Hopkins, Pauline E.
|CHAPTER VI. -- MA SMITH'S LODGING-HOUSE.-- Concluded .|
The gray day darkened into night,
... Made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag wavering to and fro,
Crossed and recrossed the winged snow.
February drew slowly to a close. Boston had lain for the past three or four days in the grasp of the snow king. At No. 500 D Street each tenant seemed content to keep within the bounds of his or her small domain, literally "frozed up," as Mrs. Ophelia Davis expressed it.
No one had seen much of the new lodger. She passed in and out each morning with a package of work in her hand; and all day long, from nine in the morning until late at night sometimes, the click of the typewriter could be heard coming from the "first front-square," which interpreted meant the front room on the second floor. Dora had been very neighborly and had called on Miss Clark frequently. There was a great fascination for her about the quiet, self-possessed woman. She did not, as a rule, care much for girl friendships, holding
Mrs. Smith had furnished her rooms substantially and well, but there had been no attempt at decoration. The first time Dora entered the room after Sappho had settled herself in it, she was struck at the alteration in its appearance. The iron bedstead and the washing utensils were completely hidden by drapery curtains of dark-blue denim, beautifully embroidered in white floss; a cover of the same material was thrown over the small table between the windows; plain white muslin draperies hid the unsightly but serviceable yellow shades at the windows; her desk and typewriter occupied the center of the room, and a couch had been improvised from two packing-cases and a spring, covered with denim and piled high with cushions; two good steel engravings completed a very inviting interior.
"How pretty you have made it," observed Dora, looking curiously around the room.
Sappho came and stood beside her, and the two girls smiled at each other in a glow of mutual interest, and became fast friends at once.
"I always carry these things with me in my travels, and I find that I can make myself very comfortable in a short time with their help."
"I wish you would show me how to do this embroidery," said Dora, as she lifted the edge of the denim curtain before the toilet stand and critically examined it. "This is beautifully done. Where did you learn?"
"I will teach you with pleasure," replied Sappho; but Dora noticed that she did not tell her where she had learned.
"Do you like your work--is it hard?" asked Dora, as she idly wandered from one object to another in the pretty room, pausing beside the desk to glance admiringly at a pile of neatly written sheets, just taken from the machine.
"Oh, I like the work very well. Sometimes the dictator is obtuse, or long-winded, or thinks that the writer ought to do his thinking for him as well as the corrections; then it is not pleasant work. But, generally speaking, I prefer it to most anything that I know of. Do sit down," she continued, pushing a chair toward Dora.
"This man receiveth sinners," read Dora from a pamphlet on the desk, as she turned to accept the offered chair. "I see that is your illuminated text for the day. Are you a Christian?" Then she saw an ivory crucifix suspended
Sappho dropped the dress she was mending, and for a moment her eyes took on the far-away look of one in deep thought. Finally she said: "I saw you glance at the crucifix. I am not a Catholic, but I have received many benefits and kindnesses at their hands. Your question is a hard one to answer. I am afraid I am not a Christian, as we of our race understand the expression; but I try to do the best I can."
'And he who does the best he can
Need never fear the church's ban
Nor hell's damnation.
God recks not how man counts his beads,
For righteousness is not in creeds
Nor solemn faces;
But rather lies in Christian deeds
And Christian graces';
quoted Dora softly. "For my part, I am sick of loud professions and constant hypocrisy. My religion is short, and to the point--feed the starving thief and make him an honest man; cover your friend's faults with the mantle of charity and keep her in the path of virtue."
"Then you are not one of those who think that a woman should be condemned to eternal banishment for the sake of one misstep?"
"Not I, indeed; I have always felt a great curiosity to know the reason why each individual woman loses character and standing in the eyes of the world. I believe that we would hang our heads in shame at having the temerity to judge a fallen sister, could we but know the circumstances attending many such cases. And, after all we may do or say," continued the girl softly, "the best of us, who have lived the purest lives on earth that mortal can conceive, find at last that our only hope lies in the words of that text--'This man receiveth sinners.'"
"You are a dear little preacher," said Sappho gently, as she looked at Dora from two wet eyes; "and if our race ever amounts to anything in this world, it will be because such women as you are raised up to save us."
Dora laughed and said, as she rose from her seat: "I think I am forgetting my errand." And making an elaborate bow, she continued: "If it please your royal highness, I present to you the compliments of the occupants of No. 500 D Street, with the request that you will honor us on Sunday evening, at half after seven, in the parlor of the worthy landlady of said house, where an informal reception will be held to further the better acquaintance of Miss Sappho Clark with her fellow-occupants of said house.
"I herewith most gratefully accept your kind invitation," replied Sappho, with a deep courtesy.
"Ta, ta, then, until Sunday night. I sha'n't see you before that. I shall be lost for the remainder of the week 'getting ready for company'"; and Dora, with a gay laugh, ran lightly down the stairs.
Mrs. Smith, after many trials, found that her house contained respectable though unlettered people, who possessed kindly hearts and honesty of purpose in a greater degree than one generally finds in a lodging-house. Her great desire, then, was to make them as happy together as possible, and to this end she had Dora institute musical evenings or reception nights, that her tenants might have a better opportunity of becoming acquainted with each other. She argued, logically enough, that those who were inclined to stray from right paths would be influenced either in favor of upright conduct or else shamed into an acceptance of the right. It soon became noised about that very pleasant times were enjoyed in that house; and that a sick lodger had been nursed back to health, instead of being hustled into the
Saturday was a busy day for Dora and her mother. At these little gatherings Mrs. Smith always gave her guests plenty of good homemade cake, sandwiches, hot chocolate, and on very special occasions, ice cream or sherbet. Sunday night there was to be ice cream in honor of the new lodger. "Good things to eat," said Ma Smith, as she industriously beat eggs, sugar and butter together in a large yellow bowl, "good things to eat make a man respect himself and look up in the world. You can't feel that you are nobody all the time if once in a while you eat the same quality of food that a millionaire does."
Dora lighted the lamps all over the house on Sunday night as soon as it fell dark. In the parlor there was a handsome piano lamp, which was only used on special occasions; it was lighted, and threw a soft, warm glow over the neat woolen carpet, the modest furniture and few ornaments. In a corner stood Dora's piano, given her on her sixteenth birthday by
The first comers were the two occupants of the basement rooms,--those which would have answered for the dining-room and kitchen of a moderately well-to-do family living in this class of house. Mrs. Ophelia Davis and Mrs. Sarah Ann White were friends of long standing. They were both born in far-away Louisiana, had been raised on neighboring plantations, and together had sought the blessings of liberty in the North at the close of the war. Mrs. Davis had always been a first-class cook, while Mrs. White tempted fortune as a second-girl. As their ideas of life and living enlarged, and they saw the possibilities of enjoying some comfort in a home, they began to think of establishing themselves where they could realize this blessing, and finally hit upon the idea of going into partnership in a laundry. After looking about them for a suitable situation for such a project, their choice finally fell upon Mrs. Smith's house, because of her known respectability, and because they could there come in contact with brighter intellects than their own; for, strange to say, it is a very hopeless
"Yas, Sis'r Smith," said Mrs. Ophelia Davis the day she and Sarah Ann White went to engage the rooms; "yas'm, I'm tired o'livin' in white folkses' kitchens. Yas'm, thar's lots o'talk 'bout servant gals not bein' as good as enybody else, specially cooks. Yas'm, I kin git my five dollars a week with enyone; but ef you puts on a decent dress to go to church with a-Sunday afternoon, the mistis is a-wonderin' how you kin 'ford sech style and you nuthin' but a cook in her kitchen. Yas'm, I've got a silk dress, two of 'em, an' a lace shawl an' a gold watch and chain. People wants ter know how'd I git 'em. I come by 'em hones', I did. Yas'm, when my ol' mistis left her great big house an' all that good stuff--silver an' things--a-layin' that fer enyone to pick up that had sense 'nough to know a good thing an' git it ahead of enybody else, I jes' said to myself: ''Phelia, chile, now's yer time!' Yas'm, I feathered my nes', I jes' did. Sarah Ann, you 'member that time, honey, an' how skeered we was fer fear some o' them Union sojers would ketch us. You stuffed yerself with greenbacks, but, honey, I took clo's, too."
"Bless Gawd, Sis'r' Phelia," replied her friend, with a chuckle and a great shaking of her fat
The two women engaged the rooms and prospered in their enterprise. The clothes under their deft fingers seemed to gain an added prettiness. They became the style; and no young bride on the Back Bay felt that she was complete unless "The First-class New Orleans Laundry" placed the finishing polish on the dainty lingerie of her wedding finery.
Tonight Mrs. Davis wore the famous black silk dress and gold watch and chain of ante bellum days, and Mrs. White was gay in a bright blue silk skirt and rose-colored silk shirt-waist. She said that she did not believe in any of your gloomy colors; for her part, she'd be dead soon enough and have a long time enough to stay "moulderin' inter clay, without buryin' herself befo' it was time." The next arrival was the young student preacher from the "first square-back." He was due at a prayer meeting; but when the time came for him to go there, he peeped over the banister and caught sight of Dora flitting back and forth in the entries, and then a whiff of Ma Smith's famous white cake was borne temptingly to his nostrils and banished the last scruple. He satisfied his conscience by hugging to his breast
Her dress was plain black, with white chiffon at the neck and wrists, and on her breast a large bunch of "Jack" roses was fastened. With modest self-possession she moved to Mrs. Smith's side, and soon found herself being presented to the occupants of the parlor. For a moment or two there was an unbroken hush in the room. Tall and fair, with hair of a golden cast, aquiline nose, rosebud mouth, soft brown eyes veiled by long, dark lashes which swept her cheek, just now covered with a delicate rose flush, she burst upon them--a combination of "queen rose and lily in one."
"Lord," said Ophelia Davis to her friend Sarah Ann, "I haven't see enything look like thet chile since I lef' home."
"That's the truth, 'Phelia," replied Sarah Ann; "that's somethin' God made, honey; thar ain't nothin' like thet growed outside o' Loosyannie."
"Miss Clark," said Mrs. Davis, during a lull in the conversation, "I presume you're from Loosyannie?"
"My mother was born in New Orleans," replied the girl.
"I knowed it," cried Mrs. White, as she triumphantly glanced around the room. "Ol' New Orleans blood will tell on itself anywhere. These col'-blooded Yankees can't raise nuthin' that looks like thet chile; no, 'ndeed!"
Two or three of the young friends of the family who lived in the neighborhood had now arrived, and the conversation became very animated. Then it was announced that a literary and musical programme had been provided. Dora played an opening piece, which was a medley of Moody and Sankey hymns; Will sang "Palm Branches" in a musical baritone voice; John contributed a poem, and two young friends gave the duet from "Il Trovatore." After a little persuasion Sappho rendered the "Chariot Race" from "Ben Hur" in true dramatic style, and breathing so much of the stage that the Rev. Tommy James, the young theologian, felt that possibly he might have made a mistake in going into such hilarious company on the Sabbath.
"Now," said Mrs. Ophelia Davis, "I'm goin' to sing 'Suwanee River.' None o' yer highfalutin'
"The whole congregation was to sing 'Where's My Wandering Boy.' 'Phelia had no paper to see the words,--not as thet made eny matter, 'cause 'Phelia can't read nohow,--an' the gentleman next us on the other side, he gave 'Phelia a paper thet he had. The man wanted ter be perlite. Well, 'Phelia was thet flattered thet she jes' let herself go, an' thet man never sung another note, he was so ' sprised . After the second verse 'Phelia saw the distraction she was makin', an' she says to me, says she: How's thet, Sarah Ann?' an' I says to her: ' That's out o' sight, 'Phelia!' You jes' ought ter seen them white folks look! they was paralyzed! Why you could hear 'Phelia clean above the orgin!"
Meantime the young people in the room had gathered in a little knot, and were discussing many questions of the day and their effect upon the colored people. During a pause in the music the last remark made by John Langley was distinctly heard: "Yes, I must admit that our people are improving in their dress, in their looks and in their manners."
"What's that, John Langley?" asked Mrs. Davis, as she leaned forward to catch the words of the speaker; "colored people improvin' in ther manners? I should think they was! Don't yer fool yerself 'bout thet, now, will yer? The other night Sarah Ann and me was goin' down to Beacon Street to 'liver some goods, an' the car was crowded with people, an' thar was a pile o' young colored folks on it from the West End. Some o' them was a-standin' up in thet car, an' every onct in a while I noticed thet a passenger'd squirm as ef suthin' had hit him. Finally I got so mad I jes' couldn't see along with sech antics from them critters a-disgracin' theirselves and the whole o' the res' o' the colored population, an' I jes' elbowed myself into thet crowd o' young jades--what's thet (as Will murmured something under his breath), was they gals? yas, they was; young jades , every one o' them! Now what do yer think they was a-doin'?" she asked, as she swept her gaze over the company.
"Not being a mind-reader, I wouldn't dare to say," replied John Langley, with a grin of delight.
" They was a-trampin' onto the feet of every white man an' woman in thet car to show the white folks how free they was! I jes' took my ambriller an' knocked it into two or three o' them thet I knowed, an' tol' 'em I'd tell ther mothers. Improvin' in ther manners! I should think they was!"
At this moment refreshments were served, and the attention of the company was turned to the wants of the inner man.
Dora had placed a pretty little tea table at one side of the room, and Sappho had promised to pour the tea and chocolate. At a sign from Mrs. Smith she took her place, and soon the steaming beverage was cheering the hearts of the guests. The young men vied with each other in serving her. The tea table became the center of attraction, in fact, for the whole room. Even the divinity student was drawn into the magic circle, and divided his attention between Sappho and Mrs. Ophelia Davis, for whom he seemed to have a very tender regard.
The girl was naturally buoyant and bright, and the influence of the pleasant company in which she found herself seemed to inspire her, and yet no man would have overstepped the
Dora watched the tea table smilingly. She loved to see her friends enjoy themselves. It never occurred to her to be jealous of the attention given Sappho by her brother and John Langley.
Presently there were many pleasant compliments passed on the enjoyable evening which had so quickly flown, and each gentleman proposed a toast, which was drunk in a cup of hot chocolate; and as the clock struck ten, they all joined hands and united in singing "Auld Lang Syne" and "Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow." The evening was over; the lights were out; but up in John's attic chamber the two young men smoked a social cigar before separating for the night.
They were silent for some time, and then Will said: "Miss Clark is a very beautiful woman; don't you think so, John?"
"Well," replied John, "beauty is not the word to describe her. She's a stunner, and no mistake."
John went to bed; but Will sat by the fire a longer time than usual, thinking thoughts which had never before troubled his young manhood; and unconsciously, one face--the face of Sappho Clark--formed the background of his thoughts.