Puslapio vaizdai

That was Felix's real anxiety-"If his health holds out." Gideon's health was watched over as if he had been an ailing prince. His bubbling vivacity was the foundation upon which his charm and his success were built. Stuhk became a sort of vicarious neurotic, eternally searching for symptoms in his protégé; Gideon's tongue, Gideon's liver, Gideon's heart were matters to him of an unfailing and anxious interest. And of late-of course it might be imagination-Gideon had shown a little physical falling off. He ate a bit less, he had begun to move in a restless way, and, worst of all, he laughed less frequently.

As a matter of fact, there was ground for Stuhk's apprehension. It was not all a matter of managerial imagination: Gid

was less himself. Physically there was nothing the matter with him; he could have passed his rigid insurance scrutiny as easily as he had done months before, when his life and health had been insured for a sum that made good copy for his press-agent. He was sound in every organ, but there was something lacking in general tone. Gideon felt it himself, and was certain that a "misery," that embracing indisposition of his race, was creeping upon him. He had been fed well, too well; he was growing rich, too rich; he had all the praise, all the flattery that his enormous appetite for approval desired, and too much of it. White men sought him out and made much of him; white women talked to him about his career; and wherever he went, women of color-black girls, brown girls, yellow girls-wrote him of their admiration, whispered, when he would listen, of their passion and hero-worship. "City niggers" bowed down before him; the high gallery was always packed with them. Muskscented notes scrawled upon barbaric, "high-toned" stationery poured in upon him. Even a few white women, to his horror and embarrassment, had written him of love, letters which he straightway destroyed. His sense of his position was strong in him; he was proud of it. There might be "folks outer their haids," but he had the sense to remember. For months he had lived in a heaven of gratified vanity, but at last his appetite had begun to falter. He was sated; his soul longed to wipe a spiritual mouth on the back of a

[merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

"Yes, seh, I 's had champagne, and it 's a nice kind of lickeh sho enough; but, Misteh Stuhk, seh, I don' want any of them high-tone' drinks to-night, an' ef yo' don' mind, I 'd rather amble off 'lone, or mebbe eat that po'k-chop with some otheh cullud man, ef I kin fin' one that ain' one of them no-'count Carolina niggers. Do you s'pose yo' could let me have a little money to-night, Misteh Stuhk?"

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors]

Felix whistled.

"Five hundred? Pork-chops must be coming high. You don't want to carry all that money around, do you?"

Gideon did not answer; he looked very gloomy.

Stuhk hastened to cheer him.

"Of course you can have anything you want. Wait a minute, and I will get it for you.

"I'll bet that coon 's going to buy himself a ring or something," he reflected as he went in search of the local manager and Gideon's money.

But Stuhk was wrong. Gideon had no intention of buying himself a ring. For the matter of that, he had several that were amply satisfactory. They had size and sparkle and luster, all the diamond brilliance that rings need to have; and for none of them had he paid much over five dollars. He was amply supplied with jewelry in which he felt perfect satisfaction. His present want was positive, if nebulous: he desired a fortune in his pocket, bulky, tangible evidence of his miraculous success. Ever since Stuhk had found him, life had had an unreal quality for him. His Monte Cristo wealth was too much like a fabulous, dream-found treasure, money that could not be spent without danger of awakening. And he had dropped into the habit of storing it about him, so that in any pocket into which he plunged his hand he might find a roll of crisp evidence of reality. He liked his bills to be of all denominations, and some so large as exquisitely to stagger imagination, others charming by their number and crispness, the dignified, orange paper of a man of assured position and wealth,-crackling greenbacks the design of which tinged the whole with actuality. He was specially partial to engravings of President Lincoln, the particular savior and patron of his race. This five hundred dollars he was adding to an unreckoned sum of about two thousand, merely as extra fortification against a growing sense of gloom. He wished to brace his flagging spirits with the gay wine of possession, and he was glad, when the money came, that it was in an elasticbound roll, so bulky that it was pleasantly uncomfortable in his pocket as he left his


As he turned into the brilliantly lighted

street from the somber alleyway of the stage entrance, he paused for a moment to glance at his own name, in three-foot letters of red, before the doors of the theater. He could read, and the large block type always pleased him. "THIS WEEK. GIDEON." That was all. None of the fulsome praise, the superlative, necessary definition given to lesser performers. He had been, he remembered, “GIDEON, America's Foremost Native Comedian," a title that was at once boast and challenge. That necessity was now past, for he was a national character; any explanatory qualification would have been an insult to the public intelligence. To the world he was just "Gideon"; that was enough. It gave him pleasure, as he sauntered along, to see the announcement repeated on window cards and hoardings.

Presently he came to a window before which he paused in delighted wonder. It was not a large window; to the casual eye of the passer-by there was little to draw attention. By day it lighted the fractional floor space of a little stationer, who supplemented a slim business by a subagency for railroad and steamship lines; but to-night this window seemed the framework of a marvel of coincidence. On the broad, dusty sill inside were propped two cards: the one on the left was his own red-lettered announcement for the week; the one at the right-oh, world of wonders!-was a photogravure of that exact stretch of the inner coast of Florida which Gideon knew best, which was home.

There it was, the Indian River, rippling idly in full sunlight, palmettos leaning over the water, palmettos standing as irregular sentries along the low, reef-like island which stretched away out of the picture. There was the gigantic, lonely pine he knew well, and, yes,- he could just make it out,-there was his own ramshackle little pier, which stretched in undulating fashion, like a long-legged, wading caterpillar, from the abrupt shore-line of eroded coquina into deep water.

He thought at first that this picture of his home was some new and delicate device put forth by his press-agent. His name on one side of a window, his birthplace upon the other-what could be more tastefully appropriate? Therefore, as he spelled out the reading-matter beneath the

[merged small][ocr errors]

photogravure, he was sharply disap- of his intent without a single troubled pointed. It read:

thought. Running away has always been inherent in the negro. He gave one regretful thought to the gorgeous wardrobe he was leaving behind him; but he dared not return for it. Stuhk might have taken it into his head to go back to their rooms. He must content himself with the reflection that he was at that moment wearing his best.

Spend this winter in balmy Florida.

Come to the Land of Perpetual Sunshine. Golf, tennis, driving, shooting, boating, fishing, all of the best.

There was more, but he had no heart for it; he was disappointed and puzzled. This picture had, after all, nothing to do with. him. It was a chance, and yet, what a strange chance! It troubled and upset him. His black, round-featured face took on deep wrinkles of perplexity. The "misery" which had hung darkly on his horizon for weeks engulfed him without warning. But in the very bitterness of his melancholy he knew at last his disease. It was not champagne or recreation that he needed, not even a "po'k-chop," although his desire for it had been a symptom, a groping for a too homeopathic remedy: he was homesick.

The trolley seemed too slow for him, and, as always happened nowadays, he was recognized; he heard his name whispered, and was aware of the admiring glances of the curious. The glances of the curious. Even popularity had its drawbacks. He got down in front of a big hotel and chose a taxicab from the waiting rank, exhorting the driver to make his best speed to the station. Leaning back in the soft depths of the cab, he savored his independence, cheered already by the swaying, lurching speed. At the station he tipped the driver in lordly fashion, very much pleased with himself and anxious to give pleasure. Only the sternest prudence and an unconquerable awe of uniform had kept him from tossing bills to the various traffic policemen who had seemed to smile upon his hurry.

No through train left for hours; but after the first disappointment of momentary check, he decided that he was more pleased than otherwise. It would save embarrassment. He was going south, where his color would be more considered than his reputation, and on the little local he chose there was a "Jim Crow" carone, that is, specially set aside for those of his race. That it proved crowded and full of smoke did not trouble him at all, nor did the admiring pleasantries which the splendor of his apparel immediately called forth. No one knew him; indeed, he was naturally enough mistaken for a prosperous gambler, a not unflattering supposition. In the yard, after the train pulled out, he saw his private car under a glaring arch light, and grinned to see it left behind.

Easy, childish tears came into his eyes, and ran over his shining cheeks. He shivered forlornly with a sudden sense of cold, and absently clutched at the lapels of his gorgeous, fur-lined ulster..

Then in abrupt reaction he laughed. aloud, so that the shrill, musical falsetto startled the passers-by, and in another moment a little semicircle of the curious watched spellbound as a black man, exquisitely appareled, danced in wild, loose grace before the dull background of a somewhat grimy and apparently vacant window. A newsboy recognized him. He heard his name being passed from mouth to mouth, and came partly to his senses. He stopped dancing, and grinned at them.


'Say, you are Gideon, ain't you?" his discoverer demanded, with a sort of reverent audacity.

"Yaas, seh," said Gideon; "that 's me. Yo' shu got it right." He broke into a joyous peal of laughter-the laughter that had made him famous, and bowed deeply before him. "Gideon-posi-tive-ly his las' puffawmunce." Turning, he dashed for a passing trolley, and, still laughing, swung aboard.

He was naturally honest. In a land of easy morality his friends had accounted him something of a paragon; nor had Stuhk ever had anything but praise for him. But now he brushed aside the ethics

He spent the night pleasantly in a noisy game of high-low-jack, and the next morning slept more soundly than he had slept for weeks, hunched upon a wooden bench in the box-like station of a North Carolina junction. The express would have brought him to Jacksonville in twentyfour hours; the journey, as he took it,

boarding any local that happened to be going south, and leaving it for meals or sometimes for sleep or often as the whim possessed him, filled five happy days. There he took a night train, and dozed from Jacksonville until a little north of New Smyrna.

He awoke to find it broad daylight, and the car half empty. The train was on a siding, with news of a freight wreck ahead. Gideon stretched himself, and looked out of the window, and emotion seized him. For all his journey the South had seemed to welcome him, but here at last was the country he knew. He went out upon the platform and threw back his head, sniffing the soft breeze, heavy with the mysterious thrill of unplowed acres, the wondrous existence of primordial jungle, where life has rioted unceasingly above unceasing decay. It was dry with the fine dust of waste places, and wet with the warm mists of slumbering swamps; it seemed to Gideon to tremble with the songs of birds, the dry murmur of palmleaves, and the almost inaudible whisper of the gray moss that festooned the liveoaks.

"Um-m-m," he murmured, apostrophizing it, "yo' 's the right kind o' breeze, yo' is. Yo'-all 's healthy." Still sniffing, he climbed down to the dusty road-bed.

The negroes who had ridden with him were sprawled about him on the ground; one of them lay sleeping, face up, in the sunlight. The train had evidently been there for some time, and there were no signs of an immediate departure. He bought some oranges of a little, bowlegged black boy, and sat down on a log to eat them and to give up his mind to enjoyment. The sun was hot upon him, and his thoughts were vague and drowsy. He was glad that he was alive, glad to be back once more among familiar scenes. Down the length of the train he saw white passengers from the Pullmans restlessly pacing up and down, getting into their cars and out of them, consulting watches, attaching themselves with gesticulatory expostulation to various officials; but their impatience found no echo in his thought. What was the hurry? There was plenty of time. It was sufficient to have come to his own land; the actual walls of home could wait. The delay was pleasant, with its opportunity for drowsy

sunning, its relief from the grimy monotony of travel. He glanced at the orangecolored "Jim Crow" with distaste, and inspiration, dawning slowly upon him, swept all other thought before it in its great and growing glory.

A brakeman passed, and Gideon leaped to his feet and pursued him.

"Misteh, how long yo'-all reckon this train goin' to be?"

"About an hour."

The question had been a mere matter of form. Gideon had made up his mind, and if he had been told that they started in five minutes he would not have changed it. He climbed back into the car for his coat and his hat, and then almost furtively stole down the steps again and slipped quietly into the palmetto scrub.

"'Most made the mistake of ma life," he chuckled, "stickin' to that ol' train foheveh. 'T is n't the right way at all foh Gideon to come home."

The river was not far away. He could catch the dancing blue of it from time to time in ragged vista, and for this beacon he steered directly. His coat was heavy on his arm, his thin patent-leather ties pinched and burned and demanded detours around swampy places, but he was happy. As he went along, his plan perfected itself. He would get into loose shoes again, old ones, if money could buy them, and old clothes, too. The bullbriers snatching at his tailored splendor suggested that.

He laughed when the Florida partridge, a small quail, whirred up from under his feet; he paused to exchange affectionate mockery with red squirrels; and once, even when he was brought up suddenly to a familiar and ominous, dry reverberation, the small, crisp sound of the rolling drums of death, he did not look about him for some instrument of destruction, as at any other time he would have done, but instead peered cautiously over the log before him, and spoke in tolerant admonition:

"Now, Misteh Rattlesnake, yo' jes min' yo' own business. Nobody's goin' step on yo', ner go triflin' roun' yo' in no way whatsomeveh. Yo' jes lay there in the sun an' git 's fat 's yo' please. Don' yo' tu'n yo' weeked li'l' eyes on Gideon. He 's jes goin' 'long home, an' ain' lookin' foh no muss."

He came presently to the water, and, as luck would have it, to a little group of negro cabins, where he was able to buy old clothes and, after much dickering, a long and somewhat leaky rowboat rigged out with a tattered leg-of-mutton sail. This he provisioned with a jug of water, a starch box full of white corn-meal, and a wide strip of lean razorback bacon.

As he pushed out from shore and set his sail to the small breeze that blew down from the north, an absolute contentment possessed him. The idle waters of the lagoon, lying without tide or current in eternal indolence, rippled and sparkled in breeze and sunlight with a merry surface activity, and seemed to lap the leaky little boat more swiftly on its way. Mosquito Inlet opened broadly before him, and skirting the end of Merritt's Island, he came at last into that longest lagoon, with which he was most familiar, the Indian River. Here the wind died down to a mere breath, which barely kept his boat in motion; but he made no attempt to row. As long as he moved at all, he was satisfied. He was living the fulfilment of his dreams in exile, lounging in the stern in the ancient clothes he had purchased, his feet stretched comfortably before him in their broken shoes, one foot upon a thwart, the other hanging overside so laxly that occasional ripples lapped the run-over heel. From time to time he scanned shore and river for familiar points of interest-some remembered snag that showed the tip of one gnarled branch. Or he marked a newly fallen palmetto, already rotting in the water, which must be added to that map of vast detail that he carried in his head. But for the most part his broad black face was turned up to the blue brilliance above him in unblinking contemplation; his keen eyes, brilliant despite their sun-muddied whites, reveled in the heights above him, swinging from horizon to horizon in the wake of an orderly file of little bluebill ducks, winging their way across the river, or brightening with interest at the rarer sight of a pair of mallards or redheads, lifting with the soaring circles of the great bald-headed eagle, or following the scattered squadron of heronwhite heron, blue heron, young and old, trailing, sunlit, brilliant patches, clear even against the bright white and blue of the sky above them.

Often he laughed aloud, sending a great shout of mirth across the water in fresh relish of those comedies best known and best enjoyed. It was as excruciatingly funny as it had ever been, when his boat nosed its way into a great flock of ducks idling upon the water, to see the mad paddling haste of those nearest him, the reproachful turn of their heads, or, if he came too near, their spattering run out of water, feet and wings pumping together as they rose from the surface, looking for all the world like fat little women, scurrying with clutched skirts across city streets. The pelicans, too, delighted him as they perched with pedantic solemnity upon wharf-piles, or sailed in hunched and huddled gravity twenty feet above the river's surface in swift, dignified flight, which always ended suddenly in an abrupt, upended plunge that threw dignity to the winds in its greedy haste, and dropped them crashing into the water.

When darkness came suddenly at last, he made in toward shore, mooring to the worm-fretted end of a fallen and forgotten landing. A straggling orange-grove was here, broken lines of vanquished cultivation, struggling little trees swathed and choked in the festooning gray moss, still showing here and there the valiant golden gleam of fruit. Gideon had seen many such places, had seen settlers come and clear themselves a space in the jungle, plant their groves, and live for a while in lazy independence; and then for some reason or other they would go, and before they had scarcely turned their backs, the jungle had crept in again, patiently restoring its ancient sovereignty. The place was eery with the ghost of dead effort; but it pleased him.

He made a fire and cooked supper, eating enormously and with relish. His conscience did not trouble him at all. Stuhk and his own career seemed already distant; they took small place in his thoughts, and served merely as a background for his present absolute content. He picked some oranges, and ate them in meditative enjoyment. For a while he nodded, half asleep, beside his fire, watching the darkened river, where the mullet, shimmering with phosphorescence, still leaped starkly above the surface, and fell in spattering brilliance. Midnight found him sprawled asleep beside his fire.

« AnkstesnisTęsti »