X. A Visitor from Home
Mrs. Hamilton began to question very seriously whether she had done the best thing in coming to New York as she saw her son staying away more and more and growing always farther away from her and his sister. Had she known how and where he spent his evenings, she would have had even greater cause to question the wisdom of their trip. She knew that although he worked he never had any money for the house, and she foresaw the time when the little they had would no longer suffice for Kitty and her. Realising this, she herself set out to find something to do.
It was a hard matter, for wherever she went seeking employment, it was always for her and her daughter, for the more she saw of Mrs. Jones, the less she thought it well to leave the girl under her influence. Mrs. Hamilton was not a keen woman, but she had a mother's intuitions, and she saw a subtle change in her daughter. At first the girl grew wistful and then impatient and rebellious. She complained that Joe was away from them so much enjoying himself, while she had to be housed up like a prisoner. She had receded from her dignified position, and twice of an evening had gone out for a car-ride with Thomas; but as that gentleman never included the mother in his invitation, she decided that her daughter should go no more, and she begged Joe to take his sister out sometimes instead. He demurred at first, for he now numbered among his city acquirements a fine contempt for his woman relatives. Finally, however, he consented, and took Kit once to the theatre and once for a ride. Each time he left her in the care of Thomas as soon as they were out of the house, while he went to find or to wait for his dear Hattie. But his mother did not know all this, and Kit did not tell her. The quick poison of the unreal life about her had already begun to affect her character. She had grown secretive and sly. The innocent longing which in a burst of enthusiasm she had expressed that first night at the theatre was growing into a real ambition with her, and she dropped the simple old songs she knew to practise the detestable coon ditties which the stage demanded.
She showed no particular pleasure when her mother found the sort of place they wanted, but went to work with her in sullen silence. Mrs. Hamilton could not understand it all, and many a night she wept and prayed over the change in this child of her heart. There were times when she felt that there was nothing left to work or fight for. The letters from Berry in prison became fewer and fewer. He was sinking into the dull, dead routine of his life. Her own letters to him fell off. It was hard getting the children to write. They did not want to be bothered, and she could not write for herself. So in the weeks and months that followed she drifted farther away from her children and husband and all the traditions of her life.
After Joe's first night at the Banner Club he had kept his promise to Hattie Sterling and had gone often to meet her. She had taught him much, because it was to her advantage to do so. His greenness had dropped from him like a garment, but no amount of sophistication could make him deem the woman less perfect. He knew that she was much older than he, but he only took this fact as an additional sign of his prowess in having won her. He was proud of himself when he went behind the scenes at the theatre or waited for her at the stage door and bore her off under the admiring eyes of a crowd of gapers. And Hattie? She liked him in a half-contemptuous, half-amused way. He was a good-looking boy and made money enough, as she expressed it, to show her a good time, so she was willing to overlook his weakness and his callow vanity.
"Look here," she said to him one day, "I guess you 'll have to be moving. There 's a young lady been inquiring for you to-day, and I won't stand for that."
He looked at her, startled for a moment, until he saw the laughter in her eyes. Then he caught her and kissed her. "What 're you givin' me?" he said.
"It 's a straight tip, that 's what."
"Who is it?"
"It 's a girl named Minty Brown from your home."
His face turned brick-red with fear and shame. "Minty Brown!" he stammered.
Had that girl told all and undone him? But Hattie was going on about her work and evidently knew nothing.
"Oh, you need n't pretend you don't know her," she went on banteringly. "She says you were great friends down South, so I 've invited her to supper. She wants to see you."
"To supper!" he thought. Was she mocking him? Was she restraining her scorn of him only to make his humiliation the greater after a while? He looked at her, but there was no suspicion of malice in her face, and he took hope.
"Well, I 'd like to see old Minty," he said. "It 's been many a long day since I 've seen her."
All that afternoon, after going to the barber-shop, Joe was driven by a tempest of conflicting emotions. If Minty Brown had not told his story, why not? Would she yet tell, and if she did, what would happen? He tortured himself by questioning if Hattie would cast him off. At the very thought his hand trembled, and the man in the chair asked him if he had n't been drinking.
When he met Minty in the evening, however, the first glance at her reassured him. Her face was wreathed in smiles as she came forward and held out her hand.
"Well, well, Joe Hamilton," she exclaimed, "if I ain't right-down glad to see you! How are you?"
"I 'm middlin', Minty. How 's yourself?" He was so happy that he could n't let go her hand.
"An' jes' look at the boy! Ef he ain't got the impidence to be waihin' a mustache too. You must 'a' been lettin' the cats lick yo' upper lip. Did n't expect to see me in New York, did you?"
"No, indeed. What you doin' here?"
"Oh, I got a gent'man friend what 's a porter, an' his run 's been changed so that he comes hyeah, an' he told me, if I wanted to come he 'd bring me thoo fur a visit, so, you see, hyeah I am. I allus was mighty anxious to see this hyeah town. But tell me, how 's Kit an' yo' ma?"
"They 're both right well." He had forgotten them and their scorn of Minty.
"Whaih do you live? I 'm comin' roun' to see 'em."
He hesitated for a moment. He knew how his mother, if not Kit, would receive her, and yet he dared not anger this woman, who had his fate in the hollow of her hand.
She saw his hesitation and spoke up. "Oh, that 's all right. Let by-gones be by-gones. You know I ain't the kin' o' person that holds a grudge ag'in anybody."
"That 's right, Minty, that 's right," he said, and gave her his mother's address. Then he hastened home to prepare the way for Minty's coming. Joe had no doubt but that his mother would see the matter quite as he saw it, and be willing to temporise with Minty; but he had reckoned without his host. Mrs. Hamilton might make certain concessions to strangers on the score of expediency, but she absolutely refused to yield one iota of her dignity to one whom she had known so long as an inferior.
"But don't you see what she can do for us, ma? She knows people that I know, and she can ruin me with them."
"I ain't never bowed my haid to Minty Brown an' I ain't a-goin' to do it now," was his mother's only reply.
"Oh, ma," Kitty put in, "you don't want to get talked about up here, do you?"
"We 'd jes' as well be talked about fu' somep'n we did n't do as fu' somep'n we did do, an' it would n' be long befo' we 'd come to dat if we made frien's wid dat Brown gal. I ain't a-goin' to do it. I 'm ashamed o' you, Kitty, fu' wantin' me to."
The girl began to cry, while her brother walked the floor angrily.
"You 'll see what 'll happen," he cried; "you 'll see."
Fannie looked at her son, and she seemed to see him more clearly than she had ever seen him before,--his foppery, his meanness, his cowardice.
"Well," she answered with a sigh, "it can't be no wuss den what 's already happened."
"You 'll see, you 'll see," the boy reiterated.
Minty Brown allowed no wind of thought to cool the fire of her determination. She left Hattie Sterling's soon after Joe, and he was still walking the floor and uttering dire forebodings when she rang the bell below and asked for the Hamiltons.
Mrs. Jones ushered her into her fearfully upholstered parlour, and then puffed up stairs to tell her lodgers that there was a friend there from the South who wanted to see them.
"Tell huh," said Mrs. Hamilton, "dat dey ain't no one hyeah wants to see huh."
"No, no," Kitty broke in.
"Heish," said her mother; "I 'm goin' to boss you a little while yit."
"Why, I don't understan' you, Mis' Hamilton," puffed Mrs. Jones. "She 's a nice-lookin' lady, an' she said she knowed you at home."
"All you got to do is to tell dat ooman jes' what I say."
Minty Brown downstairs had heard the little colloquy, and, perceiving that something was amiss, had come to the stairs to listen. Now her voice, striving hard to be condescending and sweet, but growing harsh with anger, floated up from below:
"Oh, nevah min', lady, I ain't anxious to see 'em. I jest called out o' pity, but I reckon dey 'shamed to see me 'cause de ol' man 's in penitentiary an' dey was run out o' town."
Mrs. Jones gasped, and then turned and went hastily downstairs.
Kit burst out crying afresh, and Joe walked the floor muttering beneath his breath, while the mother sat grimly watching the outcome. Finally they heard Mrs. Jones' step once more on the stairs. She came in without knocking, and her manner was distinctly unpleasant.
"Mis' Hamilton," she said, "I 've had a talk with the lady downstairs, an' she 's tol' me everything. I 'd be glad if you 'd let me have my rooms as soon as possible."
"So you goin' to put me out on de wo'd of a stranger?"
"I 'm kin' o' sorry, but everybody in the house heard what Mis' Brown said, an' it 'll soon be all over town, an' that 'ud ruin the reputation of my house."
"I reckon all dat kin be 'splained."
"Yes, but I don't know that anybody kin 'splain your daughter allus being with Mr. Thomas, who ain't even divo'ced from his wife." She flashed a vindictive glance at the girl, who turned deadly pale and dropped her head in her hands.
"You daih to say dat, Mis' Jones, you dat fust interduced my gal to dat man and got huh to go out wid him? I reckon you 'd bettah go now."
And Mrs. Jones looked at Fannie's face and obeyed.
As soon as the woman's back was turned, Joe burst out, "There, there! see what you 've done with your damned foolishness."
Fannie turned on him like a tigress. "Don't you cuss hyeah befo' me; I ain't nevah brung you up to it, an' I won't stan' it. Go to dem whaih you larned it, an whaih de wo'ds soun' sweet." The boy started to speak, but she checked him. "Don't you daih to cuss ag'in or befo' Gawd dey 'll be somep'n fu' one o' dis fambly to be rottin' in jail fu'!"
The boy was cowed by his mother's manner. He was gathering his few belongings in a bundle.
"I ain't goin' to cuss," he said sullenly, "I 'm goin' out o' your way."
"Oh, go on," she said, "go on. It 's been a long time sence you been my son. You on yo' way to hell, an' you is been fu' lo dese many days."
Joe got out of the house as soon as possible. He did not speak to Kit nor look at his mother. He felt like a cur, because he knew deep down in his heart that he had only been waiting for some excuse to take this step.
As he slammed the door behind him, his mother flung herself down by Kit's side and mingled her tears with her daughter's. But Kit did not raise her head.
"Dey ain't nothin' lef' but you now, Kit;" but the girl did not speak, she only shook with hard sobs.
Then her mother raised her head and almost screamed, "My Gawd, not you, Kit!" The girl rose, and then dropped unconscious in her mother's arms.
Joe took his clothes to a lodging-house that he knew of, and then went to the club to drink himself up to the point of going to see Hattie after the show.