"Dat don't make no diffunce. When a bell ring for anybody, en old marster tell me to--"
"Clear out, and settle it in the kitchen!"
The noise of the quarreling presently sank to a murmur in the distance, and the earl added: "That's a trouble with old house servants that were your slaves once and have been your personal friends always."
"Yes, and members of the family."
"Members of the family is just what they become--THE members of the family, in fact. And sometimes master and mistress of the household. These two are mighty good and loving and faithful and honest, but hang it, they do just about as they please, they chip into a conversation whenever they want to, and the plain fact is, they ought to be killed."
It was a random remark, but it gave him an idea--however, nothing could happen without that result.
"What I wanted, Hawkins, was to send for the family and break the news to them."
"O, never mind bothering with the servants, then. I will go and bring them down."
While he was gone, the earl worked his idea.
"Yes," he said to himself, "when I've got the materializing down to a certainty, I will get Hawkins to kill them, and after that they will be under better control. Without doubt a materialized negro could easily be hypnotized into a state resembling silence. And this could be made permanent--yes, and also modifiable, at will--sometimes very silent, sometimes turn on more talk, more action, more emotion, according to what you want. It's a prime good idea. Make it adjustable--with a screw or something."
The two ladies entered, now, with Hawkins, and the two negroes followed, uninvited, and fell to brushing and dusting around, for they perceived that there was matter of interest to the fore, and were willing to find out what it was.
Sellers broke the news with stateliness and ceremony, first warning the ladies, with gentle art, that a pang of peculiar sharpness was about to be inflicted upon their hearts--hearts still sore from a like hurt, still lamenting a like loss--then he took the paper, and with trembling lips and with tears in his voice he gave them that heroic death-picture.
The result was a very genuine outbreak of sorrow and sympathy from all the hearers. The elder lady cried, thinking how proud that great-hearted young hero's mother would be, if she were living, and how unappeasable her grief; and the two old servants cried with her, and spoke out their applauses and their pitying lamentations with the eloquent sincerity and simplicity native to their race. Gwendolen was touched, and the romantic side of her nature was strongly wrought upon. She said that such a nature as that young man's was rarely and truly n.o.ble, and nearly perfect; and that with n.o.bility of birth added it was entirely perfect. For such a man she could endure all things, suffer all things, even to the sacrificing of her life. She wished she could have seen him; the slightest, the most momentary, contact with such a spirit would have enn.o.bled her own character and made ign.o.ble thoughts and ign.o.ble acts thereafter impossible to her forever.
"Have they found the body, Rossmore?" asked the wife.
"Yes, that is, they've found several. It must be one of them, but none of them are recognizable."
"What are you going to do?"
"I am going down there and identify one of them and send it home to the stricken father."
"But papa, did you ever see the young man?"
"How will you identify it?"
"I--well, you know it says none of them are recognizable. I'll send his father one of them--there's probably no choice."
Gwendolen knew it was not worth while to argue the matter further, since her father's mind was made up and there was a chance for him to appear upon that sad scene down yonder in an authentic and official way. So she said no more--till he asked for a basket.
"A basket, papa? What for?"
"It might be ashes."
The earl and Washington started on the sorrowful errand, talking as they walked.
"And as usual!"
"Seven of them in that hotel. Actresses. And all burnt out, of course."
"Any of them burnt up?"
"Oh, no they escaped; they always do; but there's never a one of them that knows enough to fetch out her jewelry with her."
"Strange--it's the most unaccountable thing in the world. Experience teaches them nothing; they can't seem to learn anything except out of a book. In some uses there's manifestly a fatality about it. For instance, take What's-her-name, that plays those sensational thunder and lightning parts. She's got a perfectly immense reputation--draws like a dog-fight--and it all came from getting burnt out in hotels."
"Why, how could that give her a reputation as an actress?"
"It didn't--it only made her name familiar. People want to see her play because her name is familiar, but they don't know what made it familiar, because they don't remember. First, she was at the bottom of the ladder, and absolutely obscure wages thirteen dollars a week and find her own pads."
"Yes--things to fat up her spindles with so as to be plump and attractive. Well, she got burnt out in a hotel and lost $30,000 worth of diamonds."
"She? Where'd she get them?"
"Goodness knows--given to her, no doubt, by spoony young flats and sappy old bald-heads in the front row. All the papers were full of it. She struck for higher pay and got it. Well, she got burnt out again and lost all her diamonds, and it gave her such a lift that she went starring."
"Well, if hotel fires are all she's got to depend on to keep up her name, it's a pretty precarious kind of a reputation I should think."
"Not with her. No, anything but that. Because she's so lucky; born lucky, I reckon. Every time there's a hotel fire she's in it. She's always there--and if she can't be there herself, her diamonds are. Now you can't make anything out of that but just sheer luck."
"I never heard of such a thing. She must have lost quarts of diamonds."
"Quarts, she's lost bushels of them. It's got so that the hotels are superst.i.tious about her. They won't let her in. They think there will be a fire; and besides, if she's there it cancels the insurance. She's been waning a little lately, but this fire will set her up. She lost $60,000 worth last night."
"I think she's a fool. If I had $60,000 worth of diamonds I wouldn't trust them in a hotel."
"I wouldn't either; but you can't teach an actress that. This one's been burnt out thirty-five times. And yet if there's a hotel fire in San Francisco to-night she's got to bleed again, you mark my words. Perfect a.s.s; they say she's got diamonds in every hotel in the country."
When they arrived at the scene of the fire the poor old earl took one glimpse at the melancholy morgue and turned away his face overcome by the spectacle. He said: "It is too true, Hawkins--recognition is impossible, not one of the five could be identified by its nearest friend. You make the selection, I can't bear it."
"Which one had I better--"
"Oh, take any of them. Pick out the best one."
However, the officers a.s.sured the earl--for they knew him, everybody in Washington knew him--that the position in which these bodies were found made it impossible that any one of them could be that of his n.o.ble young kinsman. They pointed out the spot where, if the newspaper account was correct, he must have sunk down to destruction; and at a wide distance from this spot they showed him where the young man must have gone down in case he was suffocated in his room; and they showed him still a third place, quite remote, where he might possibly have found his death if perchance he tried to escape by the side exit toward the rear. The old Colonel brushed away a tear and said to Hawkins: "As it turns out there was something prophetic in my fears. Yes, it's a matter of ashes. Will you kindly step to a grocery and fetch a couple more baskets?"
Reverently they got a basket of ashes from each of those now hallowed spots, and carried them home to consult as to the best manner of forwarding them to England, and also to give them an opportunity to "lie in state,"--a mark of respect which the colonel deemed obligatory, considering the high rank of the deceased.
They set the baskets on the table in what was formerly the library, drawing-room and workshop--now the Hall of Audience--and went up stairs to the lumber room to see if they could find a British flag to use as a part of the outfit proper to the lying in state. A moment later, Lady Rossmore came in from the street and caught sight of the baskets just as old Jinny crossed her field of vision. She quite lost her patience and said: "Well, what will you do next? What in the world possessed you to clutter up the parlor table with these baskets of ashes?"
"Ashes?" And she came to look. She put up her hands in pathetic astonishment. "Well, I never see de like!"
"Didn't you do it?"
"Who, me? Clah to goodness it's de fust time I've sot eyes on 'em, Miss Polly. Dat's Dan'l. Dat ole moke is losin' his mine."
But it wasn't Dan'l, for he was called, and denied it.
"Dey ain't no way to 'splain dat. Wen hit's one er dese-yer common 'currences, a body kin reckon maybe de cat--"
"Oh!" and a shudder shook Lady Rossmore to her foundations. "I see it all. Keep away from them--they're his."
"His, m' lady?"
"Yes--your young Ma.r.s.e Sellers from England that's burnt up."
She was alone with the ashes--alone before she could take half a breath. Then she went after Mulberry Sellers, purposing to make short work with his program, whatever it might be; "for," said she, "when his sentimentals are up, he's a numskull, and there's no knowing what extravagance he'll contrive, if you let him alone." She found him. He had found the flag and was bringing it. When she heard that his idea was to have the remains "lie in state, and invite the government and the public," she broke it up. She said: "Your intentions are all right--they always are--you want to do honour to the remains, and surely n.o.body can find any fault with that, for he was your kin; but you are going the wrong way about it, and you will see it yourself if you stop and think. You can't file around a basket of ashes trying to look sorry for it and make a sight that is really solemn, because the solemner it is, the more it isn't--anybody can see that. It would be so with one basket; it would be three times so with three. Well, it stands to reason that if it wouldn't be solemn with one mourner, it wouldn't be with a procession--and there would be five thousand people here. I don't know but it would be pretty near ridiculous; I think it would. No, Mulberry, they can't lie in state--it would be a mistake. Give that up and think of something else."
So he gave it up; and not reluctantly, when he had thought it over and realized how right her instinct was. He concluded to merely sit up with the remains just himself and Hawkins. Even this seemed a doubtful attention, to his wife, but she offered no objection, for it was plain that he had a quite honest and simple-hearted desire to do the friendly and honourable thing by these forlorn poor relics which could command no hospitality in this far off land of strangers but his. He draped the flag about the baskets, put some c.r.a.pe on the door-k.n.o.b, and said with satisfaction: "There--he is as comfortable, now, as we can make him in the circ.u.mstances. Except--yes, we must strain a point there--one must do as one would wish to be done by--he must have it."
"Have what, dear?"
The wife felt that the house-front was standing about all it could well stand, in that way; the prospect of another stunning decoration of that nature distressed her, and she wished the thing had not occurred to him. She said, hesitatingly: "But I thought such an honour as that wasn't allowed to any but very very near relations, who--"
"Right, you are quite right, my lady, perfectly right; but there aren't any nearer relatives than relatives by usurpation. We cannot avoid it; we are slaves of aristocratic custom and must submit."
The hatchments were unnecessarily generous, each being as large as a blanket, and they were unnecessarily volcanic, too, as to variety and violence of color, but they pleased the earl's barbaric eye, and they satisfied his taste for symmetry and completeness, too, for they left no waste room to speak of on the house-front.
Lady Rossmore and her daughter a.s.sisted at the sitting-up till near midnight, and helped the gentlemen to consider what ought to be done next with the remains. Rossmore thought they ought to be sent home with a committee and resolutions,--at once. But the wife was doubtful. She said: "Would you send all of the baskets?"
"Oh, yes, all."
"All at once?"
"To his father? Oh, no--by no means. Think of the shock. No--one at a time; break it to him by degrees."
"Would that have that effect, father?"
"Yes, my daughter. Remember, you are young and elastic, but he is old. To send him the whole at once might well be more than he could bear. But mitigated--one basket at a time, with restful intervals between, he would be used to it by the time he got all of him. And sending him in three ships is safer anyway. On account of wrecks and storms."
"I don't like the idea, father. If I were his father it would be dreadful to have him coming in that--in that--"
"On the installment plan," suggested Hawkins, gravely, and proud of being able to help.
"Yes--dreadful to have him coming in that incoherent way. There would be the strain of suspense upon me all the time. To have so depressing a thing as a funeral impending, delayed, waiting, unaccomplished--"
"Oh, no, my child," said the earl rea.s.suringly, "there would be nothing of that kind; so old a gentleman could not endure a long-drawn suspense like that. There will be three funerals."
Lady Rossmore looked up surprised, and said: "How is that going to make it easier for him? It's a total mistake, to my mind. He ought to be buried all at once; I'm sure of it."
"I should think so, too," said Hawkins.
"And certainly I should," said the daughter.
"You are all wrong," said the earl. "You will see it yourselves, if you think. Only one of these baskets has got him in it."
"Very well, then," said Lady Rossmore, "the thing is perfectly simple-- bury that one."
"Certainly," said Lady Gwendolen.
"But it is not simple," said the earl, "because we do not know which basket he is in. We know he is in one of them, but that is all we do know. You see now, I reckon, that I was right; it takes three funerals, there is no other way."
"And three graves and three monuments and three inscriptions?" asked the daughter.
"Well--yes--to do it right. That is what I should do."
"It could not be done so, father. Each of the inscriptions would give the same name and the same facts and say he was under each and all of these monuments, and that would not answer at all."
The earl nestled uncomfortably in his chair.
"No," he said, "that is an objection. That is a serious objection. I see no way out."
There was a general silence for a while. Then Hawkins said: "It seems to me that if we mixed the three ramifications together--"
The earl grasped him by the hand and shook it gratefully.
"It solves the whole problem," he said. "One ship, one funeral, one grave, one monument--it is admirably conceived. It does you honor, Major Hawkins, it has relieved me of a most painful embarra.s.sment and distress, and it will save that poor stricken old father much suffering. Yes, he shall go over in one basket."
"When?" asked the wife.
"To-morrow-immediately, of course."
"I would wait, Mulberry."
"You don't want to break that childless old man's heart."
"G.o.d knows I don't!"
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»