I wont give you a farthing! cried Reybold at the door, speaking to some one. Chips, indeed! What shall I give you money to gamble away for? A gambling beggar is worse than an impostor! No, sir! Emphatically no!
A dollar for four chips for brave old Beau! said the other voice. Ive struck em all but you. By the State Arms! Ive got rights in this distreek! Everybody pays toll to brave old Beau! Come down!
The Northern Congressman retreated before this pertinacious mendicant into his committee-room, and his pesterer followed him closely, nothing abashed, even into the privileged cloisters of the committee. The Southern members enjoyed the situation.
Chips, Right Honorable! Chips for old Beau. Nobody this ten-year has run as long as you. Ive laid for you, and now Ive fell on you. Judge Bee, the fust business befo yo committee this mornin is a assessment for old Beau, whos away down! Rheumatiz, bettin on the black, failure of remittances from Fauqueeah, and other casualties by wind an flood, have put ole Beau away down. Hes a institution of his country and must be sustained!
The laughter was general and cordial amongst the Southerners, while the intruder pressed hard upon Mr. Reybold. He was a singular object; tall, grim, half-comical, with a leer of low familiarity in his eyes, but his waxed mustache of military proportions, his patch of goatee just above the chin, his elaborately oiled hair and flaming necktie, set off his faded face with an odd gear of finery and impressiveness. His skin was that of an old roués, patched up and calked, but the features were those of a once handsome man of style and carriage.
He wore what appeared to be a cast-off spring overcoat, out of season and color on this blustering winter day, a rich buff waistcoat of an embossed pattern, such as few persons would care to assume, save, perhaps, a gambler, negro buyer, or fine buck barber. The assumption of a large and flashy pin stood in his frilled shirt-bosom. He wore watch-seals without the accompanying watch, and his pantaloons, though faded and threadbare, were once of fine material and cut in a style of extravagant elegance, and they covered his long, shrunken, but aristocratic limbs, and were strapped beneath his boots to keep them shapely. The boots themselves had been once of varnished kid or fine calf, but they were cracked and cut, partly by use, partly for comfort; for it was plain that their wearer had the gout, by his aristocratic hobble upon a gold-mounted cane, which was not the least inconsistent garniture of his mendicancy.
Mine, said Box Izard, is a regulation pen-knife, contributed by the United States, with the regret, Beau, that I cant commodate you with a pine coffin for you to git into and git away down lower than you ever been.
And now, Right Honorable from the banks of the Susquehanna, Colonel Reyboldyou see, I got your name; I ben a layin for you!come down handsome for the Uncle and ornament of his capital and country. Whats yores?
Youre mean, said the stylish beggar, winking to the rest. You hate to put your hand down in yer pocket, mightily. Id rather be ole Beau, and live on suppers at the faro banks, than love a dollar like you!
If you say Mr. Reybold is a mean man, you tell a story, you nasty beggar! He often gives things to me and Joyce, my sister. Hes just got me work, which is the best thing to give; dont you think so, gentlemen?
I like to work! cried the little boy, his hazel eyes shining, and his poor, narrow body beating with unconscious fervor, half suspended on his crutches, as if he were of that good descent and natural spirit which could assert itself without bashfulness in the presence of older people. I like to work for my mother. If I was strong, like other little boys, I would make money for her, so that she shouldnt keep any boardersexcept Mr. Reybold. Oh! she has to work a lot; but shes proud and wont tell anybody. All the money I get I mean to give her; but I wouldnt have it if I had to beg for it like that man!
The fine old loafer looked at the boy, whom he had not previously noticed, and it was observed that the last shaft had hurt his pride. The boy returned his wounded look with a straight, undaunted, spirited glance, out of a childs nature. Mr. Reybold was impressed with something in the attitude of the two, which made him forget his own interest in the controversy.
Now, my little man; come, dont be hard on the old veteran! Hes down, old Beau is, sence the time he owned his blooded pacer and dined with the Corps Diplomatique; Beaus down sence then; but dont call the old feller hard names. We take it back, dont we?we take them words back?
Theres a angel somewhere, said Lowndes Cleburn, even in a Washington bummer, which responds to a little chap on crutches with a clear voice. Whether the angel takes the side of the bummer or the little chap, is a pint out of our jurisdiction. Abe, give Beau a julep. He seems to have been demoralized by little Crutchs last.
I shant! cried the boy. Go and work like me. Youre big, and you called Mr. Reybold mean. Havent you got a wife or little girl, or nobody to work for? You ought to work for yourself, anyhow. Oughtnt he, gentlemen?
Reybold, who had slipped around by the little cripple and was holding him in a caressing way from behind, looked over to Beau, and was even more impressed with that generally undaunted worthys expression. It was that of acute and suffering sensibility, perhaps the effervescence of some little remaining pride, or it might have been a twinge of the gout. Beau looked at the little boy, suspended there with the weak back and the narrow chest, and that scintillant, sincere spirit beaming out with courage born in the stock he belonged to. Admiration, conciliation, and pain were in the ruined vagrants eyes. Reybold felt a sense of pity. He put his hand in his pocket and drew forth a dollar.
You bilk! he cried. You supper customer! Ill brain you! I had rather parted with my shoes at a dolly shop and gone gadding the hoof, without a doss to sleep ona town pauper, done on the vagthan to have been made scurvy in the sight of that child and deserve his words of shame!
The Lake and Bayou Committee reaped the reward of a good action. Crutch, the page, as they all called Uriel Basil, affected the sensibility of the whole committee to the extent that profanity almost ceased there, and vulgarity became a crime in the presence of a child. Gentle words and wishes became the rule; a glimmer of reverence and a thought of piety were not unknown in that little chamber.
The youthful abstractionist, Lowndes Cleburn, expressed it even better. Crutch, he said, is like a angel reduced to his bones. Them air wings or pinions, that he might have flew off with, being a pair of crutches, keeps him here to tarry awhile in our service. But, gentlemen, hes not got long to stay. His crutches is growing too heavy for that expandin sperit. Some day well look up and miss him through our tears.
They gave him many a present; they put a silver watch in his pocket, and dressed him in a jacket with gilt buttons. He had a bouquet of flowers to take home every day to that marvellous sister of whom he spoke so often; and there were times when the whole committee, seeing him drop off to sleep as he often did through frail and weary nature, sat silently watching lest he might be wakened before his rest was over. But no persuasion could take him off the floor of Congress. In that solemn old Hall of Representatives, under the semicircle of gray columns, he darted with agility from noon to dusk, keeping speed upon his crutches with the healthiest of the pages, and racing into the document-room, and through the dark and narrow corridors of the old Capitol loft, where the House library was lost in twilight. Visitors looked with interest and sympathy at the narrow back and body of this invalid child, whose eyes were full of bright, beaming spirit. He sometimes nodded on the steps by the Speakers chair; and these spells of dreaminess and fatigue increased as his disease advanced upon his wasting system. Once he did not awaken at all until adjournment. The great Congress and audience passed out, and the little fellow still slept, with his head against the Clerks desk, while all the other pages were grouped around him, and they finally bore him off to the committee-room in their arms, where, amongst the sympathetic watchers, was old Beau. When Uriel opened his eyes the old mendicant was looking into them.
Beau, said the boy, Ive had such a dream! I thought my dear father, who is working so hard to bring me home to him, had carried me out on the river in a boat. We sailed through the greenest marshes, among white lilies, where the wild ducks were tame as they can be. All the ducks were diving and diving, and they brought up long stalks of celery from the water and gave them to us. Father ate all his. But mine turned into lilies and grew up so high that I felt myself going with them, and the higher I went the more beautiful grew the birds. Oh! let me sleep and see if it will be so again.
Did anybody fire a gun? he said. Oh! no. I was only dreaming that I was hunting with father, and he shot at the beautiful pheasants that were making such a whirring of wings for me. It was music. When can I hunt with father, dear gentlemen?
There are little tiny birds along the beach, muttered the boy. They twitter and run into the surf and back again, and am I one of them? I must be; for I feel the water cold, and yet I see you all, so kind to me! Dont whistle for me now; for I dont get much play, gentlemen! Will the Speaker turn me out if I play with the beach-birds just once? Im only a little boy working for my mother.
Dear Beau, he said, I cant get off to go home with you. They wont excuse me, and I give all my money to mother. But you go to the back gate. Ask for Joyce. Shell give you a nice warm meal every day. Go with him, Mr. Reybold! If you ask for him it will be all right; for Joycedear Joyce!she loves you.
The beach-birds played again along the strand; the boy ran into the foam with his companions and felt the spray once more. The Mighty Hunter shot his birda little cripple that twittered the sweetest of them all. Nothing moved in the solemn chamber of the committee but the voice of an old forsaken man, sobbing bitterly.