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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter XXIX. Marvel and Pearly in an Accident. Little Percy. The Angel of Death

Chapter XXIX. Marvel and Pearly in an Accident. Little Percy. The Angel of Death.

The archery ground of Lady Harriet and Lady Henrietta at Rotojingolong was a rendezvous for all the empty-headed noodles and puppy-dogs of the great city of New Orleans. There they were on show every afternoon on the blocks gaping at the ladies, with the crowning insults of their detailed stares. The genuine articles, wearing proper collars around their necks, and rivetted on them a brass label stamped with the registration number of the police officer, together with the genuine articles who had no such affectations as registration collars, made appointments with one another for nightly hideous barking matches at the savings' bank; while all the tom and Mary-ann cats of the neighbourhood rehearsed the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet on the manager's roof.

The tilting-ground of all the standard habitués of Broad Street, week in week out, was the archery ground of the illustrious colonel of the Sikh-Sepoy guards. There, with his proper collar on his hairy neck, one pane of glass in his eye to make him look smart and engaging, kid-gloved and cigarette-whiffing, might be seen on show any day of the week the pick of the city block litters. It was a cardinal and a golden rule to carefully exclude all common-sense young gentlemen from the afternoon rendezvous ground, as well as all other young ladies with pretensions to beauty greater than those of the two élégantes of Rotojingolong.

The invitation of Marvel came rather as a surprise to the doctor, who was by this time well acquainted with the customs of Lady Harriet and Lady Henrietta. He depictured to himself the contrast which Marvel's face would form with theirs; but reflected that, as the bird of Paradise was lawfully married to him, there was no danger of her standing in the light of the original promoters of the show. He did not know how audaciously his wife could flirt, and he imagined that the invitation would stand good for that afternoon only.

page 221

After the silvery band, white cockade, black silk hat, Lincoln bronze-green livery, silvery buttons, and spirited chestnut thoroughbreds had been duly exhibited before the gaze of the puppies—some of whom rudely affected to bark at the same—the silvery band, white cockade, bronze-green livery, silvery buttons and black silk hat were trotted away with by the spirited thoroughbreds, after depositing Marvel at the tournament ground on the day following the concert in due observance of her invitation. The duty of returning for Marvel, after the bow and arrow battle had waged for two hours, was relegated to the unadorned doctor himself.

About five o'clock that afternoon, accordingly he drove out with the horses to bring the beloved Marvel away from the green fields and the sweet-smelling flower-beds of Kincaird. The battle had just concluded as he arrived in nice time to meet her tripping with mincing steps on the white sandy paths and breathing the sanctified air of the wealthy garden. When seated in the buggy, he wheeled the horses around and drove them in the direction of home. The snorting horses were evidently jubilant at having such a short distance to travel, and looked into each other's faces with a sagacious nod and a self-satisfied wink as their heads were turned for home, and they recollected that it was getting close on time for their evening meal. Showing a strong disposition to appropriate the whole of the duties to themselves and navigate their own way home, irrespective of the man at the helm with the leather ribbons, and cut the work as short as possible without bolting straight across the paddocks, they commenced with a few significant snorts and quickly increased their pace to a very fast trot, with a bit of a gallop thrown in now and then by way of variety. The consternation of Marvel at the snorting steeds and her trepidation as the pace quickened overcame her altogether, and provoked her to call out to her husband to saw their heads off with the bit and make them walk.

Ever since she had been thrown by the accident to his mare Rosie, when Rosie was cannoned by the old chestnut of the abandoned Marmaduke, she had evinced a very strong dislike to horses and buggies. Whenever she was paying her calls she would insist on his taking the most docile and oldest pair he had in the stable, and restricting them to a walk all the way, as if they were out for an unceremonious funeral and had been left behind.

The spirited pair doing duty on the evening after the great archery party had fully made up their minds to stand no more nonsense from the bird of Paradise. Whether from devilment or from hunger, they sturdily rebelled against her officious suggestions that they should slow down their speed. The work was to be done, and the sooner it was over the better. Amidst a hailstorm of reproaches and imprecations loudly levelled at their heads by the bird of Heaven, on they ran riot, careering and prancing and caracoling and capering in a fifteen-mile-an-hour trot, till it was getting dark, and there were no lights in the buggy. Coming up the rise below the post-office hill, in their designs to shove to one side a large caravan in the shape of a broken-down hawker's waggon, they overstepped the mark: the caravan was almost lifted up bodily and hurled down the bank, as a page 222bull would toss an elephant, while the flying buggy was brought to a standstill in the middle of the road. One of the horses, the one he called Valentine, was thrown on his side on the metal, screaming and crying like a child until he was released by the crowd.

Little Pearly herself was in the buggy and kept her seat beside her father, whereas Marvel jumped out without thinking of Pearly and hurried away straight for home. Some by-standers held the horses while volunteers cut away parts of the harness and unyoked the prostrate Valentine. The doctor got out with his little girl and left her in charge of his friend the local postmaster's wife. Upon investigating the circumstances of the collision, it was found that the wheel had been knocked off the waggon by the kinetic energy of the impetuous buggy and the galloping pair; a woman had been thrown out, torn her dress and scratched her leg; whereas the buggy and horses had escaped comparatively uninjured. On arriving at home with little Pearly, the doctor found that his wife had sent for the sergeant of police, and had laid the whole blame of the accident upon the driver of the buggy—her husband.

"He must have been drinking, Sergeant Stalkingham," she shouted in a great rage: "I called out to him several times to stop the beasts, but he wouldn't care if I had been killed, the villain." She said nothing about poor little Pearly at all, nor even asked her if she was hurt, nor made any excuse for running away and leaving her in the unfortunate plight. Her whole and sole concern was about herself and the terrible danger she had just escaped. She even hinted to the constable that it might have been the result of malice prepense on the part of the villain.

"Pearly didn't yun away; did Pearly, eh! puppa?" cried Pearly in childish glee. "Pearly not f'ightened geegees;" busily following her father that evening every move he made about the house, conscious of the grand stroke she had done by not showing the white feather, and reiterating—"Pearly didn't kie: mumma would kie: Pearly not f'ightened geegees; poor geegees."

The merry prattle of the lovable little Pearly was the strongest impeachment that could have been entered against her timorous mother; it seemed to tell even upon the callous sergeant of the detective police, for he swallowed some whisky which the doctor poured out for him and left the place, as he subsequently remarked disgusted with the Paradisal bird.

Some few days after a writ was issued, and damages laid at two hundred dollars. The case was heard in the Supreme Court, as the legal expenses of the Supreme Court were so much higher than the expenses of the County Court, and it padded the pockets of the lawyers to whom he had entrusted the defence better. It was heard before His Honour Judge Grant, and the counsel for the doctor was an old college fellow-student. The learned judge refused to hear any defence which his counsel might offer, and jumped to the conclusion that the accident would not have occurred if the doctor had not been driving so fast. He awarded the woman with the torn dress and the scratched leg full damages claimed, page 223with costs against the doctor. The lawyers on both sides thus looked to Whitworth for their fees, and the affair cost him another two hundred dollars before he was out of their clutches.

"If once you set your foot in a lawyer's office," he said to the Sabinnia post-master, who was one of his witnesses, "he has got a hold of you, and can do just whatever he likes with you and your money; he will not relax his hold upon you till all your money is gone and then he will kick you out. I could have settled that case by making the owner a present of a twenty-dollar bill. No more law for me if I can possibly help it—it was made for fools, and rich fools especially. Let them have as much as they like to pay for: let them find the money, the lawyers will soon find the law. No more law for me; no more law for me!"

"If he could possibly help it"—there's the rub. How true the dictum! How often unobserved its precepts! How like a coming event casting its shadow before—that accident on the post-office road! warning in its legal results the unwary against the enmeshing dangers of the uncertain and treacherous law. In some respects, the personnel in the coming litigation is the same.

Nearly another year elapsed, the driving out of Marvel being ever after the collision a special burden thrown upon the groom, beside whom she sat with an air of ostentatious condescension, and the mare Rosie, at that time getting old and steady. Few visitors compared to the paradisal receptions of the first few months came to Bendemeer. Marvel's contingent was confined to the melancholy wife of the Primitive Methodist parson, the sergeant of police,—whose abilities all pointed to the twofaced sneaking quarter of the moral compass,—the pillar himself and the Mexican-Italian—the woman whose ungovernable passion had well-nigh taken the life of her husband.

Just about a month after the entrance of Marvel into the confines of the Paradise vineyard, her cousin had followed with the watch-faced picaninnies, when her husband filled the vacant post of manager of the savings' bank, kept warm for Simon Ernest by the energetic member of the State legislature. By Christmas, 1849, Simon Bubtitt and his family were comfortably ensconced in a magnificent stone residence, which the money of the asthmatical auntie had built upon a little plot of land some distance out of the town, about large enough to make a nice little Chinese garden. The keen-eye-to-business pock-pitted Simon had made a good and useful tool out of the ugly freckle-faced Sukey, who enjoyed a growing influence over the purse-strings of her mother, even greater than what Marvel had over the exchequer of the great belt-driver. Simon had as much bluestone, bricks and mortar on that tiny bit of land as it would inconveniently hold. What is more, he had the title-deeds of the land stored away in the caverns underneath the savings' bank. With the land followed the right of possessing the bluestone, bricks and mortar, and he had inherited the little bit of ground from his brother the champion oarsman, who in his day had page 224won it by right of aquatic conquest from the then local blacksmith of the Sabine River, so that the wide-awake Simon was thus enabled to abstract seven thousand five hundred dollars from the coffers of Margaret Horn-blower—a feat that would have redounded to the credit of gluepot Ike or any other hard-working Jew.

He had been married two years and was the happy father of four children. There were unmistakable proofs of another one or a pigeon pair to shortly arrive. Simon and Sukey were frequent visitors at Bendemeer. Simon came on Sunday afternoons wheeling some of the picaninnies in a safety-mail-cart, while Sukey followed with some more behind. Although, on his wife's account, the doctor made them as welcome as he could, he was always in dread of Sukey Bubtitt casting some bomb-shell for the bird of Paradise to explode around him, especially when putting two and two together he remembered that his wife's constant comrades were the crazy woman who had slapped the cheek of her reverend lord and master and who lived in melancholial jealousy of that luminary, together with that other woman who had in the dark stabbed her sleeping husband in an attempt upon his life.

Upon one occasion he had referred to Simon Bubtitt in Sabinnia as an eminent monthly nurse, with the result of much mortification on the part of Marvel. On another occasion when he met Simon at the chemist's shop, loaded with boat-bottles, Alexandra bottles, princess bottles, siphon-action bottles, and other new patents for relieving the necessity for constant cleaning of the baby-feeding apparatus, he had asked the brother of the Indian club-slinger if he were not able to give the twins a suck himself.

The white-livered Simon was, as the coal-king himself had styled him, a regular old molly-coddle. He was well known to the local chemist, who might have lived upon the twins and triplets and who meanly made fun of him when his back was turned and Simon left the shop with a clothesbasket full of auxiliaries to nursing, including breast-pumps like green footballs, strong enough to drag the heart out of the poor lying-in Sukey, patent pap-boats, nipple shields with long india-rubber tubing and nipple shields with no tubing at all, belladonna plasters for arresting the flow of milk, and enabling Sukey to gad about the town, two Winchester bottles of dill water and Daffy's elixir, a large assortment of nipple teats, six pounds of liquorice powder, six pounds of grey powder and worm-powder, various patents recommended by the chemist for the wind, a large box of nickel-plated safety pins, and one wickerwork rattle as a present from the vendor of the other paraphernalia to the twins, with the hopes that they might wrangle over it, fall out of the cradle, knock a bit of the putty off their noses and necessitate another visit from Simon for a quarter-dollar's worth of plaster to stick it on again.

Not only to the chemist was the motherly Simon well-known: he was a favorite butt for the banter of the boys returning from school or playing marbles on the footpath. As the heavy-laden clothes-basket came that page 225way over the marble ring, the big burly snuffler was jeered at and apostrophized with—"Cry Baby Bunting your mother went a-hunting!" The good man heeded not their low ill-bred remarks, and examined every india-rubber tube by sucking the teats to find out if any dangerous holes let in the wind on the way home, looking down upon the rude boys and their nonsensical games of marbles with most sublime contempt. Simon was par excellence the best customer the apothecary ever had in his life; he had swallowed so many drugs himself that it would have been as easy to poison Mithridates1, king of Pontus, or even a hedgehog, as it was hard to poison Simon. Sometimes written orders were received by the chemist from Simon for "Half a pint of sirup of squeals, half a pint of 'Hippy Canny' wine for the babies and half a pint of sweet spirits of 'nature' to purify his own 'cistern,'" while Sukey herself sent an order a few months after her last maternal indisposition for three boxes of "Saddler's" powders and all the "camel" flowers the man had in his shop to keep down a "sweln."

Such were the companions of Marvel. With the exception of the Rotojingolong family they comprised a gang of censorious tongues that turned the drawingroom into a cackling fowl-house, blighting the tender reputation of a girl no matter how closely hidden under the veil of Vesta2, and bandying her name from lip to lip like the fame of some dancing damsel—a nest of scandal-mongers, nibbling Savoy biscuits and swilling orange pekoe out of sévres tea-cups, devoted to the retailings of petty gossip that loosens the knots of the truest love. The few whom she patronised with her celestial visits were Lady Harriet and Lady Henrietta, with the puppies from the kennels of Broad Street on view at the archery grounds of Rotojingolong.

While the atmosphere of the Sabine River valleys was thickly impregnated with the mists and white fogs that never lifted for days, amidst the howling of the wind through the swaying conifers, and the slanting torrents of rain of the Louisiana winter, pattering on the iron roof and rattling against the windows of Bendemeer, and shortly after the loss which the doctor had sustained by the collision, Marvel's third child was born on the twenty-first of September, 1849. The stress of his birth had left his mother weak and nervously affected for months—she became more peevish, fretful, cross and unreasonable.

The new comer was a bonnie blue-eyed babe, much heavier than the alert little Valentine as a baby, but like him in the lineaments of his face and the brightness of his expression, and like his father in accord with both. He survived the terrible strain of his birth and soon grew fat and strong. In Sabinnia there were no merry-making bells to herald him on the way to his christening; unannounced he was taken to the church called Holy Trinity where another pathetic divine, a recently arrived apostle of the Church of England, lacking in spiritual but abounding in corporeal weight, baptised him with the name of his father in the name of his Father in Heaven. In the mornings, after he page 226was taken out of his cot—just large enough to contain a fairy—he would be carried about by the new nurse-girl; ever and anon he would nimbly turn around his bonnie head and flutter his arms, lighting up his face with smiles from his bright blue eyes as his father approached. Rapidly he grew healthy and vigorous. Ever since his birth, whether from the effects of the prolonged puerperal fever, or from the instillation of the doctrines of the melancholial wife of the Wesleyan parson and the cold-blooded Italo-Mexican whose morale was the cause of some anxiety to her husband, the mind of Marvel seemed to have undergone a complete revolution. She would perform most eccentric acts, say and do most hysterical things, and at times she seemed to be some other than her former self in her attitude towards her husband and her manner towards all.

On the Easter eve subsequent to his birth, the doctor was called away nearly thirty miles at night, starting about an hour after dark to attend at Prince's orchard to the peach-grower's baby, suffering, it was said, from diphtheria. On the back of his mare Rosie he rode and was approaching the heart of the burnt forest when the father of the child met him and said he was too late as his little one had died. Returning, he reached the township of Sabinnia about an hour before midnight, and meeting many who were coming away from some country theatricals, he spent an hour or so with the postmaster in the dwelling-rooms of the post-office. He wended his way home in the first hour of the Easter morn ere scarce the melodies of Easter carols had died away; while the fragrance from the vine-clad slopes was wafted afar poised upon the mountain breezes, or loitering in the misty valleys at the season of the Saturnalia, and when the smoke and charred grit from blazing pine-trees drifted from the prairies to envelop the town. Opening the door with his latch-key, he prepared to retire with a candle, when going through the hall, where dried prairie grasses divided it from the passage, some filaments of the tall grasses caught fire and they quickly blazed up to the ceiling. Pulling them down he squeezed out the flame with his hands, and opened the door of the bedroom at the end of the hall. Not a soul was there. He knocked at the servants' doors. Not a soul was there. He looked all through the house with the candle-light, but not a trace of his wife or his children could he find. Going up to the stables he knocked up the groom, who told him that he had seen them all preparing to go out about an hour before, and thought they had gone to the minister's house. He went to the minister's house, as the Church of England clergyman lived a few doors below Bendemeer and was friendly with him. He knocked loudly at the door: not a stir in the house or the sign of a light. He went back to Bendemeer. In wonder and agitation he lay down on the sofa to await the return of Marvel and the children. He waited all night, yet nobody came. The morning came, when the groom reported that they were all in the mayor's house, and that his wife had sent the girl for the letters.

"Tell her to come here for the letters and bring the children home," he said. The groom returned with the news that the mayor was coming page 227to see him, whereupon he returned to his surgery to await the explanation of the mayor. He came, and said that Mrs. Whitworth had become frightened when she saw the grasses catch fire; she had run away with the children out of the house, and stayed at his place all night. He had been away himself at the Hallelujah Hotel, he said, and had not come home till they had gone to bed. Shortly after the Mayor had returned to his own house, up to Bendemeer came Pearly running with a skipping-rope, Vallie with the servants, and the baby with Marvel following. Marvel walked in as if nothing had happened and resumed her usual morning's occupation, while the doctor set out in his buggy on his rounds.

Late in the broiling summer, when the thermometer registered 110° Fah. in the shade, and when the heat oppressed the vigorous and the sturdy, yellow fever attacked the baby when nearly a year old, there being annual endemics around the miasmatic Mississippi marshes in the vintage season, and many cases of heat apoplexy and coup de soleil. Marvel secreted his illness for some inscrutable reason as close as she could from the doctor, who did not notice the malady that was slowly drying up the channels of his baby's blood until it was too late to administer the proper and early remedies. The suffering child, who had grown into a merry and apple-cheeked baby, would brighten his eyes and hold up his head in relief from the remedies given, but soon the sweltering overpowering heat would weigh it down again and loll it back, bathed in perspiration, on his father's arm. For a week, night after night he knelt over the cradle in the vain effort to rock to sleep the fore-doomed baby; time after time running backwards and forwards to the chemist's shop for any new remedy that suggested itself to him and which he had not tried before; till at last the little child could take nothing at all. The last night of the week it groaned in pain, and tossed up its little wasted arms in supplication for relief. Finally, it subsided into a delirious somnolence and stupor, and at dawn next morning little Percy awakened in the light of a brighter and a better home.

In his father's death-scene hardened nature lay dormant for years the fountain of his emotions: it moved in ecstatic joy when the flying Moss Rose had run away with the glorious races which he had won; it paled the colour of his face, as in anguish Eugene knelt over the white form of his lost little child ransomed from pain, clasped by the hand and lifted to the realms of bliss by the loving Saviour—spirited away to where no thieves could break through and steal, away from the corruption and the corroding care to come, there in a halo of love o'ershaded, to dwell in the realms of joy for ever.

The day after the death of the golden-haired little Percy, as always in similar circumstances, came Miriam, in order to help in the arrangements for the removal of the dear little child to her beloved resting-place, the tomb in St. Martin's cemetery. Marvel despatched a telegram and a letter to her father, throwing the whole blame upon the doctor, and actually page 228telling the sinful lie that he had chased them all out of the house, in consequence of which the baby had caught cold and died, knowing that she had been in the house of her new friend all night owing to her fright at the ignition of the prairie-grasses and that the baby had died of yellow fever aggravated by artificial food and heat.

The great and mighty speculator came, looked at the little angel as he lay across the brass rails of his little cot white in the deep-blue coffin, like a work of creation fresh from the hand of God and waiting for the breath of life in his new cerulean home. The great man shortly afterwards left to attend to repairs of machinery, or to luxuriate in the suburban villa with the sprightly housekeeper of Don Juan House. Mrs. Gould followed. Marching into the room covered in a dark brown dolman, she looked for a moment with the delicacy of a rhinoceros upon the sweet face of the dead baby in the coffin, and wheeling round she bundled herself out of the room, savagely reproving the lamentations of Marvel and shouting—"Wha's the guid o' botherin' yer head o'er hit: hit's as weel dead and off yer hauns; ye've enough to pit up wi' as it is."

The reverend gentleman who had performed the rite of baptism read in unalloyed sorrow portion of the beautiful funeral service of the Church of England, and offered a prayer in the mortuary bedroom where little Percy lay coffined over the empty cot, and whence he was slowly drawn by Rosie, with black rosettes and ribbons on her bridle, to meet the steamer for Galveston at the Mississippi Quay. There the little blue coffin was consigned by the Dean of St. Antonio, who had been a fellow-student with the doctor at the university, to the grave, and in silence they walked away, leaving little Percy alone with the flowers and a smiling angel come from God.

Day after day, in the cloudless sunshine that impinged upon the chiselled uplifted face of the monument, or amidst the boisterous rains of winter, the afternoons of Miriam were spent chanting the songs of the Redeemer. Under the pale iridescent silver moon, entranced by the visions of the heavens where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where the just Gordon had trodden its shining golden paths for years and smiled down his welcome upon the toddling stranger upborne along the empyreal ladder with invisible hosts of clustering angels, she stood through all the falling years repeating the orison—"Teach us to love one another in Thee and for Thee, and in the world to come unite us at Thy feet, where peace and love are perfect and everlasting."

1 Mithridates was a king with a legendary tolerance for poison.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth and chastity. Dictionary of Classical Mythology 1995.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]