The American Claimant Part 8

Oh, yes, this heir to an annual million or so had been dreaming and soaring, and had forgotten that pitiful three or four dollars. For penalty he must have it coa.r.s.ely flung in his face in the presence of these people--people in whose countenances was already beginning to dawn an uncharitable enjoyment of the situation.

"Is that all! Take your money and give your terrors a rest."

Tracy's hand went down into his pocket with angry decision. But--it didn't come out. The color began to ebb out of his face. The countenances about him showed a growing interest; and some of them a heightened satisfaction. There was an uncomfortable pause--then he forced out, with difficulty, the words: "I've--been robbed!"

Old Marsh's eyes flamed up with Spanish fire, and he exclaimed: "Robbed, is it? That's your tune? It's too old--been played in this house too often; everybody plays it that can't get work when he wants it, and won't work when he can get it. Trot out Mr. Allen, somebody, and let him take a toot at it. It's his turn next, he forgot, too, last night. I'm laying for him."

One of the negro women came scrambling down stairs as pale as a sorrel horse with consternation and excitement: "Misto Marsh, Misto Allen's skipped out!"

"What!"

"Yes-sah, and cleaned out his room clean; tuck bofe towels en de soap!"

"You lie, you hussy!"

"It's jes' so, jes' as I tells you--en Misto Summer's socks is gone, en Misto Naylor's yuther shirt."

Mr. Marsh was at boiling point by this time. He turned upon Tracy: "Answer up now--when are you going to settle?"

"To-day--since you seem to be in a hurry."

"To-day is it? Sunday--and you out of work? I like that. Come--where are you going to get the money?"

Tracy's spirit was rising again. He proposed to impress these people: "I am expecting a cablegram from home."

Old Marsh was caught out, with the surprise of it. The idea was so immense, so extravagant, that he couldn't get his breath at first. When he did get it, it came rancid with sarcasm.

"A cablegram--think of it, ladies and gents, he's expecting a cablegram! He's expecting a cablegram--this duffer, this scrub, this bilk! From his father--eh? Yes--without a doubt. A dollar or two a word--oh, that's nothing--they don't mind a little thing like that--this kind's fathers don't. Now his father is--er--well, I reckon his father--"

"My father is an English earl!"

The crowd fell back aghast-aghast at the sublimity of the young loafer's "cheek." Then they burst into a laugh that made the windows rattle. Tracy was too angry to realize that he had done a foolish thing. He said: "Stand aside, please. I--"

"Wait a minute, your lordship," said Marsh, bowing low, "where is your lordship going?"

"For the cablegram. Let me pa.s.s."

"Excuse me, your lordship, you'll stay right where you are."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that I didn't begin to keep boarding-house yesterday. It means that I am not the kind that can be taken in by every hack-driver's son that comes loafing over here because he can't b.u.m a living at home. It means that you can't skip out on any such--"

Tracy made a step toward the old man, but Mrs. Marsh sprang between, and said: "Don't, Mr. Tracy, please." She turned to her husband and said, "Do bridle your tongue. What has he done to be treated so? Can't you see he has lost his mind, with trouble and distress? He's not responsible."

"Thank your kind heart, madam, but I've not lost my mind; and if I can have the mere privilege of stepping to the telegraph office--"

"Well, you can't," cried Marsh.

"--or sending--"

"Sending! That beats everything. If there's anybody that's fool enough to go on such a chuckle-headed errand--"

"Here comes Mr. Barrow--he will go for me. Barrow--"

A brisk fire of exclamations broke out-- "Say, Barrow, he's expecting a cablegram!"

"Cablegram from his father, you know!"

"Yes--cablegram from the wax-figger!"

"And say, Barrow, this fellow's an earl--take off your hat, pull down your vest!"

"Yes, he's come off and forgot his crown, that he wears Sundays. He's cabled over to his pappy to send it."

"You step out and get that cablegram, Barrow; his majesty's a little lame to-day."

"Oh stop," cried Barrow; "give the man a chance." He turned, and said with some severity, "Tracy, what's the matter with you? What kind of foolishness is this you've been talking. You ought to have more sense."

"I've not been talking foolishness; and if you'll go to the telegraph office--"

"Oh; don't talk so. I'm your friend in trouble and out of it, before your face and behind your back, for anything in reason; but you've lost your head, you see, and this moonshine about a cablegram--"

"I'll go there and ask for it!"

"Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Brady. Here, I'll give you a Written order for it. Fly, now, and fetch it. We'll soon see!"

Brady flew. Immediately the sort of quiet began to steal over the crowd which means dawning doubt, misgiving; and might be translated into the words, "Maybe he is expecting a cablegram--maybe he has got a father somewhere--maybe we've been just a little too fresh, just a shade too 'previous'!"

Loud talk ceased; then the mutterings and low murmurings and whisperings died out. The crowd began to crumble apart. By ones and twos the fragments drifted to the breakfast table. Barrow tried to bring Tracy in; but he said: "Not yet, Barrow--presently."

Mrs. Marsh and Hattie tried, offering gentle and kindly persuasions; but he said; "I would rather wait--till he comes."

Even old Marsh began to have suspicions that maybe he had been a trifle too "brash," as he called it in the privacy of his soul, and he pulled himself together and started toward Tracy with invitation in his eyes; but Tracy warned him off with a gesture which was quite positive and eloquent. Then followed the stillest quarter of an hour which had ever been known in that house at that time of day. It was so still, and so solemn withal, that when somebody's cup slipped from his fingers and landed in his plate the shock made people start, and the sharp sound seemed as indecorous there and as out of place as if a coffin and mourners were imminent and being waited for. And at last when Brady's feet came clattering down the stairs the sacrilege seemed unbearable. Everybody rose softly and turned toward the door, where stood Tracy; then with a common impulse, moved a step or two in that direction, and stopped. While they gazed, young Brady arrived, panting, and put into Tracy's hand,--sure enough--an envelope. Tracy fastened a bland victorious eye upon the gazers, and kept it there till one by one they dropped their eyes, vanquished and embarra.s.sed. Then he tore open the telegram and glanced at its message. The yellow paper fell from his fingers and fluttered to the floor, and his face turned white. There was nothing there but one word-- "Thanks."

The humorist of the house, the tall, raw-boned Billy Nash, caulker from the navy yard, was standing in the rear of the crowd. In the midst of the pathetic silence that was now brooding over the place and moving some few hearts there toward compa.s.sion, he began to whimper, then he put his handkerchief to his eyes and buried his face in the neck of the bashfulest young fellow in the company, a navy-yard blacksmith, shrieked "Oh, pappy, how could you!" and began to bawl like a teething baby, if one may imagine a baby with the energy and the devastating voice of a jacka.s.s.

So perfect was that imitation of a child's cry, and so vast the scale of it and so ridiculous the aspect of the performer, that all gravity was swept from the place as if by a hurricane, and almost everybody there joined in the crash of laughter provoked by the exhibition. Then the small mob began to take its revenge--revenge for the discomfort and apprehension it had brought upon itself by its own too rash freshness of a little while before. It guyed its poor victim, baited him, worried him, as dogs do with a cornered cat. The victim answered back with defiances and challenges which included everybody, and which only gave the sport new spirit and variety; but when he changed his tactics and began to single out individuals and invite them by name, the fun lost its funniness and the interest of the show died out, along with the noise.

Finally Marsh was about to take an innings, but Barrow said: "Never mind, now--leave him alone. You've no account with him but a money account. I'll take care of that myself."

The distressed and worried landlady gave Barrow a fervently grateful look for his championship of the abused stranger; and the pet of the house, a very prism in her cheap but ravishing Sunday rig, blew him a kiss from the tips of her fingers and said, with the darlingest smile and a sweet little toss of her head: "You're the only man here, and I'm going to set my cap for you, you dear old thing!"

"For shame, Puss! How you talk! I never saw such a child!"

It took a good deal of argument and persuasion--that is to say, petting, under these disguises--to get Tracy to entertain the idea of breakfast. He at first said he would never eat again in that house; and added that he had enough firmness of character, he trusted, to enable him to starve like a man when the alternative was to eat insult with his bread.

When he had finished his breakfast, Barrow took him to his room, furnished him a pipe, and said cheerily: "Now, old fellow, take in your battle-flag out of the wet, you're not in the hostile camp any more. You're a little upset by your troubles, and that's natural enough, but don't let your mind run on them anymore than you can help; drag your thoughts away from your troubles by the ears, by the heels, or any other way, so you manage it; it's the healthiest thing a body can do; dwelling on troubles is deadly, just deadly--and that's the softest name there is for it. You must keep your mind amused--you must, indeed."

"Oh, miserable me!"

"Don't! There's just pure heart-break in that tone. It's just as I say; you've got to get right down to it and amuse your mind, as if it was salvation."

"They're easy words to say, Barrow, but how am I going to amuse, entertain, divert a mind that finds itself suddenly a.s.saulted and overwhelmed by disasters of a sort not dreamed of and not provided for? No--no, the bare idea of amus.e.m.e.nt is repulsive to my feelings: Let us talk of death and funerals."

"No--not yet. That would be giving up the ship. We'll not give up the ship yet. I'm going to amuse you; I sent Brady out for the wherewithal before you finished breakfast."

"You did? What is it?"

"Come, this is a good sign--curiosity. Oh, there's hope for you yet."

CHAPTER XVI.

Brady arrived with a box, and departed, after saying, "They're finishing one up, but they'll be along as soon as it's done."

Barrow took a frameless oil portrait a foot square from the box, set it up in a good light, without comment, and reached for another, taking a furtive glance at Tracy, meantime. The stony solemnity in Tracy's face remained as it was, and gave out no sign of interest. Barrow placed the second portrait beside the first, and stole another glance while reaching for a third. The stone image softened, a shade. No. 3 forced the ghost of a smile, No. 4 swept indifference wholly away, and No. 5 started a laugh which was still in good and hearty condition when No. 14 took its place in the row.

"Oh, you're all right, yet," said Barrow. "You see you're not past amus.e.m.e.nt."

The pictures were fearful, as to color, and atrocious as to drawing and expression; but the feature which squelched animosity and made them funny was a feature which could not achieve its full force in a single picture, but required the wonder-working a.s.sistance of repet.i.tion. One loudly dressed mechanic in stately att.i.tude, with his hand on a cannon, ash.o.r.e, and a ship riding at anchor in the offing,--this is merely odd; but when one sees the same cannon and the same ship in fourteen pictures in a row, and a different mechanic standing watch in each, the thing gets to be funny.

"Explain--explain these aberrations," said Tracy.

"Well, they are not the achievement of a single intellect, a single talent--it takes two to do these miracles. They are collaborations; the one artist does the figure, the other the accessories. The figure- artist is a German shoemaker with an untaught pa.s.sion for art, the other is a simple hearted old Yankee sailor-man whose possibilities are strictly limited to his ship, his cannon and his patch of petrified sea. They work these things up from twenty-five-cent tintypes; they get six dollars apiece for them, and they can grind out a couple a day when they strike what they call a boost--that is, an inspiration."

"People actually pay money for these calumnies?"

"They actually do--and quite willingly, too. And these abortionists could double their trade and work the women in, if Capt. Saltmarsh could whirl a horse in, or a piano, or a guitar, in place of his cannon. The fact is, he fatigues the market with that cannon. Even the male market, I mean. These fourteen in the procession are not all satisfied. One is an old "independent" fireman, and he wants an engine in place of the cannon; another is a mate of a tug, and wants a tug in place of the ship --and so on, and so on. But the captain can't make a tug that is deceptive, and a fire engine is many flights beyond his power."

"This is a most extraordinary form of robbery, I never have heard of anything like it. It's interesting."

"Yes, and so are the artists. They are perfectly honest men, and sincere. And the old sailor-man is full of sound religion, and is as devoted a student of the Bible and misquoter of it as you can find anywhere. I don't know a better man or kinder hearted old soul than Saltmarsh, although he does swear a little, sometimes."

"He seems to be perfect. I want to know him, Barrow."

"You'll have the chance. I guess I hear them coming, now. We'll draw them out on their art, if you like."

The artists arrived and shook hands with great heartiness. The German was forty and a little fleshy, with a shiny bald head and a kindly face and deferential manner. Capt. Saltmarsh was sixty, tall, erect, powerfully built, with coal-black hair and whiskers, and he had a well tanned complexion, and a gait and countenance that were full of command, confidence and decision. His h.o.r.n.y hands and wrists were covered with tattoo-marks, and when his lips parted, his teeth showed up white and blemishless. His voice was the effortless deep ba.s.s of a church organ, and would disturb the tranquility of a gas flame fifty yards away.

"They're wonderful pictures," said Barrow. "We've been examining them."

"It is very bleasant dot you like dem," said Handel, the German, greatly pleased. "Und you, Herr Tracy, you haf peen bleased mit dem too, alretty?"

"I can honestly say I have never seen anything just like them before."

"Schon!" cried the German, delighted. "You hear, Gaptain? Here is a chentleman, yes, vot abbreviate unser aart."

The captain was charmed, and said: "Well, sir, we're thankful for a compliment yet, though they're not as scarce now as they used to be before we made a reputation."

"Getting the reputation is the up-hill time in most things, captain."

"It's so. It ain't enough to know how to reef a gasket, you got to make the mate know you know it. That's reputation. The good word, said at the right time, that's the word that makes us; and evil be to him that evil thinks, as Isaiah says."

"It's very relevant, and hits the point exactly," said Tracy.

"Where did you study art, Captain?"

"I haven't studied; it's a natural gift."

"He is born mit dose cannon in him. He tondt haf to do noding, his chenius do all de vork. Of he is asleep, and take a pencil in his hand, out come a cannon. Py crashus, of he could do a clavier, of he could do a guitar, of he could do a vashtub, it is a fortune, heiliger Yohanniss it is yoost a fortune!"

"Well, it is an immense pity that the business is hindered and limited in this unfortunate way."

The captain grew a trifle excited, himself, now: "You've said it, Mr. Tracy!--Hindered? well, I should say so. Why, look here. This fellow here, No. 11, he's a hackman,--a flourishing hackman, I may say. He wants his hack in this picture. Wants it where the cannon is. I got around that difficulty, by telling him the cannon's our trademark, so to speak--proves that the picture's our work, and I was afraid if we left it out people wouldn't know for certain if it was a Saltmarsh--Handel--now you wouldn't yourself--"

"What, Captain? You wrong yourself, indeed you do. Anyone who has once seen a genuine Saltmarsh-Handel is safe from imposture forever. Strip it, flay it, skin it out of every detail but the bare color and expression, and that man will still recognize it--still stop to worship--"

"Oh, how it makes me feel to hear dose oxpressions!--"

--"still say to himself again as he had, said a hundred times before, the art of the Saltmarsh-Handel is an art apart, there is nothing in the heavens above or in the earth beneath that resembles it,--"

"Py chiminy, nur h.o.r.en Sie einmal! In my life day haf I never heard so brecious worts."

"So I talked him out of the hack, Mr. Tracy, and he let up on that, and said put in a hea.r.s.e, then--because he's chief mate of a hea.r.s.e but don't own it--stands a watch for wages, you know. But I can't do a hea.r.s.e any more than I can a hack; so here we are--becalmed, you see. And it's the same with women and such. They come and they want a little johnry picture--"

"It's the accessories that make it a 'genre?'"

"Yes--cannon, or cat, or any little thing like that, that you heave into whoop up the effect. We could do a prodigious trade with the women if we could foreground the things they like, but they don't give a d.a.m.n for artillery. Mine's the lack," continued the captain with a sigh, "Andy's end of the business is all right I tell you he's an artist from way back!"

"Yoost hear dot old man! He always talk 'poud me like dot," purred the pleased German.

"Look at his work yourself! Fourteen portraits in a row. And no two of them alike."

"Now that you speak of it, it is true; I hadn't noticed it before. It is very remarkable. Unique, I suppose."

"I should say so. That's the very thing about Andy--he discriminates. Discrimination's the thief of time--forty-ninth Psalm; but that ain't any matter, it's the honest thing, and it pays in the end."

"Yes, he certainly is great in that feature, one is obliged to admit it; but--now mind, I'm not really criticising--don't you think he is just a trifle overstrong in technique?"

The captain's face was knocked expressionless by this remark. It remained quite vacant while he muttered to himself-- "Technique-- technique--polytechnique--pyro-technique; that's it, likely--fireworks too much color." Then he spoke up with serenity and confidence, and said: "Well, yes, he does pile it on pretty loud; but they all like it, you know--fact is, it's the life of the business. Take that No. 9, there, Evans the butcher. He drops into the stoodio as sober-colored as anything you ever see: now look at him. You can't tell him from scarlet fever. Well, it pleases that butcher to death. I'm making a study of a sausage-wreath to hang on the cannon, and I don't really reckon I can do it right, but if I can, we can break the butcher."

"Unquestionably your confederate--I mean your--your fellow-craftsman-- is a great colorist--"

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