IX. His Heart's Desire
Whatever else his visit to the theatre may have done for Joe, it inspired him with a desire to go to work and earn money of his own, to be independent both of parental help and control, and so be able to spend as he pleased. With this end in view he set out to hunt for work. It was a pleasant contrast to his last similar quest, and he felt it with joy. He was treated everywhere he went with courtesy, even when no situation was forthcoming. Finally he came upon a man who was willing to try him for an afternoon. From the moment the boy rightly considered himself engaged, for he was master of his trade. He began his work with heart elate. Now he had within his grasp the possibility of being all that he wanted to be. Now Thomas might take him out at any time and not be ashamed of him.
With Thomas, the fact that Joe was working put the boy in an entirely new light. He decided that now he might be worth cultivating. For a week or two he had ignored him, and, proceeding upon the principle that if you give corn to the old hen she will cluck to her chicks, had treated Mrs. Hamilton with marked deference and kindness. This had been without success, as both the girl and her mother held themselves politely aloof from him. He began to see that his hope of winning Kitty's affections lay, not in courting the older woman but in making a friend of the boy. So on a certain Saturday night when the Banner Club was to give one of its smokers, he asked Joe to go with him. Joe was glad to, and they set out together. Arrived, Thomas left his companion for a few moments while he attended, as he said, to a little business. What he really did was to seek out the proprietor of the club and some of its hangers on.
"I say," he said, "I 've got a friend with me to-night. He 's got some dough on him. He 's fresh and young and easy."
"Whew!" exclaimed the proprietor.
"Yes, he 's a good thing, but push it along kin' o' light at first; he might get skittish."
"Thomas, let me fall on your bosom and weep," said a young man who, on account of his usual expression of innocent gloom, was called Sadness. "This is what I 've been looking for for a month. My hat was getting decidedly shabby. Do you think he would stand for a touch on the first night of our acquaintance?"
"Don't you dare? Do you want to frighten him off? Make him believe that you 've got coin to burn and that it 's an honour to be with you."
"But, you know, he may expect a glimpse of the gold."
"A smart man don't need to show nothin'. All he 's got to do is to act."
"Oh, I 'll act; we 'll all act."
"Be slow to take a drink from him."
"Thomas, my boy, you 're an angel. I recognise that more and more every day, but bid me do anything else but that. That I refuse: it 's against nature;" and Sadness looked more mournful than ever.
"Trust old Sadness to do his part," said the portly proprietor; and Thomas went back to the lamb.
"Nothin' doin' so early," he said; "let 's go an' have a drink."
They went, and Thomas ordered.
"No, no, this is on me," cried Joe, trembling with joy.
"Pshaw, your money 's counterfeit," said his companion with fine generosity. "This is on me, I say. Jack, what 'll you have yourself?"
As they stood at the bar, the men began strolling up one by one. Each in his turn was introduced to Joe. They were very polite. They treated him with a pale, dignified, high-minded respect that menaced his pocket-book and possessions. The proprietor, Mr. Turner, asked him why he had never been in before. He really seemed much hurt about it, and on being told that Joe had only been in the city for a couple of weeks expressed emphatic surprise, even disbelief, and assured the rest that any one would have taken Mr. Hamilton for an old New Yorker.
Sadness was introduced last. He bowed to Joe's "Happy to know you, Mr. Williams."
"Better known as Sadness," he said, with an expression of deep gloom. "A distant relative of mine once had a great grief. I have never recovered from it."
Joe was not quite sure how to take this; but the others laughed and he joined them, and then, to cover his own embarrassment, he did what he thought the only correct and manly thing to do,--he ordered a drink.
"I don't know as I ought to," said Sadness.
"Oh, come on," his companions called out, "don't be stiff with a stranger. Make him feel at home."
"Mr. Hamilton will believe me when I say that I have no intention of being stiff, but duty is duty. I 've got to go down town to pay a bill, and if I get too much aboard, it would n't be safe walking around with money on me."
"Aw, shut up, Sadness," said Thomas. "My friend Mr. Hamilton 'll feel hurt if you don't drink with him."
"I cert'n'y will," was Joe's opportune remark, and he was pleased to see that it caused the reluctant one to yield.
They took a drink. There was quite a line of them. Joe asked the bartender what he would have. The men warmed towards him. They took several more drinks with him and he was happy. Sadness put his arm about his shoulder and told him, with tears in his eyes, that he looked like a cousin of his that had died.
"Aw, shut up, Sadness!" said some one else. "Be respectable."
Sadness turned his mournful eyes upon the speaker. "I won't," he replied. "Being respectable is very nice as a diversion, but it 's tedious if done steadily." Joe did not quite take this, so he ordered another drink.
A group of young fellows came in and passed up the stairs. "Shearing another lamb?" said one of them significantly.
"Well, with that gang it will be well done."
Thomas and Joe left the crowd after a while, and went to the upper floor, where, in a long, brilliantly lighted room, tables were set out for drinking-parties. At one end of the room was a piano, and a man sat at it listlessly strumming some popular air. The proprietor joined them pretty soon, and steered them to a table opposite the door.
"Just sit down here, Mr. Hamilton," he said, "and you can see everybody that comes in. We have lots of nice people here on smoker nights, especially after the shows are out and the girls come in."
Joe's heart gave a great leap, and then settled as cold as lead. Of course, those girls would n't speak to him. But his hopes rose as the proprietor went on talking to him and to no one else. Mr. Turner always made a man feel as if he were of some consequence in the world, and men a good deal older than Joe had been fooled by his manner. He talked to one in a soft, ingratiating way, giving his whole attention apparently. He tapped one confidentially on the shoulder, as who should say, "My dear boy, I have but two friends in the world, and you are both of them."
Joe, charmed and pleased, kept his head well. There is a great deal in heredity, and his father had not been Maurice Oakley's butler for so many years for nothing.
The Banner Club was an institution for the lower education of negro youth. It drew its pupils from every class of people and from every part of the country. It was composed of all sorts and conditions of men, educated and uneducated, dishonest and less so, of the good, the bad, and the--unexposed. Parasites came there to find victims, politicians for votes, reporters for news, and artists of all kinds for colour and inspiration. It was the place of assembly for a number of really bright men, who after days of hard and often unrewarded work came there and drunk themselves drunk in each other's company, and when they were drunk talked of the eternal verities.
The Banner was only one of a kind. It stood to the stranger and the man and woman without connections for the whole social life. It was a substitute--poor, it must be confessed--to many youths for the home life which is so lacking among certain classes in New York.
Here the rounders congregated, or came and spent the hours until it was time to go forth to bout or assignation. Here too came sometimes the curious who wanted to see something of the other side of life. Among these, white visitors were not infrequent,--those who were young enough to be fascinated by the bizarre, and those who were old enough to know that it was all in the game. Mr. Skaggs, of the New York Universe, was one of the former class and a constant visitor,--he and a "lady friend" called "Maudie," who had a penchant for dancing to "Rag-time" melodies as only the "puffessor" of such a club can play them. Of course, the place was a social cesspool, generating a poisonous miasma and reeking with the stench of decayed and rotten moralities. There is no defence to be made for it. But what do you expect when false idealism and fevered ambition come face to face with catering cupidity?
It was into this atmosphere that Thomas had introduced the boy Joe, and he sat there now by his side, firing his mind by pointing out the different celebrities who came in and telling highly flavoured stories of their lives or doings. Joe heard things that had never come within the range of his mind before.
"Aw, there 's Skaggsy an' Maudie--Maudie 's his girl, y' know, an' he 's a reporter on the N' Yawk Universe. Fine fellow, Skaggsy."
Maudie--a portly, voluptuous-looking brunette--left her escort and went directly to the space by the piano. Here she was soon dancing with one of the coloured girls who had come in.
Skaggs started to sit down alone at a table, but Thomas called him, "Come over here, Skaggsy."
In the moment that it took the young man to reach them, Joe wondered if he would ever reach that state when he could call that white man Skaggsy and the girl Maudie. The new-comer soon set all of that at ease.
"I want you to know my friend, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Skaggs."
"Why, how d' ye do, Hamilton? I 'm glad to meet you. Now, look a here; don't you let old Thomas here string you about me bein' any old 'Mr!' Skaggs. I 'm Skaggsy to all of my friends. I hope to count you among 'em."
It was such a supreme moment that Joe could not find words to answer, so he called for another drink.
"Not a bit of it," said Skaggsy, "not a bit of it. When I meet my friends I always reserve to myself the right of ordering the first drink. Waiter, this is on me. What 'll you have, gentlemen?"
They got their drinks, and then Skaggsy leaned over confidentially and began talking.
"I tell you, Hamilton, there ain't an ounce of prejudice in my body. Do you believe it?"
Joe said that he did. Indeed Skaggsy struck one as being aggressively unprejudiced.
He went on: "You see, a lot o' fellows say to me, 'What do you want to go down to that nigger club for?' That 's what they call it,--'nigger club.' But I say to 'em, 'Gentlemen, at that nigger club, as you choose to call it, I get more inspiration than I could get at any of the greater clubs in New York.' I 've often been invited to join some of the swell clubs here, but I never do it. By Jove! I 'd rather come down here and fellowship right in with you fellows. I like coloured people, anyway. It 's natural. You see, my father had a big plantation and owned lots of slaves,--no offence, of course, but it was the custom of that time,--and I 've played with little darkies ever since I could remember."
It was the same old story that the white who associates with negroes from volition usually tells to explain his taste.
The truth about the young reporter was that he was born and reared on a Vermont farm, where his early life was passed in fighting for his very subsistence. But this never troubled Skaggsy. He was a monumental liar, and the saving quality about him was that he calmly believed his own lies while he was telling them, so no one was hurt, for the deceiver was as much a victim as the deceived. The boys who knew him best used to say that when Skaggs got started on one of his debauches of lying, the Recording Angel always put on an extra clerical force.
"Now look at Maudie," he went on; "would you believe it that she was of a fine, rich family, and that the coloured girl she 's dancing with now used to be her servant? She 's just like me about that. Absolutely no prejudice."
Joe was wide-eyed with wonder and admiration, and he could n't understand the amused expression on Thomas's face, nor why he surreptitiously kicked him under the table.
Finally the reporter went his way, and Joe's sponsor explained to him that he was not to take in what Skaggsy said, and that there had n't been a word of truth in it. He ended with, "Everybody knows Maudie, and that coloured girl is Mamie Lacey, and never worked for anybody in her life. Skaggsy 's a good fellah, all right, but he 's the biggest liar in N' Yawk."
The boy was distinctly shocked. He was n't sure but Thomas was jealous of the attention the white man had shown him and wished to belittle it. Anyway, he did not thank him for destroying his romance.
About eleven o'clock, when the people began to drop in from the plays, the master of ceremonies opened proceedings by saying that "The free concert would now begin, and he hoped that all present, ladies included, would act like gentlemen, and not forget the waiter. Mr. Meriweather will now favour us with the latest coon song, entitled 'Come back to yo' Baby, Honey.'"
There was a patter of applause, and a young negro came forward, and in a strident, music-hall voice, sung or rather recited with many gestures the ditty. He could n't have been much older than Joe, but already his face was hard with dissipation and foul knowledge. He gave the song with all the rank suggestiveness that could be put into it. Joe looked upon him as a hero. He was followed by a little, brown-skinned fellow with an immature Vandyke beard and a lisp. He sung his own composition and was funny; how much funnier than he himself knew or intended, may not even be hinted at. Then, while an instrumentalist, who seemed to have a grudge against the piano, was hammering out the opening bars of a march, Joe's attention was attracted by a woman entering the room, and from that moment he heard no more of the concert. Even when the master of ceremonies announced with an air that, by special request, he himself would sing "Answer,"--the request was his own,--he did not draw the attention of the boy away from the yellow-skinned divinity who sat at a near table, drinking whiskey straight.
She was a small girl, with fluffy dark hair and good features. A tiny foot peeped out from beneath her rattling silk skirts. She was a good-looking young woman and daintily made, though her face was no longer youthful, and one might have wished that with her complexion she had not run to silk waists in magenta.
Joe, however, saw no fault in her. She was altogether lovely to him, and his delight was the more poignant as he recognised in her one of the girls he had seen on the stage a couple of weeks ago. That being true, nothing could keep her from being glorious in his eyes,--not even the grease-paint which adhered in unneat patches to her face, nor her taste for whiskey in its unreformed state. He gazed at her in ecstasy until Thomas, turning to see what had attracted him, said with a laugh, "Oh, it 's Hattie Sterling. Want to meet her?"
Again the young fellow was dumb. Just then Hattie also noticed his intent look, and nodded and beckoned to Thomas.
"Come on," he said, rising.
"Oh, she did n't ask for me," cried Joe, tremulous and eager.
His companion went away laughing.
"Who 's your young friend?" asked Hattie.
"A fellah from the South."
"Bring him over here."
Joe could hardly believe in his own good luck, and his head, which was getting a bit weak, was near collapsing when his divinity asked him what he 'd have? He began to protest, until she told the waiter with an air of authority to make it a little "'skey." Then she asked him for a cigarette, and began talking to him in a pleasant, soothing way between puffs.
When the drinks came, she said to Thomas, "Now, old man, you 've been awfully nice, but when you get your little drink, you run away like a good little boy. You 're superfluous."
Thomas answered, "Well, I like that," but obediently gulped his whiskey and withdrew, while Joe laughed until the master of ceremonies stood up and looked sternly at him.
The concert had long been over and the room was less crowded when Thomas sauntered back to the pair.
"Well, good-night," he said. "Guess you can find your way home, Mr. Hamilton;" and he gave Joe a long wink.
"Goo'-night," said Joe, woozily, "I be a' ri'. Goo'-night."
"Make it another 'skey," was Hattie's farewell remark.
It was late the next morning when Joe got home. He had a headache and a sense of triumph that not even his illness and his mother's reproof could subdue.
He had promised Hattie to come often to the club.