to his father and began climbing all over him. Nebraska and Myrtle asked George a lot of questions about himself, what he had been doing, where he had been, and especially what countries he had visited in Europe. They seemed to think of Europe as a place so far away that anyone who had actually been there was touched with an unbelievable aura of strangeness and romance.
“Whereall did you go over there, anyway?” asked Nebraska.
“Oh, everywhere, Bras,” George said —“France, England, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Italy — all over the place.”
“Well I’ll be dogged!”— in frank astonishment. “You sure do git aroun’, don’t you?”
“Not the way you do, Bras. You’re travelling most of the time.”
“Who — me? Oh, hell, I don’t git anywhere — just the same ole places. Chicago, St. Looie, Philly — I seen ’em all so often I could find my way blindfolded!” He waved them aside with a gesture of his hand. Then, suddenly, he looked at George as though he were just seeing him for the first time, and he reached over and slapped him on the knee and exclaimed: “Well I’ll be dogged! How you doin’, anyway, Monkus?”
“Oh, can’t complain. How about you? But I don’t need to ask that. I’ve been reading all about you in the papers.”
“Yes, Monkus,” he said. “I been havin’ a good year. But, boy!”— he shook his head suddenly and grinned —“Do the ole dogs feel it!” He was silent a moment, then he went on quietly:
“I been up here since 1919 — that’s seven years, and it’s a long time in this game. Not many of ’em stay much longer. When you been shaggin’ flies as long as that you may lose count, but you don’t need to count — your legs’ll tell you.”
“But, good Lord, Bras, you’re all right! Why, the way you got around out there today you looked like a colt!”
“Yeah,” Nebraska said, “maybe I looked like a colt, but I felt like a plough horse.” He fell silent again, then he tapped his friend gently on the knee with his brown hand and said abruptly: “No, Monkus. When you been in this business as long as I have, you know it.”
“Oh, come on, Bras, quit your kidding!” said George, remembering that the player was only two years older than himself. “You’re still a young man. Why, you’re only twenty-seven!”
“Sure, sure,” Nebraska answered quietly. “But it’s like I say. You cain’t stay in this business much longer than I have. Of course, Cobb an’ Speaker an’ a few like that — they was up here a long time. But eight years is about the average, an’ I been here seven already. So if I can hang on a few years more, I won’t have no kick to make . . . Hell!” he said in a moment, with the old hearty ring in his voice, “I ain’t got no kick to make, no-way. If I got my release tomorrow, I’d still feel I done all right . . . Ain’t that so, Buzz?” he cried genially to the child, who had settled down on his knee, at the same time seizing the boy and cradling him comfortably in his strong arm. “Ole Bras has done all right, ain’t he?”
“That’s the way me an’ Bras feel about it,” remarked Myrtle, who during this conversation had been rocking back and forth, placidly ruminating on a wad of gum. “Along there last year it looked once or twice as if Bras might git traded. He said to me one day before the game, ‘Well, ole lady, if I don’t git some hits today somethin’ tells me you an’ me is goin’ to take a trip.’ So I says, ‘Trip where?’ An’ he says, ‘I don’t know, but they’re goin’ to sell me down the river if I don’t git goin’, an’ somethin’ tells me it’s now or never!’ So I just looks at him,” continued Myrtle placidly, “an’ I says, ‘Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to come today or not?’ You know, gener’ly, Bras won’t let me come when he ain’t hittin’— he says it’s bad luck. But he just looks at me a minute, an’ I can see him sort of studyin’ it over, an’ all of a sudden he makes up his mind an’ says, ‘Yes, come on if you want to; I couldn’t have no more bad luck than I been havin’, no-way, an’ maybe it’s come time fer things to change, so you come on.’ Well, I went — an’ I don’t know whether I brought him luck or not, but somethin’ did,” said Myrtle, rocking in her chair complacently.
“Dogged if she didn’t!” Nebraska chuckled. “I got three hits out of four times up that day, an’ two of ’em was home runs!”
“Yeah,” Myrtle agreed, “an’ that Philadelphia fast-ball thrower was throwin’ ’em, too.”
“He sure was!” said Nebraska.
“I know,” went on Myrtle, chewing placidly, “because I heard some of the boys say later that it was like he was throwin’ ’em up there from out of the bleachers, with all them men in shirt-sleeves right behind him, an’ the boys said half the time they couldn’t even see the ball. But Bras must of saw it — or been lucky — because he hit two home runs off of him, an’ that pitcher didn’t like it, either. The second one Bras got, he went stompin’ an’ tearin’ around out there like a wild bull. He sure did look mad,” said Myrtle in her customary placid tone.
“Maddest man I ever seen!” Nebraska cried delightedly. “I thought he was goin’ to dig a hole plumb through to China . . . But that’s the way it was. She’s right about it. That was the day I got goin’. I know one of the boys said to me later, ‘Bras,’ he says, ‘we all thought you was goin’ to take a ride, but you sure dug in, didn’t you?’ That’s the way it is in this game. I seen Babe Ruth go fer weeks when he couldn’t hit a balloon, an’ all of a sudden he lams into it. Seems like he just cain’t miss from then on.”
All this had happened four years ago. Now the two friends had met again, and were seated side by side in the speeding train, talking and catching up on one another. When George explained the reason for his going home, Nebraska turned to him with open-mouthed astonishment, genuine concern written in the frown upon his brown and homely face.
“Well, what d’you know about that!” he said. “I sure am sorry, Monk.” He was silent while he thought about it, and embarrassed, not knowing what to say. Then, after a moment: “Gee!”— he shook his head —“your aunt was one swell cook! I never will fergit it! Remember how she used to feed us kids — every danged one of us in the whole neighbourhood?” He paused, then grinned up shyly at his friend: “I sure wish I had a fistful of them good ole cookies of hers right this minute!”
Nebraska’s right ankle was taped and bandaged; a heavy cane rested between his knees. George asked him what had happened.
“I pulled a tendon,” Nebraska said, “an’ got laid off. So I thought I might as well run down an’ see the folks. Myrtle, she couldn’t come — the kid’s got to git ready fer school.”
“How are they?” George asked.
“Oh, fine, fine. All wool an’ a yard wide, both of ’em!” He was silent for a moment, then he looked at his friend with a tolerant Cherokee grin and said: “But I’m crackin’ up, Monkus. Guess I cain’t stan’ the gaff much more.”
Nebraska was only thirty-one now, and George was incredulous. Nebraska smiled good-naturedly again:
“That’s an ole man in baseball, Monk. I went up when I was twenty-one. I been aroun’ a long time.”
The quiet resignation of the player touched his friend with sadness. It was hard and painful for him to face the fact that this strong and fearless creature, who had stood in his life always for courage and for victory, should now be speaking with such ready acceptance of defeat.
“But, Bras,” he protested, “you’ve been hitting just as well this season as you ever did! I’ve read about you in the papers, and the reporters have all said the same thing.”
“Oh, I can still hit ’em,” Nebraska quietly agreed. “It ain’t the hittin’ that bothers me. That’s the last thing you lose, anyway. Leastways, it’s goin’ to be that way with me, an’ I talked to other fellahs who said it was that way with them.” After a pause he went on in a low tone: “If this ole leg heals up in time, I’ll go on back an’ git in the game again an’ finish out the season. An’ if I’m lucky, maybe they’ll keep me on a couple more years, because they know I can still hit. But, hell,” he added quietly, “they know I’m through. They already got me all tied up with string.”
As Nebraska talked, George saw that the Cherokee in him was the same now as it had been when he was a boy. His cheerful fatalism had always been the source of his great strength and courage. That was why he had never been afraid of anything, not even death. But, seeing the look of regret on George’s face, Nebraska smiled again and went on lightly:
“That’s the way it is, Monk. You’re good up there as long as you’re good. After that they sell you down the river. Hell, I ain’t kickin’. I been lucky. I had ten years of it already, an’ that’s more than most. An’ I been in three World’s Serious. If I can hold on fer another year or two — if they don’t let me go or trade me — I think maybe we’ll be in again. Me an’ Myrtle has figgered it all out. I had to help her people some, an’ I bought a farm fer Mama an’ the Ole Man — that’s where they always wanted to be. An’ I got three hundred acres of my own in Zebulon — all paid fer, too! — an’ if I git a good price this year fer my tobacco, I Stan’ to clear two thousand dollars. So if I can git two years more in the League an’ one more good World’s Serious, why”— he turned his square face towards his friend and grinned his brown and freckled grin, just as he used to as a boy —“we’ll be all set.”
“And — you mean you’ll be satisfied?”
“Huh? Satisfied?” Nebraska turned to him with a puzzled look. “How do you mean?”
“I mean after all you’ve seen and done, Bras — the big cities and the crowds, and all the people shouting — and the newspapers, and the headlines, and the World’s Series — and — and — the first of March, and St. Petersburg, and meeting all the fellows again, and spring training ——”
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“You mean you don’t like it?”
“Like it! Them first three weeks is just plain hell. It ain’t bad when you’re a kid. You don’t put on much weight durin’ the winter, an’ when you come down in the spring it only takes a few days to loosen up an’ git the kinks out. In two weeks’ time you’re loose as ashes. But wait till you been aroun’ as long as I have!” He laughed loudly and shook his head. “Boy! The first time you go after a grounder you can hear your joints creak. After a while you begin to limber up — you work into it an’ git the soreness out of your muscles. By the time the season starts, along in April, you feel pretty good. By May you’re goin’ like a house a-fire, an’ you tell yourself you’re good as you ever was. You’re still goin’ strong along in June. An’ then you hit July, an’ you git them double-headers in St. Looie! Boy, oh boy!” Again he shook his head and laughed, baring big square teeth. “Monkus,” he said quietly, turning to his companion, and now his face was serious and he had his black Indian look —“you ever been in St. Looie in July?”
“All right, then,” he said very softly and scornfully. “An’ you ain’t played ball there in July. You come up to bat with sweat bustin’ from your ears. You step up an’ look out there to where the pitcher ought to be, an’ you see four of him. The crowd in the bleachers is out there roastin’ in their shirt-sleeves, an’ when the pitcher throws the ball it just comes from nowheres — it comes right out of all them shirt-sleeves in the bleachers. It’s on top of you before you know it. Well, anyway, you dig in an’ git a toe-hold, take your cut, an’ maybe you connect. You straighten out a fast one. It’s good fer two bases if you hustle. In the old days you could’ve made it standin’ up. But now — boy!” He shook his head slowly. “You cain’t tell me nothin’ about that ball park in St. Looie in July! They got it all growed out in grass in April, but after July first”— he gave a short laugh —“hell! — it’s paved with concrete! An’ when you git to first, them dogs is sayin’, ‘Boy, let’s stay here!’ But you gotta keep on goin’— you know the manager is watchin’ you — you’re gonna ketch hell if you don’t take that extra base, it may mean the game. An’ the boys up in the press-box, they got their eyes glued on you, too — they’ve begun to say old Crane is playin’ on a dime — an’ you’re thinkin’ about next year an’ maybe gittin’ in another Serious — an’ you hope to God you don’t git traded to St. Looie. So you take it on the lam, you slide into second like the Twentieth Century comin’ into the Chicago yards — an’ when you git up an’ feel yourself all over to see if any of your parts is missin’, you gotta listen to one of that second baseman’s wisecracks: ‘What’s the hurry, Bras? Afraid you’ll be late fer the Veterans’ Reunion?’”
“I begin to see what you mean, all right,” said George.
“See what I mean? Why, say! One day this season I ast one of the boys what month it was, an’ when he told me it was just the middle of July, I says to him: ‘July, hell! If it ain’t September I’ll eat your hat!’ ‘Go ahead, then,’ he says, ‘an’ eat it, because it ain’t September, Bras — it’s July.’ ‘Well,’ I says, ‘they must be havin’ sixty days a month this year — it’s the longest damn July I ever felt!’ An’ lemme tell you, I didn’t miss it fer, either — I’ll be dogged if I did! When you git old in this business, it may be only July, but you think it’s September.” He was silent for a moment. “But they’ll keep you in there, gener’ly, as long as you can hit. If you can smack that ole apple, they’ll send you out there if they’ve got to use glue to keep you from fallin’ apart. So maybe I’ll git in another year or two if I’m lucky. So long’s I can hit ’em, maybe they’ll keep sendin’ me out there till all the other players has to grunt every time ole Bras goes after a ground ball!” He laughed. “I ain’t that bad yet, but soon’s I am, I’m through.”
“You won’t mind it, then, when you have to quit?”
He didn’t answer at once. He sat there looking out the window at the factory-blighted landscape of New Jersey. Then he laughed a little wearily:
“Boy, this may be a ride on the train to you, but to me — say! — I covered this stretch so often that I can tell you what telephone post we’re passin’ without even lookin’ out the window. Why, hell yes!”— he laughed loudly now, in the old infectious way —“I used to have ’em numbered — now I got ’em named!”
“And you think you can get used to spending all your time out on the farm in Zebulon?”
“Git used to it?” In Nebraska’s voice there was now the same note of scornful protest that it had when he was a boy, and for a moment he turned and looked at his friend with an expression of astonished disgust. “Why, what are you talkin’ about? That’s the greatest life in the world!”
“And your father? How is he, Bras?”
The player grinned and shook his head: “Oh, the Ole Man’s happy as a possum. He’s doin’ what he wanted to do all his life.”
“And is he well?”
“If he felt any better he’d have to go to bed. Strong as a bull,” said Nebraska proudly. “He could wrastle a bear right now an’ bite his nose off! Why, hell yes!” the player went on with an air of conviction —“he could take any two men I know today an’ throw ’em over his shoulder!”
“Bras, do you remember when you and I were kids and your father was on the police force, how he used to wrestle all those professionals that came to town? There were some good ones, too!”
“You’re damn right there was!” said the player, nodding his head. “Tom Anderson, who used to be South Atlantic champion, an’ that fellah Petersen — do you remember him?”
“Sure. They called him the Bone–Crushing Swede — he used to come there all the time.”
“Yeah, that’s him. He used to wrastle all over the country — he was way up there, one of the best in the business. The Ole Man wrastled him three times, an’ throwed him once, too!”
“And that big fellow they called the Strangler Turk ——”
“Yeah, an’ he was good, too! Only he wasn’t no Turk — he only called hisself one. The Ole Man told me he was some kind of Polack or Bohunk from the steel mills out in Pennsylvania, an’ that’s how he got so strong.”
“And the Jersey Giant ——”
“And Cyclone Finnegan ——”
“And Bull Dakota — and Texas Jim Ryan — and the Masked Marvel? Do you remember the Masked Marvel?”
“Yeah — only there was a whole lot of them — guys cruisin’ all over the country callin’ theirselves the Masked Marvel. The Ole Man wrastled two of ’em. Only the real Masked Marvel never came to town. The Ole Man told me there was a real Masked Marvel, but he-was too damn good, I guess, to come to Libya Hill.”
“Do you remember the night, Bras, up at the old City Auditorium, when your father was wrestling one of these Masked Marvels, and we were there in the front row rooting for him, and he got a strangle hold on this fellow with the mask, and the mask came off — and the fellow wasn’t the Masked Marvel at all, but only that Greek who used to work all night at the Bijou Café for Ladies and Gents down by the depot?”
“Yeah — haw-haw!” Nebraska threw back his head and laughed loudly. “I’d clean fergot that damn Greek, but that’s who it was! The whole crowd hollered frame-up an’ tried to git their money back — I’ll swear, Monk! I’m glad to see you!” He put his big brown hand on his companion’s knee. “It don’t seem no time, does it? It all comes back!”
“Yes, Bras”— for a moment George looked out at the flashing landscape with a feeling of sadness and wonder in his heart —“it all comes back.”
George sat by the window and watched the stifled land stroke past him. It was unseasonably hot for September, there had been no rain for weeks, and all afternoon the contours of the eastern seaboard faded away into the weary hazes of the heat. The soil was parched and dusty, and under a glazed and burning sky coarse yellow grasses and the withered stalks of weeds simmered and flashed beside the tracks. The whole continent seemed to be gasping for its breath. In the hot green depths of the train a powder of fine cinders beat in through the meshes of the screens, and during the pauses at stations the little fans at both ends of the car hummed monotonously, with a sound that seemed to be the voice of the heat itself. During these intervals when the train stood still, enormous engines steamed slowly by on adjacent tracks, or stood panting, passive as great cats, and their engineers wiped wads of blackened waste across their grimy faces, while the passengers fanned feebly with sheaves of languid paper or sat in soaked and sweltering dejection.
For a long time George sat alone beside his window. His eyes took in every detail of the changing scene, but his thoughts were turned inward, absorbed in recollections which his meeting with Nebraska Crane had brought alive again. The great train pounded down across New Jersey, across Pennsylvania, across the tip of Delaware, and into Maryland. The unfolding panorama of the land was itself like a sequence on the scroll of time. George felt lost and a little sick. His talk with his boyhood friend had driven him back across the years. The changes in Nebraska and his quiet acceptance of defeat had added an undertone of sadness to the vague, uneasy sense of foreboding which he had got from his conversation with the banker, the politician, and the Mayor.
At Baltimore, when the train slowed to a stop in the gloom beneath the station, he caught a-momentary glimpse of a face on the platform as it slid past his window. All that he could see was a blur of thin, white features and a sunken mouth, but at the corners of the mouth he thought he also caught the shadow of a smile — faint, evil, ghostly — and at sight of it a sudden and unreasoning terror seized him. Could that be Judge Rumford Bland?
As the train started up again and passed through the tunnel on the other side of the city, a blind man appeared at the rear of the car. The other people were talking, reading, or dozing, and the blind man came in so quietly that none of them noticed him enter. He took the first seat at the end and sat down. When the train emerged into the waning sunlight of this September day, George looked round and saw him sitting there. He just sat quietly, gripping a heavy walnut walking-stick with a frail hand, the sightless eyes fixed in vacancy, the thin and sunken face listening with that terrible intent stillness that only the blind know, and around the mouth hovered that faint suggestion of a smile, which, hardly perceptible though it was, had in it a kind of terrible vitality and the mercurial attractiveness of a ruined angel. It was Judge Rumford Bland!
George had not seen him in fifteen years. At that time he was not blind, but already his eyes were beginning to fail. George remembered him as he was then, and remembered, too, how the sight of the man, frequently to be seen prowling the empty streets of the night when all other life was sleeping and the town was dead, had struck a nameless terror into his boy’s heart. Even then, before blindness had come upon him, some nocturnal urge had made him seek deserted pavements beneath the blank and sterile corner lights, past windows that were always dark, past doors that were for ever locked.
He came from an old and distinguished family, and, like all his male ancestors for one hundred years or more, he had been trained in the profession of the law. For a single term he had been a police-court magistrate, and from then on was known as “Judge” Bland. But he had fallen grievously from the high estate his family held. During the period of George Webber’s boyhood he still professed to be a lawyer. He had a shabby office in a disreputable old building which he owned, and his name was on the door as an attorney, but his living was earned by other and more devious means. Indeed, his legal skill and knowledge had been used more for the purpose of circumventing the law and defeating justice than in maintaining them. Practically all his “business” was derived from the negro population of the town, and of this business the principal item was usury.
On the Square, in his ramshackle two-storey building of rusty brick, was “the store”. It was a second-hand furniture store, and it occupied the ground floor and basement of the building. It was, of course, nothing but a blind for his illegal transactions with the negroes. A hasty and appalled inspection of the mountainous heap of ill-smelling junk which it contained would have been enough to convince one that if the owner had to depend on the sale of his stock he would have to close his doors within a month. It was incredible. In the dirty window was a pool table, taken as brutal tribute from some negro billiard parlour. But what a pool table! Surely it had not a fellow in all the relics in the land. Its surface was full of lumps and dents and ridges. Not a pocket remained without a hole in the bottom big enough to drop a baseball through. The green cloth-covering had worn through or become unfixed in a dozen places. The edges of the table and the cloth itself were seared and burnt with the marks of innumerable cigarettes. Yet this dilapidated object was by all odds the most grandiose adornment of the whole store.
As one peered back into the gloom of the interior he became aware of the most fantastic collection of nigger junk that was ever brought together in one place. On the street floor as well as in the basement it was piled up to the ceiling, and all jumbled together as if some gigantic steam-shovel had opened its jaws and dumped everything just as it was. There were broken-down rocking-chairs, bureaus with cracked mirrors and no bottoms in the drawers, tables with one, two, or three of their legs missing, rusty old kitchen stoves with burnt-out grates and elbows of sooty pipe, blackened frying pans encased in the grease of years, flat irons, chipped plates and bowls and pitchers, washtubs, chamber-pots, and a thousand other objects, all worn out, cracked, and broken.
What, then, was the purpose of this store, since it was filled with objects of so little value that even the poorest negroes could get slight use from them? The purpose, and the way Judge Rumford Bland used it, was quite simple:
A negro in trouble, in immediate need of money to pay a police-court fine, a doctor’s bill, or some urgent debt, would come to see Judge Bland. Sometimes he needed as little as five or ten dollars, occasionally as much as fifty dollars, but usually it was less than that. Judge Bland would then demand to know what security he had. The negro, of course, had none, save perhaps a few personal possessions and some wretched little furniture — a bed, a chair, a table, a kitchen stove. Judge Bland would send his collector, bulldog, and chief lieutenant — a ferret-faced man named Clyde Beals — to inspect these miserable possessions, and if he thought the junk important enough to its owner to justify the loan, he would advance the money, extracting from it, however, the first instalment of his interest.
From this point on, the game was plainly and flagrantly usurious. The interest was payable weekly, every Saturday night. On a ten-dollar loan Judge Bland extracted interest of fifty cents a week; on a twenty-dollar loan, interest of a dollar a week; and so on. That is why the amount of the loans was rarely as much as fifty dollars. Not only were the contents of most negro shacks less than that, but to pay two dollars and a half in weekly interest was beyond the capacity of most negroes, whose wage, if they were men, might not be more than five or six dollars a week, and if they were women — cooks or house-servants in the town — might be only three or four dollars. Enough had to be left them for a bare existence or it was no game. The purpose and skill of the game came in lending the negro a sum of money somewhat greater than his weekly wage and his consequent ability to pay back, but also a sum whose weekly interest was within the range of his small income.
Judge Bland had on his books the names of negroes who had paid him fifty cents or a dollar a week over a period of years, on an original loan of ten or twenty dollars. Many of these poor and ignorant people were unable to comprehend what had happened to them. They could only feel mournfully, dumbly, with the slave-like submissiveness of their whole training and conditioning, that at some time in the distant past they had got their money, spent it, and had their fling, and that now they must pay perpetual tribute for that privilege. Such men and women as these would come to that dim-lit place of filth and misery on Saturday night, and there the Judge himself, black-frocked, white-shirted, beneath one dingy, fly-specked bulb, would hold his private court:
“What’s wrong, Carrie? You’re two weeks behind in your payments. Is fifty cents all you got this week?”
“It doan seem lak it was three weeks. Musta slipped up somewheres in my countin’.”
“You didn’t slip up. It’s three weeks. You owe a dollar fifty. Is this all you got?”
With sullen apology: “Yassuh.”
“When will you have the rest of it?”
“Dey’s a fellah who say he gonna give me ——”
“Never mind about that. Are you going to keep up your payments after this or not?”
“Dat’s whut Ah wuz sayin’. Jus’ as soon as Monday come, an’ dat fellah ——”
Harshly: “Who you working for now?”
“Doctah Hollandah ——”
“You cooking for him?”
Sullenly, with unfathomable negro mournfulness: “Yassuh.”
“How much is he paying you?”
“And you mean you can’t keep up? You can’t pay fifty cents a week?”
Still sullen, dark, and mournful, as doubtful and confused as jungle depths of Africa: “Doan know . . . Seem lak a long time since Ah started payin’ up ——”
Harshly, cold as poison, quick as a striking snake: “You’ve never started paying up. You’ve paid nothing. You’re only paying interest, and behind in that.”
And still doubtfully, in black confusion, fumbling and fingering and bringing forth at last a wad of greasy little receipts from the battered purse: “Doan know, seem lak Ah got enough of dese to’ve paid dat ten dollahs up long ago. How much longer does Ah have to keep on payin’?”
“Till you’ve got ten dollars . . . All right, Carrie: here’s your receipt. You bring that extra dollar in next week.”
Others, a little more intelligent than Carrie, would comprehend more dearly what had happened to them, but would continue to pay because they were unable to get together at one time enough money to release them from their bondage. A few would have energy and power enough to save their pennies until at last they were able to buy back their freedom. Still others, after paying week by week and month by month, would just give up in despair and would pay no more. Then, of course, Clyde Beals was on them like a vulture. He nagged, he wheedled, and he threatened; and if, finally, he saw that he could get no more money from them, he took their household furniture. Hence the chaotic pile of malodorous junk which filled the shop.
Why, it may be asked, in a practice that was so flagrantly, nakedly, and unashamedly usurious as this, did Judge Rumford Bland not come into collision with the law? Did the police not know from what sources, and in what ways, his income was derived?
They knew perfectly. The very store in which this miserable business was carried on was within twenty yards of the City Hall, and within fifty feet of the side entrance to the town calaboose, up whose stone steps many of these same negroes had time and again been hauled and mauled and hurled into a cell. The practice, criminal though it was, was a common one, winked at by the local authorities, and but one of many similar practices by which unscrupulous white men all over the South feathered their own nests at the expense of an oppressed and ignorant people. The fact that such usury was practised chiefly against “a bunch of niggers” to a large degree condoned and pardoned it in the eyes of the law.
Moreover, Judge Rumford Bland knew that the people with whom he dealt would not inform on him. He knew that the negro stood in awe of the complex mystery of the law, of which he understood little or nothing, or in terror of its brutal force. The law for him was largely a matter of the police, and the police was a white man in a uniform, who had the power and authority to arrest him, to beat him with his fist or with a club, to shoot him with a gun, and to lock him up in a small, dark cell. It was not likely, therefore, that any negro would take his troubles to the police. He was not aware that he had any rights as a citizen, and that Judge Rumford Bland had violated those rights; or, if he was aware of rights, however vaguely, he was not likely to ask for their protection by a group of men at whose hands he had known only assault, arrest, and imprisonment.
Above the shambles of the nigger junk, upon the second floor, were Judge Bland’s offices. A wooden stairway, worn by the tread of clay-booted time, and a hand-rail, loose as an old tooth, smooth, besweated by the touch of many a black palm, led up to a dark hallway. Here, in Stygian gloom, one heard the punctual monotone of a single and regularly repeated small drop of water dripping somewhere in the rear, and caught the overpowering smell of the tin urinal. Opening off of this hall-way was the glazed glass of the office door, which bore the legend in black paint, partly flaked off:
RUMFORD BLAND ATTORNEY AT LAW
Within, the front room was furnished with such lumber as lawyers use. The floor was bare, there were two roll-top desks, black with age, two bookcases with glass doors, filled with battered volumes of old pigskin brown, a spittoon, brass-bodied and capacious, swimming with tobacco juice, a couple of ancient swivel chairs, and a few other nondescript straight-backed chairs for visitors to sit and creak in. On the walls were several faded diplomas — Pine Rock College, Bachelor of Arts; The University of Old Catawba, Doctor of Laws; and a certificate of The Old Catawba Bar Association. Behind was another room with nothing in it but some more bookcases full of heavy tomes in musty calf bindings, a few chairs, and against the wall a plush sofa — the room, it was whispered, “where Bland took his women”. Out front, in the windows that looked on the Square, their glass unwashed and specked with the ghosts of flies that died when Gettysburg was young, were two old, frayed, mottled-yellow window shades, themselves as old as Garfield, and still faintly marked with the distinguished names of “Kennedy and Bland”. The Kennedy of that old law firm had been the father of Baxter Kennedy, the Mayor, and his partner, old General Bland, had been Rumford’s father. Both bad been dead for years, but no one had bothered to change the lettering.
Such were the premises of Judge Rumford Bland as George Webber remembered them. Judge Rumford Bland —“bondsman”, “furniture dealer”, usurious lender to the blacks. Judge Rumford Bland — son of a brigadier of infantry, C.S.A., member of the bar, wearer of immaculate white and broadcloth black.
What had happened to this man that had so corrupted and perverted his life from its true and honourable direction? No one knew. There was no question that he possessed remarkable gifts. In his boyhood George had heard the more reputable attorneys of the town admit that few of them would have been Judge Bland’s match in skill and ability had he chosen to use his talents in an honest way.
But he was stained with evil. There was something genuinely old and corrupt at the sources of his life and spirit. It had got into his blood, his bone, his flesh. It was palpable in the touch of his thin, frail hand when he greeted you, it was present in the deadly weariness of his tone of voice, in the dead-white texture of his emaciated face, in his lank and lustreless auburn hair, and, most of all, in his sunken mouth, around which there hovered constantly the ghost of a smile. It could only be called the ghost of a smile, and yet, really, it was no smile at all. It was, if anything, only a shadow at the corners of the mouth. When one looked closely, it was gone. But one knew that it was always there — lewd, evil, mocking, horribly corrupt, and suggesting a limitless vitality akin to the humour of death, which welled up from some secret spring in his dark soul.
In his early manhood Judge Bland had married a beautiful but dissolute woman, whom he shortly divorced. The utter cynicism that marked his attitude towards women was perhaps partly traceable to this source. Ever since his divorce he had lived alone with his mother, a stately, white-haired lady to whom he rendered at all times a faithful, solicitous, exquisitely kind and gentle duty. Some people suspected that this filial devotion was tinged with irony and contemptuous resignation, but certainly the old lady herself had no cause to think so. She occupied a pleasant old house, surrounded with every comfort, and if she ever guessed by what dark means her luxuries had been assured, she never spoke of it to her son. As for women generally, Judge Bland divided them brutally into two groups — the mothers and the prostitutes — and, aside from the single exception in his own home, his sole interest was in the second division.
He had begun to go blind several years before George left Libya Hill, and the thin, white face, with its shadowy smile, had been given a sinister enhancement by the dark spectacles which he then wore. He was under treatment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and made trips there at intervals of six weeks, but his vision was growing steadily worse, and the doctors had already told him that his condition was practically hopeless. The malady that was destroying his sight had been brought on by a loathsome disease which he thought had been checked long since, and which he frankly admitted had been engendered in his eyes.
In spite of all these sinister and revolting facts of character, of spirit, and of person, Judge Bland, astonishing as it may seem, had always been an enormously attractive figure. Everyone who met him knew at once that the man was bad. No, “bad” is not the word for it. Everyone knew that he was evil — genuinely, unfathomably evil — and evil of this sort has a grandeur about it not unlike the grandeur of supreme goodness. And indeed, there was goodness in him that had never altogether died. In his single term upon the bench as a police-court magistrate, it was universally agreed that Judge Bland had been fair and wise in his disposal of swift justice. Whatever it was that had made this fact possible — and no one pretended to understand it — the aura of it still clung to him. And it was for just this reason that people who met him were instantly, even if they fought against it, captivated, drawn close to him, somehow made to like him. At the very moment that they met him, and felt the force of death and evil working in him, they also felt — oh, call it the phantom, the radiance, the lost soul, of an enormous virtue. And with the recognition of that quality came the sudden stab of overwhelming regret, the feeling of “What a loss! What a shame!” And yet no one could say why.
As the early dusk of approaching autumn settled swiftly down, the train sped southward towards Virginia. George sat by the window watching the dark shapes of trees flash by, and thought back over all that he had ever known about Judge Rumford Bland. The loathing and terror and mysterious attraction which the man had always had for him were now so great that he felt he could not sit alone there any longer. Midway in the car the other people from Libya Hill had gathered together in a noisy huddle. Jarvis Riggs, Mayor Kennedy, and Sol Isaacs were sitting down or sprawling on the arms of the seats, and Parson Flack was standing in the aisle, leaning over earnestly as he talked, with arms outstretched on the backs of the two seats that enclosed the group. In the centre of this huddle, the focus of all their attention, was Nebraska Crane. They had caught him as he went by, and now they had him cornered.
George rose and went over to join them, and as he did so he glanced again in the direction of Judge Bland. He was dressed with old-fashioned fastidiousness, just as he had always dressed, in loose-fitting garments of plain and heavy black, a starched white shirt, a low collar and a black string neck-tie, and a wide-brimmed Panama hat which he had not removed. Beneath the brim of the hat his once auburn hair was now a dead, and lifeless white. This and the sightless eyes were the only changes in him. Otherwise he looked just as he had looked fifteen years ago. He had not stirred since he came in. Ha sat upright, leaning a little forward on his cane, his blindly staring eyes fixed before him, his white and sunken face held in an attitude of intense, listening stillness.
As George joined the group in the middle of the car, they were excitedly discussing property values — all of them, that is, except Nebraska Crane. Parson Flack would bend over earnestly, showing his big teeth in a smile and tell about some recent deal, and what a certain piece of land had sold for —“Right out there on Charles Street, not far from where you used to live, Bras!” To each of these new marvels the player’s response was the same:
“Well I’ll be dogged!” he said, astounded. “What d’you know about that!”
The banker now leaned forward and tapped Nebraska confidentially on the knee. He talked to him persuasively, in friendly wise, urging him to invest his savings in the real estate speculations of the town. He brought up all his heaviest artillery of logic and mathematics, drawing forth his pencil and note-book to figure out just how much a given sum of money could be increased if it was shrewdly invested now in this or that piece of property, and then sold when the time was right.
“You can’t go wrong!” said Jarvis Riggs, a little feverishly. “The town is bound to grow. Why, Libya Hill is only at the beginning of its development. You bring your money back home, my boy, and let it go to work for you! You’ll see!”
This went on for some time. But in the face of all their urgings Nebraska remained his characteristic self. He was respectful and good-natured, but a little dubious, and fundamentally stubborn.
“I already got me a farm out in Zebulon,” he said, and, grinning —“It’s paid fer, too! When I git through playin’ baseball, I’m comin’ back an’ settle down out there an’ farm it. It’s three hundred acres of the purtiest bottom land you ever seen. That’s all I want. I couldn’t use no more.”
As Nebraska talked to them in his simple, homely way, he spoke as a man of the earth for whom the future opened up serenely, an independent, stubborn man who knew what he wanted, a man who was firmly rooted, established, secure against calamity and want. He was completely detached from the fever of the times — from the fever of the boom-mad town as well as from the larger fever of the nation. The others talked incessantly about land, but George saw that Nebraska Crane was the only one who still conceived of the land as a place on which to live, and of living on the land as a way of life.
At last Nebraska detached himself from the group and said he was going back to take a smoke. George started to follow him. As he passed down the aisle behind his friend and came abreast of the last seat, suddenly a quiet, toneless voice said:
“Good evening, Webber.”
He stopped and spun round. The blind man was seated there before him. He had almost forgotten about him. The blind man had not moved as he spoke. He was still leaning a little forward on his cane, his thin, white face held straight before him as if he were still listening for something. George felt now, as he had always felt, the strange fascination in that evil shadow of a smile that hovered about the corners of the blind man’s mouth. He paused, then said:
“Sit down, son.” And like a child under the spell of the Pied Piper, he sat down. “Let the dead bury their dead. Come sit among the blind.”
The words were uttered tonelessly, yet their cruel and lifeless contempt penetrated nakedly throughout the car. The other men stopped talking and turned as if they had received an electric shock. George did not know what to say; in the embarrassment of the moment he blurted out:
“I— I— there are a lot of people on the train from home. I— I’ve been talking to them — Mayor Kennedy, and ——”
The blind man, never moving, in his terrible toneless voice that carried to all ears, broke in:
“Yes, I know. As eminent a set of sons-of-bitches as were ever gathered together in the narrow confines of a single pullman-car.”
The whole car listened in an appalled silence. The group in the middle looked at one another with fear in their eyes, and in a moment they began ‘talking feverishly again.
“I hear you were in France again last year,” the voice now said. “And did you find the French whores any different from the homegrown variety?”
The naked words, with their toneless evil, pierced through the car like a flash of sheer terror. All conversation stopped. Everyone was stunned, frozen into immobility.
“You’ll find there’s not much difference,” Judge Bland observed calmly and in the same tone. “Syphilis makes the whole world kin. And if you want to lose your eyesight, you can do it in this great democracy as well as anywhere on earth.”
The whole car was as quiet as death. In another moment the stunned faces turned towards one another, and the men began to talk in furtive whispers.
Through all of this the expression on that white and sunken face had never altered, and the shadow of that ghostly smile still lingered around the mouth. But now, low and casually, he said to the young man:
“How are you, son? I’m glad to see you.” And in that simple phrase, spoken by the blind man, there was the suggestion of a devilish humour, although his expression did not change a bit.
“You — you’ve been in Baltimore, Judge Bland?”
“Yes, I still come up to Hopkins now and then. It does no good, of course. You see, son,” the tone was low and friendly now, “I’ve gone completely blind since I last saw you.”
“I didn’t know. But you don’t mean that you ——”
“Oh, utterly! Utterly!” replied Judge Bland, and all at once he threw his sightless face up and laughed with sardonic glee, displaying blackened rims of teeth, as if the joke was too good to be kept. “My dear boy, I assure you that I am utterly blind. I can no longer distinguish one of our most prominent local bastards two feet off —Now, Jarvis!” he suddenly cried out in a chiding voice in the direction of the unfortunate Riggs, who had loudly resumed his discussion of property values —“you know that’s not true! Why, man, I can tell by the look in your eyes that you’re lying!” And again he lifted his face and was shaken by devilish, quiet laughter. “Excuse the interruption, son,” he went on. “I believe the subject of our discourse was bastardy. Why, can you believe it?”— he leaned forward again his long fingers playing gently on the polished ridges of his stick —“where bastardy is concerned, I find I can no longer trust my eyes at all. I rely exclusively on the sense of smell. And”— for the first time his face was sunken deliberately in weariness and disgust —“it is enough. A sense of smell is all you need.” Abruptly changing now, he said: “How are the folks?”
“Why — Aunt Maw’s dead. I— I’m going home to the funeral.”
“Dead, is she?”
That was all he said. None of the usual civilities, no expression of polite regret, just that and nothing more. Then, after a moment:
“So you’re going down to bury her.” It was a statement, and he said it reflectively, as though meditating upon it; then —“And do you think you can go home again?”
George was a little startled and puzzled: “Why — I don’t understand. How do you mean, Judge Bland?”
There was another flare of that secret, evil laughter. “I mean, do you think you can really go home again?” Then, sharp, cold, peremptory —“Now answer me! Do you think you can?”
“Why — why yes! Why —” the young man was desperate, almost frightened now, and, earnestly, beseechingly, he said —“why look here, Judge Bland — I haven’t done anything — honestly I haven’t!”
Again the low, demonic laughter: “You’re sure?”
Frantic now with the old terror which the man had always inspired in him as a boy: “Why — why of course I’m sure! Look here, Judge Bland — in the name of God, what have I done?” He thought desperately of a dozen wild, fantastic things, feeling a sickening and overwhelming consciousness of guilt, without knowing why. He thought: “Has he heard about my book? Does he know I wrote about the town? Is that what he means?”
The blind man cackled thinly to himself, enjoying with evil tenderness his little cat’s play with the young man: “The guilty fleeth where no man pursueth. Is that it, son?”
Frankly distracted: “Why — why — I’m not guilty!” Angrily: “Why damn it, I’m not guilty of anything!” Passionately, excitedly: “I can hold up my head with any man! I can look the whole damn world in the eye! I make no apologies to ——”
He stopped short, seeing the evil ghost-shadow of a smile at the corners of the blind man’s mouth. “That disease!” he thought —“the thing that ruined his eyes — maybe — maybe — why, yes — the man is crazy!” Then he spoke, slowly, simply:
“Judge Bland.” He rose from the seat. “Good-bye, Judge Bland.” The smile still played about the blind man’s mouth, but he answered with a new note of kindness in his voice:
“Good-bye, son.” There was a barely perceptible pause. “But don’t forget I tried to warn you.”
George walked quickly away with thudding heart and trembling limbs. What had Judge Bland meant when he asked, “Do you think you can go home again?” And what had been the meaning of that evil, silent, mocking laughter? What had he heard? What did he know? And these others — did they know, too?
He soon learned that his fear and panic in the blind man’s presence were shared by all the people in the car. Even the passengers who had, never seen Judge Bland before had heard his naked, brutal words, and they were now horrified by the sight of him. As for the rest, the men from Libya Hill, this feeling was greatly enhanced, sharpened by all that they knew of him. He had pursued his life among them with insolent shamelessness. Though he still masked in all the outward aspects of respectability, he was in total disrepute, and yet he met the opinion of the town with such cold and poisonous contempt that everyone held him in a kind of terrified respect. As for Parson Flack, Jarvis Riggs, and Mayor Kennedy, they were afraid of him because his blind eyes saw straight through them. His sudden appearance in the car, where none had expected to meet him, had aroused in all of them a sense of stark, underlying terror.
As George went into the washroom suddenly, be came upon the Mayor cleaning his false teeth in the basin. The man’s plump face, which George had always known in the guise of cheerful, hearty amiability, was all caved in. Hearing a sound behind him, the Mayor turned upon the newcomer. For a moment there was nothing but nameless fright in his weak brown eyes. He mumbled frantically, incoherently, holding his false teeth in his trembling fingers. Like a man who did not know what he was doing, he brandished them in a grotesque yet terrible gesture indicative of — God knows what! — but despair and terror were both in it. Then he put the teeth into his mouth again, smiled feebly, and muttered apologetically, with some counterfeit of his usual geniality:
“Ho, ho! — well, son! You caught me that time, all right! A man can’t talk without his teeth!”
The same thing was now apparent everywhere. George saw it in the look of an eye, the movement of a hand, the give-away expression of a face in repose. The merchant, Sol Isaacs, took him aside and whispered:
“Have you heard what they’re saying about the bank?” He looked around quickly and checked himself, as if afraid of the furtive sound of his own voice. “Oh, everything’s O.K.! Sure it is! They just went a little too fast there for a while! Things are rather quiet right now — but they’ll pick up!”
Among all of them there was the same kind of talk that George had heard before. “It’s worth all of that,” they told each other eagerly. “It’ll bring twice as much in a year’s time.” They caught him by the lapel in the most friendly and hearty fashion and said he ought to settle down in Libya Hill and stay for good —“Greatest place on earth, you know!” They made their usual assured pronouncements upon finance, banking, market trends, and property values. But George sensed now that down below all this was just utter, naked, frantic terror — the terror of men who know that they are ruined and are afraid to admit it, even to themselves.
It was after midnight, and the great train was rushing south across Virginia in the moonlight. The people in the little towns lay in their beds and heard the mournful whistle, then the sudden roar as the train went through, and they turned over restlessly and dreamed of fair and distant cities.
In K19 most of the passengers had retired to their berths. Nebraska Crane had turned in early, but George was still up, and so, too, were the banker, the Mayor, and the political boss. Crass, world-weary, unimaginative fellows that they were, they were nevertheless too excited by something of the small boy in them that had never died to go to bed at their usual hour aboard a train, and were now drawn together for companionship in the smoke-fogged washroom. Behind the green curtains the complex of male voices rose and fell in talk as they told their endless washroom stories. Quietly, furtively, with sly delight, they began to recall unsavoury anecdotes remembered from the open and shameless life of Judge Rumford Bland, and at the end of each recital there would be a choking burst of strong laughter.
When the laughter and the slapping of thighs subsided, Parson Flack leaned forward again, eager to tell another. In a voice that was subdued, confidential, almost conspiratorial, he began:
“And do you remember the time that he ——?”
Swiftly the curtain was drawn aside, all heads jerked up, and Judge Bland entered.
“Now, Parson”— said he in a chiding voice —“remember what?” Before the blind, cold stare of that emaciated face the seated men were silent. Something stronger than fear was in their eyes.
“Remember what?” he said again, a trifle harshly. He stood before them erect and fragile, both hands balanced on the head of the cane which he held anchored to the floor in front of him. He turned to Jarvis Riggs: “Remember when you established what you boasted was ‘the fastest-growing bank in all the state’— and weren’t too particular what it grew on?” He turned back to Parson Flack: “Remember when one of ‘the boys’, as you like to call them — you always look out for ‘the boys’, don’t you, Parson? — remember when one of ‘the boys’ borrowed money from ‘the fastest-growing bank’ to buy two hundred acres on that hill across the river?”— he turned to the Mayor —“and sold the land to the town for a new cemetery? . . . Though why,” he turned his face to Parson Flack again, “the dead should have to go so far to bury their dead I do not know!”
He paused impressively, like a country lawyer getting ready to launch his peroration to a jury.
“Remember what?”— the voice rose suddenly, high and sharp. “Do I remember, Parson, how you’ve run the town through all these years? Do I remember what a good thing you’ve made of politics? You’ve never aspired to public office, have you, Parson? Oh, no — you’re much too modest. But you know how to pick the public-spirited citizens who do aspire, and whose great hearts pant with eagerness to serve their fellow men! Ah, yes. It’s a very nice little private business, isn’t it, Parson? And all ‘the boys’ are stockholders and get their cut of the profits — is that the way of it, Parson? . . . Remember what? he cried again. Do I remember now the broken fragments of a town that waits and fears and schemes to put off the day of its impending ruin? Why, Parson, yes — I can remember all these things. And yet I had no part in them, for, after all, I am a humble man. Oh — with a deprecating nod — a little nigger squeezing here and there, a little income out of Niggertown, a few illegal lendings, a comfortable practice in small usury — yet my wants were few, my tastes were very simple. I was always satisfied with, say, a modest five per cent a week. So I am not in the big money, Parson. I remember many things, but I see now I have spent my substance, wasted all my talents in riotous living — while pious Puritans have virtuously betrayed their town and given their whole-souled services to the ruin of their fellow men.”
Again there was an ominous pause, and when he went on his voice was low, almost casual in its toneless irony:
“I am afraid I have been at best a giddy fellow, Parson, and that my old age will be spent in memories of trivial things — of various merry widows who came to town, of poker chips, racehorses, cards, and rattling dice, of bourbon, Scotch, and rye — all the forms of hellishness that saintly fellows, Parson, who go to prayer-meeting every week, know nothing of. So I suppose I’ll warm my old age with the memories of my own sinfulness — and be buried at last, like all good men and true, among more public benefactors in the town’s expensive graveyard on the hill . . . But I also remember other things, Parson. So can you. And maybe in my humble sphere I, too, have served a purpose — of being the wild oat of more worthy citizens.”
They sat in utter silence, their frightened, guilty eyes all riveted upon his face, and each man felt as if those cold, unseeing eyes had looked straight through him. For a moment more Judge Bland just stood there, and, slowly, without a change of muscle in the blankness of his face, the ghostly smile began to hover like a shadow at the corners of his sunken mouth.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said. He turned, and with his walking-stick he caught and held the curtain to one side. “I’ll be seeing you.”
All through the night George lay in his dark berth and watched the old earth of Virginia as it stroked past him in the dream-haunted silence of the moon. Field and hill and gulch and stream and wood again, the everlasting earth, the huge illimitable earth of America, kept stroking past him in the steep silence of the moon.
All through the ghostly stillness of the land, the train made on for ever its tremendous noise, fused of a thousand sounds, and they called back to him forgotten memories: old songs, old faces, old memories, and all strange, wordless, and unspoken things men know and live and feel, and never find a language for — the legend of dark time, the sad brevity of their days, the unknowable but haunting miracle of life itself. He heard again, as he had heard throughout his childhood, the pounding wheel, the tolling bell, the whistle-wail, and he remembered how these sounds, coming to him from the river’s edge in the little town of his boyhood, had always evoked for him their tongueless prophecy of wild and secret joy, their glorious promises of new lands, morning, and a shining city. But now the lonely cry of the great train was speaking to him with an equal strangeness of return. For he was going home again.
The undertone of terror with which he had gone to bed, the sadness of the foreshadowed changes in the town, the sombre prospect of the funeral tomorrow, all combined to make him dread his homecoming, which so many times in the years since he had been away he had looked forward to some day with hope and exultation. It was all so different from what he thought it would be. He was still only an obscure instructor at one of the universities in the city, his book was not yet published, he was not by any standard which his native town could know —“successful”, “a success”. And as he thought of it, he realised that, almost more than anything, he feared the sharp, appraising eye, the worldly judgments, of that little town.
He thought of all his years away from home, the years of wandering in many lands and cities. He remembered how many times he had thought of home with such an intensity of passion that he could close his eyes and see the scheme of every street, and every house upon each street, and the faces of the people, as well as recall the countless things that they had said and the densely-woven fabric of all their histories. To-morrow he would see it all again, and he almost wished he had not come. It would have been easy to plead the excuse of work and other duty. And it was silly, anyhow, to feel as he did about the place.
But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.
The train rushed onward through the moonlit land.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02