What Answer?


2. Chapter II

"Thou--drugging pain by patience."


"Laces cleaned, and fluting and ruffling done here,"--that was what the little sign swinging outside the little green door said. And, coming under it into the cosey little rooms, you felt this was just the place in which to leave things soiled and torn, and come back to find them, by some mysterious process, immaculate and whole.

Two rooms, with folding-doors between, in which through the day stood a counter, cut up on the one side into divers pigeon-holes rilled with small boxes and bundles, carefully pinned and labelled,--owner's name, time left, time to be called for, money due; neat and nice as a new pin, as every one said who had any dealings there.

The counter was pushed back now, as always after seven o'clock, for the people who came in the evening were few; and then, when that was out of the way, it seemed more home-like and less shoppy, as Mrs. Franklin said every night, as she straightened things out, and peered through the window or looked from the front door, and wondered if "Abram weren't later than usual," though she knew right well he was punctual as clock-work,--good clock-work too,--when he was going to his toil or hurrying back to his home.

Pleasant little rooms, with the cleanest and brightest of rag carpets on the floor; a paper on the walls, cheap enough, but gay with scarlet rosebuds and green leaves, rivalled by the vines and berries on the pretty chintz curtains; chairs of a dozen ages and patterns, but all of them with open, inviting countenances and a hospitable air; a wood fire that looked like a wood fire crackling and sparkling on the hearth, shining and dancing over the ceiling and the floor and the walls, cutting queer capers with the big rocking-chair,--which turned into a giant with long arms,--and with the little figures on the mantel-shelf, and the books in their cases, softening and glorifying the two grand faces hanging in their frames opposite, and giving just light enough below them to let you read "John Brown" and "Phillips," if you had any occasion to read, and did not know those whom the world knows; and first and last, and through all, as if it loved her, and was loath to part with her for a moment, whether she poked the flame, or straightened a chair, or went out towards the little kitchen to lift a lid and smell a most savory stew, or came back to the supper-table to arrange and rearrange what was already faultless in its cleanliness and simplicity, wherever she went and whatever she did, this firelight fell warm about a woman, large and comfortable and handsome, with a motherly look to her person, and an expression that was all kindness in her comely face and dark, soft eyes,--eyes and face and form, though, that might as well have had "Pariah" written all over them, and "leper" stamped on their front, for any good, or beauty, or grace, that people could find in them; for the comely face was a dark face, and the voice, singing an old Methodist hymn, was no Anglo-Saxon treble, but an Anglo-African voice, rich and mellow, with the touch of pathos or sorrow always heard in these tones.

"There!" she said, "there he is!" as a step, hasty yet halting, was heard on the pavement; and, turning up the light, she ran quickly to open the door, which, to be sure, was unfastened, and to give the greeting to her "boy," which, through many a year, had never been omitted.

Her boy,--you would have known that as soon as you saw him,--the same eyes, same face, the same kindly look; but the face was thinner and finer, and the brow was a student's brow, full of thought and speculation; and, looking from her hearty, vigorous form, you saw that his was slight to attenuation.

"Sit down, sonny, sit down and rest. There! how tired you look!" bustling round him, smoothing his thin face and rough hair. "Now don't do that! let your old mother do it!" It pleased her to call herself old, though she was but just in her prime. "You've done enough for one day, I'm sure, waiting on other people, and walking with your poor lame foot till you're all but beat out. You be quiet now, and let somebody else wait on you." And, going down on her knees, she took up the lame foot, and began to unlace the cork-soled, high-cut shoe, and, drawing it out, you saw that it was shrunken and small, and that the leg was shorter than its fellow.

"Poor little foot!" rubbing it tenderly, smoothing the stocking over it, and chafing it to bring warmth and life to its surface. Her "baby," she called it, for it was no bigger than when he was a little fellow. "Poor, tired foot! ain't it a dreadful long walk, sonny?"

"Pretty long, mother; but I'd take twice that to do such work at the end."

"Yes, indeed, it's good work, and Mr. Surrey's a good man, and a kind one, that's sure! I only wish some others had a little of his spirit. Such a shame to have you dragging all the way up here, when any dirty fellow that wants to can ride. I don't mind for myself so much, for I can walk about spry enough yet, and don't thank them for their old omnibuses nor cars; but it's too bad for you, so it is,--too bad!"

"Never mind, mother! keep a brave heart. 'There's a good time coming soon, a good time coming!' as I heard Mr. Hutchinson sing the other night,--and it's true as gospel."

"Maybe it is, sonny!" dubiously, "but I don't see it,--not a sign of it,--no indeed, not one! It gets worse and worse all the time, and it takes a deal of faith to hold on; but the good Lord knows best, and it'll be right after a while, anyhow! And now that's straight!" pulling a soft slipper on the lame foot, and putting its mate by his side; then going off to pour out the tea, and dish up the stew, and add a touch or two to the appetizing supper-table.

"It's as good as a feast,"--taking a bite out of her nice home-made bread,--"better'n a feast, to think of you in that place; and I can't scarcely realize it yet. It seems too fine to be true."

"That's the way I've felt all the month, mother! It has been just like a dream to me, and I keep thinking surely I'm asleep and will waken to find this is just an air-castle I've been building, or 'a vision of the night,' as the good book says."

"Well, it's a blessed vision, sure enough! and I hope to the good Lord it'll last;--but you won't if you make a vision of your supper in that way. You just eat, Abram! and have done your talking till you're through, if you can't do both at once. Talking's good, but eating's better when you're hungry; and it's my opinion you ought to be hungry, if you ain't."

So the teacups were filled and emptied, and the spoons clattered, and the stew was eaten, and the baked potatoes devoured, and the bread-and-butter assaulted vigorously, and general havoc made with the good things and substantial things before and between them; and then, this duty faithfully performed, the wreck speedily vanished away; and cups and forks, spoons and plates, knives and dishes, cleaned and cupboarded, Mrs. Franklin came, and, drawing away the book over which he was poring, said, while she smoothed face and hair once more, "Come, Abram, what is it?"

"What's what, mother?" with a little laugh.

"Something ails you, sonny. That's plain enough. I know when anything's gone wrong with ye, sure, and something's gone wrong to-day."

"O mother! you worry about me too much, indeed you do. If I'm a little tired or out of sorts,--which I haven't any right to be, not here,--or quiet, or anything, you think somebody's been hurting me, or abusing me, or that everything's gone wrong with me, when I do well enough all the time."

"Now, Abram, you can't deceive me,--not that way. My eyes is mother's eyes, and they see plain enough, where you're concerned, without spectacles. Who's been putting on you to-day? Somebody. You don't carry that down look in your face and your eyes for nothing, I found that out long ago, and you've got it on to-night."

"O mother!"

"Don't you 'O mother' me! I ain't going to be put off in that way, Abram, an' you needn't think it. Has Mr. Surrey been saying anything hard to you?"

"No, indeed, mother; you needn't ask that."

"Nor none of the foremen?"


"Has Snipe been round?"

"Hasn't been near the office since Mr. Surrey dismissed him."

"Met him anywhere?"

"Nein!" laughing, "I haven't laid eyes on him."

"Well, the men have been saying or doing something then."

"N-no; why, what an inquisitor it is!"

"'N-no.' You don't say that full and plain, Abram. Something has been going wrong with the men. Now what is it? Come, out with it."

"Well, mother, if you will know, you will, I suppose; and, as you never get tired of the story, I'll go over the whole tale.

"So long as I was Mr. Surrey's office-boy, to make his fires, and sweep and dust, and keep things in order, the men were all good enough to me after their fashion; and if some of them growled because they thought he favored me, Mr. Given, or some one said, 'O, you know his mother was a servant of Mrs. Surrey for no end of years, and of course Mr. Surrey has a kind of interest in him'; and that put everything straight again.

"Well! you know how good Mr. Willie has been to me ever since we were little boys in the same house,--he in the parlor and I in the kitchen; the books he's given me, and the chances he's made me, and the way he's put me in of learning and knowing. And he's been twice as kind to me ever since I refused that offer of his."

"Yes, I know, but tell me about it again."

"Well, Mr. Surrey sent me up to the house one day, just while Mr. Willie was at home from college, and he stopped me and had a talk with me, and asked me in his pleasant way, not as if I were a 'nigger,' but just as he'd talk to one of his mates, ever so many questions about myself and my studies and my plans; and I told him what I wanted,--how hard you worked, and how I hoped to fit myself to go into some little business of my own, not a barber-shop, or any such thing, but something that'd support you and keep you like a lady after while, and that would help me and my people at the same time. For, of course," I said, "every one of us that does anything more than the world expects us to do, or better, makes the world think so much the more and better of us all."

"What did he say to that?"

"I wish you'd seen him! He pushed back that beautiful hair of his, and his eyes shone, and his mouth trembled, though I could see he tried hard to hold it still, and put up his hand to cover it; and he said, in a solemn sort of way, 'Franklin, you've opened a window for me, and I sha'n't forget what I see through it to-day.' And then he offered to set me up in some business at once, and urged hard when I declined."

"Say it all over again, sonny; what was it you told him?"

"I said that would do well enough for a white man; that he could help, and the white man be helped, just as people were being and doing all the time, and no one would think a thought about it. But, sir," I said, "everybody says we can do nothing alone; that we're a poor, shiftless set; and it will be just one of the master race helping a nigger to climb and to stand where he couldn't climb or stand alone, and I'd rather fight my battle alone."

"Yes, yes! well, go on, go on. I like to hear what followed."

"Well, there was just a word or two more, and then he put out his hand and shook mine, and said good by. It was the first time I ever shook hands with a white gentleman. Some white hands have shaken mine, but they always made me feel that they were white and that mine was black, and that it was a condescension. I felt that, when they didn't mean I should. But there was nothing between us. I didn't think of his skin, and, for once in my life, I quite forgot I was black, and didn't remember it again till I got out on the street and heard a dirty little ragamuffin cry, 'Hi! hi! don't that nagur think himself foine?' I suspect, in spite of my lameness, I had been holding up my head and walking like a man."

In spite of his lameness he was holding up his head and walking like a man now; up and down and across the little room, trembling, excited, the words rushing in an eager flow from his mouth. His mother sat quietly rocking herself and knitting. She knew in this mood there was nothing to be said to him; and, indeed, what had she to say save that which would add fuel to the flame?

"Well!"--a long sigh,--"after that Mr. Surrey doubled my wages, and was kinder to me than ever, and watched me, as I saw, quite closely; and that was the way he found out about Mr. Snipe.

"You see Mr. Snipe had been very careless about keeping the books; would come down late in the mornings, just before Mr. Surrey came in, and go away early in the afternoons, as soon as he had left. Of course, the books got behindhand every month, and Mr. Snipe didn't want to stay and work overhours to make them up. One day he found out, by something I said, that I understood bookkeeping, and tried me, and then got me to take them home at night and go over them. I didn't know then how bad he was doing, and that I had no business to shield him, and all went smooth enough till the day I was too sick to get down to the office, and two of the books were at home. Then Mr. Surrey discovered the whole thing. There was a great row, it seems; and Mr. Surrey examined the books, and found, as he was pleased to say, that I'd kept them in first-rate style; so he dismissed Mr. Snipe on the spot, with six months' pay,--for you know he never does anything by halves,--and put me in his place.

"The men don't like it, I know, and haven't liked it, but of course they can't say anything to him, and they haven't said anything to me; but I've seen all along that they looked at me with no friendly eyes, and for the last day or two I've heard a word here and there which makes me think there's trouble brewing,--bad enough, I'm afraid; maybe to the losing of my place, though Mr. Surrey has said nothing about it to me."

Just here the little green door opened, and the foreman whom we have before seen--James Given as the register had him entered, Jim Given as every one knew him--came in; no longer with grimy face and flannel sleeves, but brave in all his Sunday finery, and as handsome a b'hoy, they said, at his engine-house, as any that ran with the machine; having on his arm a young lady whom he apostrophized as Sallie, as handsome and brave as he.

"Evening,"--a nod of the head accompanying. "Miss Howard's traps done?"

"I wish you wouldn't say 'traps,' Jim," corrected Sallie, sotto voce; "it's not proper. It's for a collar and pair of cuffs, Mrs. Franklin," she added aloud, putting down a little check.

"Not proper! goodness gracious me! there spoke Snipe! Come, Sallie, you've pranced round with that stuck-up jackanapes till you're getting spoiled entirely, so you are, and I scarcely know you. Not proper,--O my!"

"Spoiled, am I? Thank you, sir, for the compliment! And you don't know me at all,--don't you? Very well, then I'll say good night, and leave; for it wouldn't be proper to take a young lady you don't know to the theatre,--now, would it? Good by!"--making for the door.

"Now don't, Sallie, please."

"Don't what?"

"Don't talk that way."

"Don't yourself, more like. You're just as cross as cross can be, and disagreeable, and hateful,--all because I happen to know there's some other man in the world besides yourself, and smile at him now and then. 'Don't,' indeed!"

"Come, Sallie, you're too hard on a fellow. It's your own fault, you know well enough, if you will be so handsome. Now, if you were an ugly old girl, or I was certain of you, I shouldn't feel so bad, nor act so neither. But when there's a lot of hungry chaps round, all gaping to gobble you up, and even poor little Snipes trying to peck and bite at you, and you won't say 'yes' nor 'no' to me, how do you expect a man to keep cool? Can't do it, nohow, and you needn't ask it. Human nature's human nature, I suppose, and mine ain't a quiet nor a patient one, not by no manner of means. Come, Sallie, own up; you wouldn't like me so well as I hope you do if it was,--now, would you?"

Mrs. Franklin smiled, though she had heard not a word of the lovers' quarrel, as she put a pin in the back of the ruffled collar which Sallie had come to reclaim. A quarrel it had evidently been, and as evidently the lady was mollified, for she said, "Don't be absurd, Jim!" and Jim laughed and responded, "All right, Sallie, you're an angel! But come, we must hurry, or the curtain'll be up,"--and away went the dashing and handsome couple.

Abram, shutting in the shutters, and fastening the door, sat down to a quiet evening's reading, while his mother knitted and sewed,--an evening the likeness of a thousand others of which they never tired; for this mother and son, to whom fate had dealt so hard a measure, upon whom the world had so persistently frowned, were more to each other than most mothers and sons whose lines had fallen in pleasanter places,--compensation, as Mr. Emerson says, being the law of existence the world over.