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- Justice in the By-Ways - 6/64 -
he has on hand?"
"I do not withhold from you any discretionary indulgence that may bring relief--"
Tom interrupts by saying, "My mother, you know!"
"I will see her, and plead with her on your behalf; and if she have a mother's feelings I can overcome her prejudice."
Tom says, despondingly, he has no home to go to. It's no use seeing his mother; she's all dignity, and won't let it up an inch. "If I could only persuade her--" Tom pauses here and shakes his head.
"Pledge me your honor you'll from this day form a resolution to reform, Tom; and if I do not draw from your mother a reconciliation, I will seek a home for you elsewhere."
"Well, there can't be much harm in an effort, at all events; and here's my hand, in sincerity. But it won't do to shut down until I get over this bit of a fog I'm now in." With child-like simplicity, Tom gives his hand to the young man, who, as old Spunyarn enters the cell to, as he says, get the latitude of his friend's nerves, departs in search of Mrs. Swiggs.
Mrs. Swiggs is the stately old member of a crispy old family, that, like numerous other families in the State, seem to have outlived two chivalrous generations, fed upon aristocracy, and are dying out contemplating their own greatness. Indeed, the Swiggs family, while it lived and enjoyed the glory of its name, was very like the Barnwell family of this day, who, one by one, die off with the very pardonable and very harmless belief that the world never can get along without the aid of South Carolina, it being the parthenon from which the outside world gets all its greatness. Her leading and very warlike newspapers, (the people of these United States ought to know, if they do not already,) it was true, were editorialized, as it was politely called in the little State-militant, by a species of unreputationized Jew and Yankee; but this you should know-if you do not already, gentle reader-that it is only because such employments are regarded by the lofty-minded chivalry as of too vulgar a nature to claim a place in their attention.
The clock of old Saint Michels, a clock so tenacious of its dignity as to go only when it pleases, and so aristocratic in its habits as not to go at all in rainy weather;--a clock held in great esteem by the "very first families," has just struck eleven. The young, pale-faced missionary inquiringly hesitates before a small, two-story building of wood, located on the upper side of Church street, and so crabbed in appearance that you might, without endangering your reputation, have sworn it had incorporated in its framework a portion of that chronic disease for which the State has gained for itself an unenviable reputation. Jutting out of the black, moss-vegetating roof, is an old-maidish looking window, with a dowdy white curtain spitefully tucked up at the side. The mischievous young negroes have pecked half the bricks out of the foundation, and with them made curious grottoes on the pavement. Disordered and unpainted clapboards spread over the dingy front, which is set off with two upper and two lower windows, all blockaded with infirm, green shutters. Then there is a snuffy door, high and narrow (like the State's notions), and reached by six venerable steps and a stoop, carefully guarded with a pine hand-rail, fashionably painted in blue, and looking as dainty as the State's white glove. This, reader, is the abode of the testy but extremely dignified Mrs. Swiggs. If you would know how much dignity can be crowded into the smallest space, you have only to look in here and be told (she closely patterns after the State in all things!) that fifty-five summers of her crispy life have been spent here, reading Milton's Paradise Lost and contemplating the greatness of her departed family.
The old steps creak and complain as the young man ascends them, holding nervously on at the blue hand-rail, and reaching in due time the stoop, the strength of which he successively tests with his right foot, and stands contemplating the snuffy door. A knocker painted in villanous green-a lion-headed knocker, of grave deportment, looking as savage as lion can well do in this chivalrous atmosphere, looks admonitiously at him. "Well!" he sighs as he raises it, "there's no knowing what sort of a reception I may get." He has raised the monster's head and given three gentle taps. Suddenly a frisking and whispering, shutting of doors and tripping of feet, is heard within; and after a lapse of several minutes the door swings carefully open, and the dilapidated figure of an old negro woman, lean, shrunken, and black as Egyptian darkness--with serious face and hanging lip, the picture of piety and starvation, gruffly asks who he is and what he wants?
Having requested an interview with her mistress, this decrepit specimen of human infirmity half closes the door against him and doddles back. A slight whispering, and Mrs. Swiggs is heard to say--"show him into the best parlor." And into the best parlor, and into the august presence of Mrs. Swiggs is he ushered. The best parlor is a little, dingy room, low of ceiling, and skirted with a sombre-colored surbase, above which is papering, the original color of which it would be difficult to discover. A listen carpet, much faded and patched, spreads over the floor, the walls are hung with several small engravings, much valued for their age and associations, but so crooked as to give one the idea of the house having withstood a storm at sea; and the furniture is made up of a few venerable mahogany chairs, a small side-table, on which stands, much disordered, several well-worn books and papers, two patch-covered foot-stools, a straightbacked rocking-chair, in which the august woman rocks her straighter self, and a great tin cage, from between the bars of which an intelligent parrot chatters--"my lady, my lady, my lady!" There is a cavernous air about the place, which gives out a sickly odor, exciting the suggestion that it might at some time have served as a receptacle for those second-hand coffins the State buries its poor in.
"Well! who are you? And what do you want? You have brought letters, I s'pose?" a sharp, squeaking voice, speaks rapidly.
The young man, without waiting for an invitation to sit down, takes nervously a seat at the side-table, saying he has come on a mission of love.
"Love! love! eh? Young man-know that you have got into the wrong house!" Mrs. Swiggs shakes her head, squeaking out with great animation.
There she sits, Milton's "Paradise Lost" in her witch-like fingers, herself lean enough for the leanest of witches, and seeming to have either shrunk away from the faded black silk dress in which she is clad, or passed through half a century of starvation merely to bolster up her dignity. A sharp, hatchet-face, sallow and corrugated; two wicked gray eyes, set deep in bony sockets; a long, irregular nose, midway of which is adjusted a pair of broad, brass-framed spectacles; a sunken, purse--drawn mouth, with two discolored teeth protruding from her upper lip; a high, narrow forehead, resembling somewhat crumpled parchment; a dash of dry, brown hair relieving the ponderous border of her steeple-crowned cap, which she seems to have thrown on her head in a hurry; a moth-eaten, red shawl thrown spitefully over her shoulders, disclosing a sinewy and sassafras-colored neck above, and the small end of a gold chain in front, and, reader, you have the august Mrs. Swiggs, looking as if she diets on chivalry and sour krout. She is indeed a nice embodiment of several of those qualities which the State clings tenaciously to, and calls its own, for she lives on the labor of eleven aged negroes, five of whom are cripples.
The young man smiles, as Mrs. Swiggs increases the velocity of her rocking, lays her right hand on the table, rests her left on her Milton, and continues to reiterate that he has got into the wrong house.
"I have no letter, Madam--"
"I never receive people without letters-never!" she interrupts, testily.
"But you see, Madam--"
"No I don't. I don't see anything about it!" again she interposes, adjusting her spectacles, and scanning him anxiously from head to foot. "Ah, yes (she twitches her head), I see what you are--"
"I was going to say, if you please, Madam, that my mission may serve as a passport--"
"I'm of a good family, you must know, young man. You could have learned that of anybody before seeking this sort of an introduction. Any of our first families could have told you about me. You must go your way, young man!" And she twitches her head, and pulls closer about her lean shoulders the old red shawl.
"I (if you will permit me, Madam) am not ignorant of the very high standing of your famous family--" Madam interposes by saying, every muscle of her frigid face unmoved the while, she is glad he knows something, "having read of them in a celebrated work by one of our more celebrated genealogists--"
"But you should have brought a letter from the Bishop! and upon that based your claims to a favorable reception. Then you have read of Sir Sunderland Swiggs, my ancestor? Ah! he was such a Baron, and owned such estates in the days of Elizabeth. But you should have brought a letter, young man." Mrs. Swiggs replies rapidly, alternately raising and lowering her squeaking voice, twitching her head, and grasping tighter her Milton.
"Those are his arms and crest." She points with her Milton to a singular hieroglyphic, in a wiry black frame, resting on the marble-painted mantelpiece. "He was very distinguished in his time; and such an excellent Christian." She shakes her head and wipes the tears from her spectacles, as her face, which had before seemed carved in wormwood, slightly relaxes the hardness of its muscles.
"I remember having seen favorable mention of Sir Sunderland's name in the book I refer to--"
She again interposes. The young man watches her emotions with a penetrating eye, conscious that he has touched a chord in which all the milk of kindness is not dried up.
"It's a true copy of the family arms. Everybody has got to having arms now-a-days. (She points to the indescribable scrawl over the mantelpiece.) It was got through Herald King, of London, who they say keeps her Majesty's slippers and the great seal of State. We were very exact, you see. Yes, sir-we were very exact. Our vulgar people, you see-I mean such as have got up by trade, and that sort of thing-went to a vast expense in sending to England a man of great learning and much aforethought, to ransack heraldry court and trace
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