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- Colonel Starbottle's Client - 3/31 -
"Property? Means? The only property and means he ever had was the free lunches or drinks he took in at somebody else's expense. Why, the only chance he ever had of earning a square meal was when that fellow that was with you just now took him up and made him his partner. And the only way HE could get rid of him was to kill him! And I didn't think he had it in him. Rather a queer kind o' chap,-- good deal of hayseed about him. Showed up at the inquest so glum and orkerd that if the boys hadn't made up their minds this yer Frisbee ORTER BEEN killed--it might have gone hard with him."
"Mr. Corbin," said Colonel Starbottle, with a pained but unmistakable hauteur and a singular elevation of his shirt frill, as if it had become of its own accord erectile, "Mr. Corbin--er-- er--is the distant relative of old Major Corbin, of Nashville--er-- one of my oldest political friends. When Mr. Corbin--er--returns, you can conduct him to me. And, if you please, replenish the glasses."
When the bar-keeper respectfully showed Mr. Corbin and "Wood's Digest" into the room again, the Colonel was still beaming and apologetic.
"A thousand thanks, sir, but except to SHOW you the law if you require it--hardly necessary. I have--er--glanced over the woman's letters again; it would be better, perhaps, if you had kept copies of your own--but still these tell the whole story and YOUR OWN. The claim is preposterous! You have simply to drop the whole thing. Stop your remittances, stop your correspondence,--pay no heed to any further letters and wait results. You need fear nothing further, sir; I stake my professional reputation on it."
The gloom of the stranger seemed only to increase as the Colonel reached his triumphant conclusion.
"I reckoned you'd say that," he said slowly, "but it won't do. I shall go on paying as far as I can. It's my trouble and I'll see it through."
"But, my dear sir, consider," gasped the Colonel. "You are in the hands of an infamous harpy, who is using her son's blood to extract money from you. You have already paid a dozen times more than the life of that d----d sneak was worth; and more than that--the longer you keep on paying you are helping to give color to their claim and estopping your own defense. And Gad, sir, you're making a precedent for this sort of thing! you are offering a premium to widows and orphans. A gentleman won't be able to exchange shots with another without making himself liable for damages. I am willing to admit that your feelings--though, in my opinion--er-- exaggerated--do you credit; but I am satisfied that they are utterly misunderstood--sir."
"Not by all of them," said Corbin darkly.
"Eh?" returned the Colonel quickly.
"There was another letter here which I didn't particularly point out to you," said Corbin, taking up the letters again, "for I reckoned it wasn't evidence, so to speak, being from HIS COUSIN, a girl,--and calculated you'd read it when I was out."
The Colonel coughed hastily. "I was in fact--er--just about to glance over it when you came in."
"It was written," continued Corbin, selecting a letter more bethumbed than the others, "after the old woman had threatened me. This here young woman allows that she is sorry that her aunt has to take money of me on account of her cousin being killed, and she is still sorrier that she is so bitter against me. She says she hadn't seen her cousin since he was a boy, and used to play with her, and that she finds it hard to believe that he should ever grow up to change his name and act so as to provoke anybody to lift a hand against him. She says she supposed it must be something in that dreadful California that alters people and makes everybody so reckless. I reckon her head's level there, ain't it?"
There was such a sudden and unexpected lightening of the man's face as he said it, such a momentary relief to his persistent gloom, that the Colonel, albeit inwardly dissenting from both letter and comment, smiled condescendingly.
"She's no slouch of a scribe neither," continued Corbin animatedly. "Read that."
He handed his companion the letter, pointing to a passage with his finger. The Colonel took it with, I fear, a somewhat lowered opinion of his client, and a new theory of the case. It was evident that this weak submission to the aunt's conspiracy was only the result of a greater weakness for the niece. Colonel Starbottle had a wholesome distrust of the sex as a business or political factor. He began to look over the letter, but was evidently slurring it with superficial politeness, when Corbin said:--
"Read it out loud."
The Colonel slightly lifted his shoulders, fortified himself with another sip of the julep, and, leaning back, oratorically began to read,--the stranger leaning over him and following line by line with shining eyes.
"'When I say I am sorry for you, it is because I think it must be dreadful for you to be going round with the blood of a fellow- creature on your hands. It must be awful for you in the stillness of the night season to hear the voice of the Lord saying, "Cain, where is thy brother?" and you saying, "Lord, I have slayed him dead." It must be awful for you when the pride of your wrath was surfitted, and his dum senseless corps was before you, not to know that it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," saith the Lord. . . . It was no use for you to say, "I never heard that before," remembering your teacher and parents. Yet verily I say unto you, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be washed whiter than snow," saith the Lord--Isaiah i. 18; and "Heart hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal."--My hymn book, 1st Presbyterian Church, page 79. Mr. Corbin, I pity your feelins at the grave of my pore dear cousin, knowing he is before his Maker, and you can't bring him back.' Umph!--er--er--very good--very good indeed," said the Colonel, hastily refolding the letter. "Very well meaning and-- er"--
"Go on," said Corbin over his shoulder, "you haven't read all."
"Ah, true. I perceive I overlooked something. Um--um. 'May God forgive you, Mr. Corbin, as I do, and make aunty think better of you, for it was good what you tried to do for her and the fammely, and I've always said it when she was raging round and wanting money of you. I don't believe you meant to do it anyway, owin' to your kindness of heart to the ophanless and the widow since you did it. Anser this letter, and don't mind what aunty says. So no more at present from--Yours very respectfully, SALLY DOWS.
"'P. S.--There's been some troubel in our township, and some fitin'. May the Lord change ther hearts and make them as a little child, for if you are still young you may grow up different. I have writ a short prayer for you to say every night. You can coppy it out and put it at the head of your bed. It is this: O Lord make me sorry for having killed Sarah Dows' cousin. Give me, O Lord, that peace that the world cannot give, and which fadeth not away; for my yoke is heavy, and my burden is harder than I can bear.'"
The Colonel's deliberate voice stopped. There was a silence in the room, and the air seemed stifling. The click of the billiard balls came distinctly through the partition from the other room. Then there was another click, a stamp on the floor, and a voice crying coarsely: "Curse it all--missed again!"
To the stranger's astonishment, the Colonel was on his feet in an instant, gasping with inarticulate rage. Flinging the door open, he confronted the startled bar-keeper empurpled and stertorous.
"Blank it all, sir, do you call this a saloon for gentlemen, or a corral for swearing cattle? Or do you mean to say that the conversation of two gentlemen upon delicate professional--and--er-- domestic affairs--is to be broken upon by the blank profanity of low-bred hounds over their picayune gambling! Take them my kyard, sir," choked the Colonel, who was always Southern and dialectic in his excited as in his softest moments, "and tell them that Colonel Starbottle will nevah dyarken these doahs again."
Before the astonished bar-keeper could reply, the Colonel had dashed back into the room, clapped his hat on his head, and seized his book, letters, and cane. "Mr. Corbin," he said with gasping dignity, "I will take these papahs, and consult them again in my own office--where, if you will do me the honor, sir, to call at ten o'clock to-morrow, I will give you my opinion." He strode out of the saloon beside the half awe-stricken, half-amused, yet all discreetly silent loungers, followed by his wondering but gloomy client. At the door they parted,--the Colonel tiptoeing towards his office as if dancing with rage, the stranger darkly plodding through the stifling dust in the opposite direction, with what might have been a faint suggestion to his counselor, that the paths of the homicide did not lie beside the still cool waters.
The house of Captain Masterton Dows, at Pineville, Kentucky, was a fine specimen of Southern classical architecture, being an exact copy of Major Fauquier's house in Virginia, which was in turn only a slight variation from a well-known statesman's historical villa in Alabama, that everybody knew was designed from a famous Greek temple on the Piraeus. Not but that it shared this resemblance with the County Court House and the Odd Fellows' Hall, but the addition of training jessamine and Cherokee rose to the columns of the portico, and over the colonnade leading to its offices, showed a certain domestic distinction. And the sky line of its incongruously high roof was pleasantly broken against adjacent green pines, butternut, and darker cypress.
A nearer approach showed the stuccoed gateposts--whose red brick core was revealed through the dropping plaster--opening in a wall of half-rough stone, half-wooden palisade, equally covered with shining moss and parasitical vines, which hid a tangled garden left to its own unkempt luxuriance. Yet there was a reminiscence of past formality and even pretentiousness in a wide box-bordered terrace and one or two stuccoed vases prematurely worn and time- stained; while several rare exotics had, however, thriven so unwisely and well in that stimulating soil as to lose their exclusive refinement and acquire a certain temporary vulgarity. A
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