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American humorist and newspaper columnist for The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan, Cobb is best known for his Judge Priest stories.Contents: The Lord Provides; A Blending of the Parables; Judge Priest Comes Back; A Chapter from the Life of an Ant; Sergeant Jimmy Bagby's Feet; According to the Code; Forrest's Last Charge; Double-Barrelled Justice; and A Beautiful Evening.Cobb is remembered best for his humorous stories of Kentucky and is part of the American literary regionalism school. These stories were collected first in the book Old Judge Priest (1915), whose title character was based on a prominent West Kentucky judge named William Pitman Bishop. Writer Joel Harris wrote of these tales, "Cobb created a South peopled with honorable citizens, charming eccentrics, and loyal, subservient blacks, but at their best the Judge Priest stories are dramatic and compelling, using a wealth of precisely rendered detail to evoke a powerful mood."Among his other books are the humorous Speaking of Operations (1916), and anti-prohibition ode to bourbon, Red Likker (1929).
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I. THE LORD PROVIDES
II. A BLENDING OF THE PARABLES
III. JUDGE PRIEST COMES BACK
IV. A CHAPTER FROM THE LIFE OF AN ANT
V. SERGEANT JIMMY BAGBY’S FEET
VI. ACCORDING TO THE CODE
VII. FORREST’S LAST CHARGE
VIII. DOUBLE-BARRELLED JUSTICE
IX. A BEAUTIFUL EVENING *
THIS STORY BEGINS WITH JUDGE Priest sitting at his desk at his chambers at the old courthouse. I have a suspicion that it will end with him sitting there. As to that small detail I cannot at this time be quite positive. Man proposes, but facts will have their way.
If so be you have read divers earlier tales of my telling you already know the setting for the opening scene here. You are to picture first the big bare room, high-ceiled and square of shape, its plastering cracked and stained, its wall cases burdened with law books in splotched leather jerkins; and some of the books stand straight and upright, showing themselves to be confident of the rectitude of all statements made therein, and some slant over sideways against their fellows to the right or the left, as though craving confirmatory support for their contents.
Observe also the water bucket on the little shelf in the corner, with the gourd dipper hanging handily by; the art calendar, presented with the compliments of the Langstock Lumber Company, tacked against the door; the spittoon on the floor; the steel engraving of President Davis and his Cabinet facing you as you enter; the two wide windows opening upon the west side of the square; the woodwork, which is of white poplar, but grained by old Mr. Kane, our leading house, sign and portrait painter, into what he reckoned to be a plausible imitation of the fibrillar eccentricities of black walnut; and in the middle of all this, hunched down behind his desk like a rifleman in a pit, is Judge Priest, in a confusing muddle of broad, stooped shoulders, wrinkled garments and fat short legs.
Summertime would have revealed him clad in linen, or alpaca, or ample garments of homespun hemp, but this particular day, being a day in the latter part of October, Judge Priest’s limbs and body were clothed in woollen coverings. The first grate fire of the season burned in his grate. There was a local superstition current to the effect that our courthouse was heated with steam. Years before, a bond issue to provide the requisite funds for this purpose had been voted after much public discussion pro and con. Thereafter, for a space, contractors and journeymen artisans made free of the building, to the great discomfort of certain families of resident rats, old settler rats really, that had come to look upon their cozy habitats behind the wainscoting as homes for life. Anon iron pipes emerged at unexpected and jutting angles from the baseboards here and there, to coil in the corners or else to climb the walls, joint upon joint, and festoon themselves kinkily against the ceilings.
Physically the result was satisfying to the eye of the taxpayer; but if the main function of a heating plant be to provide heat, then the innovation might hardly be termed an unqualified success. Official dwellers of the premises maintained that the pipes never got really hot to the touch before along toward the Fourth of July, remaining so until September, when they began perceptibly to cool off again. Down in the cellar the darky janitor might feed the fire box until his spine cracked and the boilers seethed and simmered, but the steam somehow seemed to get lost in transit, manifesting itself on the floors above only in a metallic clanking and clacking, which had been known seriously to annoy lawyers in the act of offering argument to judge and jurors. When warmth was needed to dispel the chill in his own quarters Judge Priest always had a fire kindled in the fireplace.
He had had one made and kindled that morning. All day the red coals had glowed between the chinks in the pot-bellied grate and the friendly flames had hummed up the flue, renewing neighbourly acquaintance with last winter’s soot that made fringes on the blackened fire brick, so that now the room was in a glow. Little tiaras of sweat beaded out on the judge’s bald forehead as he laboured over the papers in a certain case, and frequently he laid down his pen that he might use both hands, instead of his left only, to reach and rub remote portions of his person. Doing this, he stretched his arms until red strips showed below the ends of his wristbands. At a distance you would have said the judge was wearing coral bracelets.
The sunlight that had streamed in all afternoon through the two windows began to fade, and little shadows that stayed hidden through the day crawled under the door from the hall beyond and crept like timorous mice across the planking, ready to dart back the moment the gas was lit. Judge Priest strained to reach an especially itchy spot between his shoulder blades and addressed words to Jeff Poindexter, coloured, his body servant and house boy.
“They ain’t so very purty to look at—red flannels ain’t,” said the judge. “But, Jeff, I’ve noticed this—they certainly are mighty lively company till you git used to ‘em. I never am the least bit lonely fur the first few days after I put on my heavy underwear.”
There was no answer from Jeff except a deep, soft breath. He slept. At a customary hour he had come with Mittie May, the white mare, and the buggy to take Judge Priest home to supper, and had found the judge engaged beyond his normal quitting time. That, however, had not discommoded Jeff. Jeff always knew what to do with his spare moments. Jeff always had a way of spending the long winter evenings. He leaned now against a bookrack, with his elbow on the top shelf, napping lightly. Jeff preferred to sleep lying down or sitting down, but he could sleep upon his feet too—and frequently did.
Having, by brisk scratching movements, assuaged the irritation between his shoulder blades, the judge picked up his pen and shoved it across a sheet of legal cap that already was half covered with his fine, close writing. He never dictated his decisions, but always wrote them out by hand. The pen nib travelled along steadily for awhile. Eventually words in a typewritten petition that rested on the desk at his left caught the judge’s eye.
“Huh!” he grunted, and read the quoted phrase, “‘True Believers’ Afro-American Church of Zion, sometimes called——’” Without turning his head he again hailed his slumbering servitor: “Jeff, why do yourall call that there little church-house down by the river Possum Trot?”
Jeff roused and grunted, shaking his head dear of the lingering dregs of drowsiness.
“Suh?” he inquired. “Wuz you speakin’ to me, Jedge?”
“Yes, I was. Whut’s the reason amongst your people fur callin’ that little church down on the river front Possum Trot?”
Jeff chuckled an evasive chuckle before he made answer. For all the close relations that existed between him and his indulgent employer, Jeff had no intention of revealing any of the secrets of the highly secretive breed of humans to which he belonged. His is a race which, upon the surface of things, seems to invite the ridicule of an outer and a higher world, yet dreads that same ridicule above all things. Show me the white man who claims to know intimately the workings of his black servant’s mind, who professes to be able to tell anything of any negro’s lodge affiliations or social habits or private affairs, and I will show you a born liar.
Mightily well Jeff understood the how and the why and the wherefore of the derisive hate borne by the more orthodox creeds among his people for the strange new sect known as the True Believers. He could have traced out step by step, with circumstantial detail, the progress of the internal feud within the despised congregation that led to the upspringing of rival sets of claimants to the church property, and to the litigation that had thrown the whole tangled business into the courts for final adjudication. But except in company of his own choosing and his own colour, wild horses could not have drawn that knowledge from Jeff, although it would have pained him to think any white person who had a claim upon his friendship suspected him of concealment of any detail whatsoever.
“He-he,” chuckled Jeff. “I reckin that’s jes’ nigger foolishness. Me, I don’ know no reason why they sh’d call a church by no sech a name as that. I ain’t never had no truck wid ‘em ole True Believers, myse’f. I knows some calls ‘em the Do-Righters, and some calls ‘em the Possum Trotters.” His tone subtly altered to one of innocent bewilderment: “Whut you doin’, Jedge, pesterin’ yo’se’f wid sech low-down trash as them darkies is?”
Further discussion of the affairs of the strange faith that was divided against itself might have ensued but that an interruption came. Steps sounded in the long hallway that split the lower floor of the old courthouse lengthwise, and at a door—not Judge Priest’s own door but the door of the closed circuit-court chamber adjoining—a knocking sounded, at first gently, then louder and more insistent.
“See who ‘tis out yonder, Jeff,” bade Judge Priest. “And ef it’s anybody wantin’ to see me I ain’t got time to see ‘em without it’s somethin’ important. I aim to finish up this job before we go on home.”
He bent to his task again. But a sudden draft of air whisked certain loose sheets off his desk, carrying them toward the fireplace, and he swung about to find a woman in his doorway. She was a big, upstanding woman, overfleshed and overdressed, and upon her face she bore the sign of her profession as plainly and indubitably as though it had been branded there in scarlet letters.
The old man’s eyes narrowed as he recognised her. But up he got on the instant and bowed before her. No being created in the image of a woman ever had reason to complain that in her presence Judge Priest forgot his manners.
“Howdy do, ma’am,” he said ceremoniously. “Will you walk in? I’m sort of busy jest at present.”
“That’s what your nigger boy told me, outside,” she said; “but I came right on in any-way.
“Ah-hah, so I observe,” stated Judge Priest dryly, but none the less politely; “mout I enquire the purpose of this here call?”
“Yes, sir; I’m a-goin’ to tell you what brought me here without wastin’ any more words than I can help,” said the woman. “No, thank you,’ Judge,” she went on as he motioned her toward a seat; “I guess I can say what I’ve got to say, standin’ up. But you set down, please, Judge.”!
She advanced to the side of his desk as he settled back in his chair, and rested one broad flat hand upon the desk top. Three or four heavy, bejewelled bangles that were on her arm slipped down her gloved wrist with a clinking sound. Her voice was coarsened and flat; it was more like a man’s voice than a woman’s, and she spoke with a masculine directness.
“There was a girl died at my house early this mornin’,” she told him. “She died about a quarter past four o’clock. She had something like pneumonia. She hadn’t been sick but two days; she wasn’t very strong to start with anyhow. Viola St. Claire was the name she went by here. I don’t know what her real name was—she never told anybody what it was. She wasn’t much of a hand to talk about herself. She must have been nice people though, because she was always nice and ladylike, no matter what happened. From what I gathered off and on, she came here from some little town down near Memphis. I certainly liked that girl. She’d been with me nearly ten months. She wasn’t more than nineteen years old.
“Well, all day yestiddy she was out of her head with a high fever. But just before she died she come to and her mind cleared up. The doctor was gone—old Doctor Lake. He’d done all he could for her and he left for his home about midnight, leavin’ word that he was to be called if there was any change. Only there wasn’t time to call him; it all came so sudden.
“I was settin’ by her when she opened her eyes and whispered, sort of gaspin’, and called me by my name. Well, you could ‘a’ knocked me down with a feather. From the time she started sinkin’ nobody thought she’d ever get her senses back. She called me, and I leaned over her and asked her what it was she wanted, and she told me. She knew she was dyin’. She told me she’d been raised right, which I knew already without her tellin’ me, and she said she’d been a Christian girl before she made her big mistake. And she told me she wanted to be buried like a Christian, from a regular church, with a sermon and flowers and music and all that. She made me promise that I’d see it was done just that way. She made me put my hand in her hand and promise her. She shut her eyes then, like she was satisfied, and in a minute or two after that she died, still holdin’ on tight to my hand. There wasn’t nobody else there—just me and her—and it was about a quarter past four o’clock in the mornin’.”
“Well, ma’am, I’m very sorry for that poor child. I am so,” said Judge Priest, and his tone showed he meant it; “yit still I don’t understand your purpose in comin’ to me, without you need money to bury her.” His hand went toward his flank, where he kept his wallet.
“Keep your hand out of your pocket, please, sir,” said the woman. “I ain’t callin’ on anybody for help in a money way. That’s all been attended to. I telephoned the undertaker the first thing this mornin’.
“It’s something else I wanted to speak with you about. Well, I didn’t hardly wait to get my breakfast down before I started off to keep my word to Viola. And I’ve been on the constant go ever since. I’ve rid miles on the street cars, and I’ve walked afoot until the bottoms of my feet both feel like boils right this minute, tryin’ to find somebody that was fitten to preach a sermon over that dead girl.
“First I made the rounds of the preachers of all the big churches. Doctor Cavendar was my first choice; from what I’ve heard said about him he’s a mighty good man. But he ain’t in town. His wife told me he’d gone off to district conference, whatever that is. So then I went to all the others, one by one. I even went ‘way up on Alabama Street—to that there little mission church in the old Acme rink. The old man that runs the mission—I forget his name—he does a heap of work among poor people and down-and-out people, and I guess he might’ve said yes, only he’s right bad off himself. He’s sick in bed.”
She laughed mirthlessly.
“Oh, I went everywhere, I went to all of ‘em. There was one or two acted like they was afraid I might soil their clothes if I got too close to ‘em. They kept me standin’ in the doors of their studies so as they could talk back to me from a safe distance. Some of the others, though, asked me inside and treated me decent. But they every last one of ‘em said no.”
“Do you mean to tell me that not a single minister in this whole city is willin’ to hold a service over that dead girl?” Judge Priest shrilled at her with vehement astonishment—and something else—in his voice.
“No, no, not that,” the woman made haste to explain. “There wasn’t a single one of ‘em but said he’d come to my house and conduct the exercises. They was all willin’ enough to go to the grave too. But you see that wouldn’t do. I explained to ‘em, until I almost lost my voice, that it had to be a funeral in a regular church, with flowers and music and all. That poor girl got it into her mind somehow, I think, that she’d have a better chance in the next world if she went out of this one like a Christian should ought to go. I explained all that to ‘em, and from explainin’ I took to arguin’ with ‘em, and then to pleadin’ and beggin’. I bemeaned myself before them preachers. I was actually ready to go down on my knees before ‘em.
“Oh, I told ‘em the full circumstances. I told ‘em I just had to keep my promise. I’m afraid not to keep it. I’ve lived my own life in my own way and I guess I’ve got a lot of things to answer for. I ain’t worryin’ about that—now. But you don’t dare to break a promise that’s made to the dyin’. They come back and ha’nt you. I’ve always heard that and I know it’s true.
“One after another I told those preachers just exactly how it was, but still they all said no. Every one of ‘em said his board of deacons or elders or trustees, or something like that, wouldn’t stand for openin’ up their church for Viola. I always thought a preacher could run his church to suit himself, but from what I’ve heard to-day I know now he takes his orders from somebody else. So finally, when I was about to give up, I thought about you and I come here as straight as I could walk.”
“But, ma’am,” he said, “I’m not a regular church member myself. I reckin I oughter be, but I ain’t. And I still fail to understand why you should think I could serve you, though I don’t mind tellin’ you I’d be mighty glad to ef I could.”
“I’ll tell you why. I never spoke to you but once before in my life, but I made up my mind then what kind of a man you was. Maybe you don’t remember it, Judge, but two years ago this comin’ December that there Law and Order League fixed up to run me out of this town. They didn’t succeed, but they did have me indicted by the Grand Jury, and I come up before you and pleaded guilty—they had the evidence on me all right. You fined me, you fined me the limit, and I guess if I hadn’t ‘a’ had the money to pay the fine I’d ‘a’ gone to jail. But the main point with me was that you treated me like a lady.
“I know what I am good and well, but I don’t like to have somebody always throwin’ it up to me. I’ve got feelin’s the same as anybody else has. You made that little deputy sheriff quit shovin’ me round and you called me Mizzis Cramp to my face, right out in court. I’ve been Old Mallie Cramp to everybody in this town so long I’d mighty near forgot I ever had a handle on my name, until you reminded me of it. You was polite to me and decent to me, and you acted like you was sorry to see a white woman fetched up in court, even if you didn’t say it right out. I ain’t forgot that. I ain’t ever goin’ to forget it. And awhile ago, when I was all beat out and discouraged, I said to myself that if there was one man left in this town who could maybe help me to keep my promise to that dead girl, Judge William Pitman Priest was the man. That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, sorry fur you and sorry fur that dead child,” said Judge Priest slowly. “I wish I could help you. I wish I knew how to advise you. But I reckin those gentlemen were right in whut they said to you to-day. I reckin probably their elders would object to them openin’ up their churches, under the circumstances. And I’m mightily afraid I ain’t got any influence I could bring to bear in any quarter. Did you go to Father Minor? He’s a good friend of mine; we was soldiers together in the war—him and me. Mebbe—”
“I thought of him,” said the woman hopelessly; “but you see, Judge, Viola didn’t belong to his church. She was raised a Protestant, she told me so. I guess he couldn’t do nothin’.” in.
“Ah-hah, I see,” said the judge, and in his perplexity he bent his head and rubbed his broad expanse of pink bald brow fretfully, as though to stimulate thought within by friction without. His left hand fell into the litter of documents upon his desk. Absently his fingers shuffled them back and forth under his eyes. He straightened himself alertly.
“Was it stated—was it specified that a preacher must hold the funeral service over that dead girl?” he inquired.
The woman caught eagerly at the inflection that had come into his voice.
“No, sir,” she answered; “all she said was that it must be in a church and with some flowers and some music. But I never heard of anybody preachin’ a regular sermon without it was a regular preacher. Did you ever, Judge?” Doubt and renewed disappointment battered at her just-born hopes.
“I reckin mebbe there have been extraordinary occasions where an amateur stepped in and done the best he could,” said the judge. “Mebbe some folks here on earth couldn’t excuse sech presumption as that, but I reckin they’d understand how it was up yonder.”
He stood up, facing her, and spoke as one making a solemn promise:
“Ma’am, you needn’t worry yourself any longer. You kin go on back to your home. That dead child is goin’ to have whut she asked for. I give you my word on it.”
She strove to put a question, but he kept on: “I ain’t prepared to give you the full details yit. You see I don’t know myself jest exactly whut they’ll be. But inside of an hour from now I’ll be seein’ Jansen and he’ll notify you in regards to the hour and the place and the rest of it. Kin you rest satisfied with that?”
She nodded, trying to utter words and not succeeding. Emotion shook her gross shape until the big gold bands on her arms jangled together.
“So, ef you’ll kindly excuse me, I’ve got quite a number of things to do betwixt now and suppertime. I kind of figger I’m goin’ to be right busy.”
He stepped to the threshold and called out down the hallway, which by now was a long, dim tunnel of thickening shadows.
“Jeff, oh Jeff, where are you, boy?”
The speaker emerged from the gloom that was only a few shades darker than himself.
“Jeff,” bade his master, “I want you to show this lady the way out—it’s black as pitch in that there hall. And, Jeff, listen here! When you’ve done that I want you to go and find the sheriff fur me. Ef he’s left his office—and I s’pose he has by now—you go on out to his house, or wherever he is, and find him and tell him I want to see him here right away.”
He swung his ponderous old body about and bowed with a homely courtesy:
“And now I bid you good night, ma’am.” At the cross sill of the door she halted: “Judge—about gettin’ somebody to carry the coffin in and out—did you think about that? She was such a little thing—she won’t be very heavy—but still, at that, I don’t know anybody—any men—that would be willin’——”
“Ma’am,” said Judge Priest gravely, “ef I was you I wouldn’t worry about who the pallbearers will be. I reckin the Lord will provide. I’ve took notice that He always does ef you’ll only meet Him halfway.”
For a fact the judge was a busy man during the hour which followed upon all this, the hour between twilight and night. Over the telephone he first called up M. Jansen, our leading undertaker; indeed at that time our only one, excusing the coloured undertaker on Locust Street. He had converse at length with M. Jansen. Then he called up Doctor Lake, a most dependable person in sickness, and when you were in good health too. Then last of all he called up a certain widow who lived in those days, Mrs. Matilda Weeks by name; and this lady was what is commonly called, a character. In her case the title was just and justified. Of character she had more than almost anybody I ever knew.
Mrs. Weeks didn’t observe precedents. She made them. She cared so little for following after public opinion that public opinion usually followed alter her—when it had recovered from the shock and reorganised itself. There were two sides to her tongue: for some a sharp and acid side, and then again for some a sweet and gentle side—and mainly these last were the weak and the erring and the shiftless, those underfoot and trodden down. Moving through this life in a calm, deliberative, determined way, always along paths of her making and her choosing, obeying only the beck of her own mind, doing good where she might, with a perfect disregard for what the truly good might think about it, Mrs. Weeks was daily guilty of acts that scandalised all proper people. But the improper ones worshipped the ground her feet touched as she walked. She was much like that disciple of Joppa named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas, of whom it is written that she was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. Yes, you might safely call Mrs. Weeks a character.
With her, back and forth across the telephone wire, Judge Priest had extended speech. Then he hung up the receiver and went home alone to a late and badly burnt supper. Aunt Dilsey Turner, the titular goddess of his kitchen, was a queen cook among cooks, but she could keep victuals hot without scorching them for just so long and no longer. She took pains to say as much, standing in the dining-room door with her knuckles on her hips. But the judge didn’t pay much attention to Aunt Dilsey’s vigorous remarks. He had other things on his mind.
Down our way this present generation has seen a good many conspicuous and prominent funerals. Until very recently we rather specialised in funerals. Before moving pictures sprang up so numerously funerals provided decorous and melancholy divertisement for many whose lives, otherwise, were rather aridly devoid of sources of inexpensive excitement. Among us were persons—old Mrs. Whitridge was a typical example—who hadn’t missed a funeral of any consequence for years and years back. Let some one else provide the remains, and they would assemble in such number as to furnish a gathering, satisfying in its size and solemn in its impressiveness. They took the run of funerals as they came. But there were some funerals which, having taken place, stood forth in the public estimation forever after as events to be remembered. They were mortuary milestones on the highway of community life.
For instance, those who were of suitable age to attend it are never going to forget the burial that the town gave lazy, loud-mouthed Lute Montjoy, he being the negro fireman on the ferryboat who jumped into the river that time, aiming to save the small child of a Hungarian immigrant family bound for somewhere up in the Cumberland on the steamer Goldenrod. The baby ran across the boiler deck and went overboard, and the mother screamed, and Lute saw what had happened and he jumped. He was a good swimmer all right, and in half a dozen strokes he reached the strangling mite in the water; but then the current caught him—the June rise was on—and sucked him downstream into the narrow, swirling place between the steamboat’s hull and the outside of the upper wharf boat, and he went under and stayed under.
Next morning when the dragnets caught and brought him up, one of his stiffened black arms still encircled the body of the white child, in a grip that could hardly be loosened. White and black, everybody turned out to bury Lute Montjoy. In the services at the church two of the leading clergymen assisted, turn and turn about; and at the graveside Colonel Horatio Farrell, dean of the local bar and the champion orator of seven counties, delivered an hour-long oration, calling Lute by such names as Lute, lying there cased in mahogany with silver trimmings, had never heard applied to him while he lived. Popular subscription provided the fund that paid for the stone to mark his grave and to perpetuate the memory of his deed. You can see the shaft to this day. It rises white and high among the trees in Elm Grove Cemetery, and the word Hero is cut deep in its marble face.
Then there was the funeral of old Mr. Simon Leatheritt, mightiest among local financiers. That, indeed, was a funeral to be cherished in the cranial memory casket of any person so favoured by fortune as to have been present; a funeral that was felt to be a credit alike to deceased and to bereaved; a funeral that by its grandeur would surely have impressed the late and, in a manner of speaking, lamented Leatheritt, even though its cost would have panged him; in short, an epoch-making and an era-breeding funeral.
In the course of a long married career this was the widow’s first opportunity to cut loose and spend money without having to account for it by dollar, by dime and by cent to a higher authority, and she certainly did cut loose, sparing absolutely no pains in the effort to do her recent husband honour. At a cost calculated as running into three figures for that one item alone, she imported the prize male tenor of a St. Louis cathedral choir to enrich the proceedings with his glowing measures. This person, who was a person with eyes too large for a man and a mouth too small, rendered Abide With Me in a fashion so magnificent that the words were entirely indistinguishable and could not be followed on account of the genius’ fashion of singing them.
By express, floral offerings came from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio, and New Orleans, Louisiana. One creation, sent on from a far distance, which displayed a stuffed white dove hovering, with the aid of wires, in the arc of a green trellis above a bank of white tuberoses, attracted much favourable comment. A subdued murmur of admiration, travelling onward from pew to pew, followed after it as the design was borne up the centre aisle to the chancel rail.
As for broken columns and flower pillows with appropriately regretful remarks let into them in purple immortelle letterings, and gates ajar—why, they were evident in a profusion almost past individual recording.
When the officiating minister, reading the burial service, got as far as “Dust to dust,” Ashby Corwin, who sat at the back of the church, bent over and whispered in the ear of his nearest neighbour: “Talk about your ruling passions! If that’s not old Uncle Sime all over—still grabbing for the dust!” As a rule, repetition of this sally about town was greeted with the deep hush of silent reproof. Our dead money-monarch’s memory was draped with the sanctity of wealth. Besides, Ash Corwin, as many promptly took pains to point out, was a person of no consequence whatsoever, financial or otherwise. Mrs. Whitridge’s viewpoint, as voiced by her in the months that followed, was the commoner one. This is Mrs. Whitridge speaking:
“I’ve been going to funerals steady ever since I was a child, I presume I’ve helped comfort more berefts by my presence and seen more dear departeds fittin’ly laid away than any person in this whole city. But if you’re asking me, I must say Mr. Leatheritt’s was the most fashionable funeral I ever saw, or ever hope to see. Everything that lavishness could do was done there, and all in such lovely taste, too! Why, it had style written all over it, especially the internment.”
Oh, we’ve had funerals and funerals down our way. But the funeral that took place on an October day that I have in mind still will be talked about long after Banker Leatheritt and the estate he reluctantly left behind him are but dim recollections. It came as a surprise to most people, for in the daily papers of that morning no customary black-bordered announcement had appeared. Others had heard of it by word of mouth. In dubious quarters, and in some quarters not quite so dubious, the news had travelled, although details in advance of the event were only to be guessed at. Anyhow, the reading and talking public knew this much: That a girl, calling herself Viola St. Claire and aged nineteen, had died. It was an accepted fact, naturally, that even the likes of her must be laid away after some fashion or other. If she were put under ground by stealth, clandestinely as it were, so much the better for the atmosphere of civic morality. That I am sure would have been disclosed as the opinion of a majority, had there been inquiry among those who were presumed to have and who admitted they had the best interests of the community at heart.
So you see a great many people were entirely unprepared against the coming of the pitiably short procession that at eleven o’clock, or thereabout, turned out of the little street running down back of the freight depot into Franklin Street, which was one of our main thoroughfares. First came the hearse, drawn by M. Jansen’s pair of dappled white horses and driven by M. Jansen himself, he wearing his official high hat and the span having black plumes in their head stalls, thus betokening a burial ceremony of the top cost. Likewise the hearse was M. Jansen’s best hearse—not his third best, nor yet his second best, but the splendid crystal-walled one that he ordered in the Eastern market after the relict of Banker Leatheritt settled the bill.
The coffin, showing through the glass sides, was of white cloth and it looked very small, almost like a coffin for a child. However, it may have looked so because there was little of its shape to be seen. It was covered and piled and banked up with flowers, and these flowers, strange to say, were not done into shapes of gates aswing; nor into shafts with their tops gone; nor into flat, stiff pillows of waxy-white tuberoses, pale and cold as the faces of the dead. These were such flowers as, in our kindly climate, grew out of doors until well on into November: late roses and early chrysanthemums, marigolds and gladioluses, and such. They lay there loosely, with their stems upon them, just as Mrs. Weeks had sheared them, denuding every plant and shrub and bush that grew in her garden, so a girl whom Mrs. Weeks had never seen might go to her grave with an abundance of the blossoms she had coveted about her.
Behind the hearse came a closed coach. We used to call them coaches when they figured in funerals, carriages when used for lodge turnouts, and plain hacks when they met the trains and boats. In the coach rode four women. The world at large had a way of calling them painted women; but this day their faces were not painted nor were they garishly clad. For the time they were merely women—neither painted women nor fallen women—but just women.
And that was nearly all, but not quite. At one side of the hearse, opposite the slowly turning front wheels, trudged Judge Priest, carrying in the crook of one bent arm a book. It wouldn’t be a law book, for they commonly are large books, bound in buff leather, and this book was small and flat and black in colour. On the other side of the hearse, with head very erect and eyes fixed straight ahead and Sunday’s best coat buttoned tightly about his sparse frame, walked another old man, Doctor Lake.
And that was all. At least that was all at first. But as the procession—if you could call it that—swung into Franklin Street it passed by The Blue Jug Saloon and Short Order Restaurant. In the doorway here lounged Perry Broadus, who drank. The night before had been a hard night upon Perry Broadus, whose nights always were hard, and it promised to be a hard day. He shivered at the touch of the clear, crisp air upon his flushed cheek and slanted for support against a handy doorpost of the Blue Jug. The hearse turned the corner, and he stared at it a moment and understood. He straightened his slouched shoulders, and the fog left his eyes and the fumes of staling alcohol quit his brain. He pulled off his hat, twisted his wreck of a necktie straight with a hand that shook and, cold sober, he ran out and caught step behind Judge Priest. Referring to pallbearers, Judge Priest had said the Lord would provide. But Perry Broadus provided himself.
I forget now who the next volunteer was, but I think possibly it was Sergeant Jimmy Bagby. Without waiting to analyse the emotions that possessed him in the first instant of realisation, the sergeant went hurrying into the road to fall in, and never thereafter had cause to rue his impulse, his one regret being that he had no warning, else he would have slipped on his old, grey uniform coat that he reserved for high occasions. I know that Mr. Napoleon B. Crump, who was active in church and charities, broke away from two ladies who were discussing parish affairs with him upon the sidewalk in front of his wholesale grocery, and with never a word of apology to them slipped into line, with Doctor Lake for his file leader. A moment later, hearing footfalls at his back, Mr. Crump looked over his shoulder. Beck Giltner, a man whom Mr. Crump had twice tried to have driven out of town and whom he yet hoped to see driven out of town, was following, two paces behind him.
I know that Mr. Joe Plumm came, shirtsleeved, out of his cooper shop and sought a place with the others. I know that Major Fair-leigh, who had been standing idly at the front window of his law office, emerged therefrom in such haste he forgot to bring his hat with him. Almost immediately the Major became aware that he was sandwiched in between the fat chief of the paid fire department and worthless Tip Murphy, who hadn’t been out of the penitentiary a month. I know that old Peter J. Galloway, the lame Irish blacksmith, wore his leather apron as he limped along, bobbing up on his good leg and down on his short bent one.
I know that Mr. Herman Felsburg brought with him four of the clerks of Felsburg Brothers’ Oak Hall Clothing Emporium. One of them left a customer behind, too, or possibly the customer also came. On second thought, I believe he did. I know that some men stood along the curbstones and stared and that other men, having first bared their heads, broke away to tail in at the end of the doubled lines of marching figures. And I know that of those who did this there were more than of those who merely stood and stared. The padding of shoe soles upon the gravel of the street became a steadily increasing, steadily rising thump-thump-thump; the rhythm of it rose above the creak and the clatter of the hearse wheels and the hoofs of the horses.
Lengthened and strengthened every few feet and every few yards by the addition of new recruits, the procession kept on. It trailed past shops and stores and jobbers’ houses. It travelled by the Y. M. C. A. and by Fraternity Hall. It threaded its way between rows of residences. It must have been two hundred strong when the hearse horses came abreast of that stately new edifice, with its fine memorial windows and its tall twin spires, which the darkies called the Big Rock Church. They didn’t stop here though. Neither did they stop at the old ivy-covered’ church farther along nor at the little red-brick church in the middle of the next block.
The procession kept on. Growing and still growing, it kept on. By now you might have counted in its ranks fit representatives of every grade and class, every cult and every creed to be found in the male population of our town. Old men and young men marched; bachelors and heads of families; rich men and poor; men who made public sentiment and men who defied it; strict churchgoers and avowed sceptics; men called good and men called bad. You might have ticked off almost any kind of man in that line. Possibly the Pharisees were missing and the Scribes were served only in the person of the editor of the Daily Evening News, who appeared well up toward the front of one of the files, with a forgotten cedar lead pencil riding in the crotch of his right ear. But assuredly the Publican was there and the Sinner.
Heralded by the sound of its own thumping tread and leaving in its wake a stupefaction of astonishment, the procession kept straight on down Franklin Street, through the clear October sunshine and under the sentinel maples, which sifted down gentle showers of red and yellow leaves upon it. It kept on until it reached the very foot of the street. There it swung off at right angles into a dingy, ill-kempt little street that coursed crookedly along the water front, with poor houses rising upon one side and the raw mud banks of the river falling steeply away upon the other.
It followed this street until the head of it came opposite a little squat box-and-barn of a structure, built out of up-and-down planking; unpainted, too, with a slatted belfry, like an overgrown chicken coop, perched midway of the peak of its steeply pitched tin roof. Now this structure, as all knew who remembered the history of contemporary litigation as recorded in the local prints, was the True Believers’ Afro-American Church of Zion, sometimes termed in derision Possum Trot, being until recently the place of worship of that newest and most turbulent of local negro sects, but now closed on an injunction secured by one of the warring factions within its membership and temporarily lodged in the custody of the circuit court and in the hands of that court’s servant, the high sheriff, pending ultimate determination of the issue by his honour, the circuit judge. Technically it was still closed; legally and officially still in the firm grasp of Sheriff Giles Birdsong. Actually and physically it was at this moment open—wide open. The double doors were drawn back, the windows shone clean, and at the threshold of the swept and garnished interior stood Judge Priest’s Jeff, with his broom in his hand and his mop and bucket at his side. Jeff had concluded his share of the labours barely in time.
As M. Jansen steered his dappled span close up alongside the pavement and brought them to a standstill, Judge Priest looked back and with what he saw was well content. He knew that morbid curiosity might account for the presence of some among this multitude who had come following after him, but not for all, and perhaps not for very many. He nodded to himself with the air of one who is amply satisfied by the results of an accomplished experiment.
For the bearers of the dead he selected offhand the eight men who had marched nearest to him. As they lifted the coffin out from the hearse it befell that our most honoured physician should have for his opposite our most consistent drunk-ard, and that Mr. Crump, who walked in straight and narrow paths, should rub elbows with Beck Giltner, whom upon any day in the year, save only this day, Mr. Crump would have rejoiced to see harried with hounds beyond the corporate limits.
Up the creaking steps and in between the lolling door-halves the chosen eight bore the dead girl, and right reverently they rested their burden on board trestles at the foot of the little box-pulpit, where shafts of sunshine, filtering through one of the small side windows, stencilled a checkered pattern of golden squares upon the white velvet box with its silver handles and its silver name plate. Behind the eight came others, bringing the flowers. It must have been years, I imagine, since the soiled hands of some of these had touched such gracious things as flowers, yet it was to transpire that none among them needed the help of any defter fingers. Upon the coffin and alongside it they laid down their arm loads, so that once more the narrow white box was almost covered under bloom and leaf; and then the yellow pencillings of sunlight made greater glory there than ever.
When the crowd was in and seated—all of it that could get in and get seated—a tall, white-haired woman in a plain black frock came silently and swiftly through a door at the back and sat herself down upon a red plush stool before a golden-oak melodeon. Stool and melodeon being both the property of the fractious True Believers, neglect and poor usage had wrought most grievously with the two of them. The stool stood shakily upon its infirm legs and within the melodeon the works were skewed and jangled. But Mrs. Matilda Weeks’ finger ends fell with such sanctifying gentleness upon the warped keys, and as she sang her sweet soprano rose so clearly and yet so softly, filling this place whose walls so often had resounded to the lusty hallelujahs of shouting black converts, that to those who listened now it seemed almost as though a Saint Cecelia had descended from on high to make this music. Mrs. Weeks sang a song that she had sung many a time before—for ailing paupers at the almshouse, for prisoners at the county jail, for the motley congregations that flocked to Sunday afternoon services in the little mission at the old Acme rink. And the name of the song was Rock of Ages.
She finished singing. Judge Priest got up from a front pew where he had been sitting and went and stood alongside the flower-piled coffin, with his back to the little yellow-pine pulpit and his prayer book in his hands, a homely, ungraceful figure, facing an assemblage that packed the darky meeting house until it could hold no more. In sight there were just five women: the good woman at the melodeon and four other women, dwellers beneath a sinful roof, who sat together upon what the pastor of the True Believers would have called the mourners’ bench. And all the rest were men. Men sat, row on row, in the pews; men stood in the single narrow aisle and against the walls round three sides of the building; and men appeared at the doorway and on beyond the doorway, upon the porch and the steps.
I deem it to have been characteristic of the old judge that he made no explanation for his presence before them and no apology for his assumption of a role so unusual. He opened his black-bound volume at a place where his plump forefinger had been thrust between the leaves to mark the place for him, and in his high, thin voice he read through the service for the dead, with its promise of the divine forgiveness. When he had reached the end of it he put the book aside, and spoke to them in the fair and grammatical English that usually he reserved for his utterances from the bench in open court:
“Our sister who lies here asked with almost her last conscious breath that at her funeral a sermon should be preached. Upon me, who never before attempted such an undertaking, devolves the privilege of speaking a few words above her. I had thought to take for my text the words: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’
“But I have changed my mind. I changed it only a little while ago. For I recalled that once on a time the Master said: ‘Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.’ And I believe, in the scheme of everlasting mercy and everlasting pity, that before the eyes of our common Creator we are all of us as little children whose feet stumble in the dark. So I shall take that saying of the Saviour for my text.”
Perhaps it would be unjust to those whose business is the preaching of sermons to call this a sermon. I, for one, never heard any other sermon in any other church that did not last longer than five minutes. And certainly Judge Priest, having made his beginning, did not speak for more than five minutes; the caressing fingers of the sunlight had not perceptibly shifted upon the flower-strewn coffin top when he finished what he had to say and stood with his head bowed. After that, except for a rustle of close-packed body and a clearing of men’s huskened throats, there was silence for a little time.
Then Judge Priest’s eyes looked about him and three pews away he saw Ashby Corwin. It may have been he remembered that as a young man Ashby Corwin had been destined for holy orders until another thing—some said it was a woman and some said it was whisky, and some said it was first the woman and then the whisky—came into his life and wrecked it so that until the end of his days Ashby Corwin trod the rocky downhill road of the profligate and the waster. Or it may have been the look he read upon the face of the other that moved Judge Priest to say:
“I will ask Mr. Corwin to pray.”
At that Ashby Corwin stood up in his place and threw back his prematurely whitened head, and he lifted his face that was all scarified with the blighting flames of dissipation, and he shut his eyes that long since had wearied of looking upon a trivial world, and Ashby Corwin prayed. There are prayers that seem to circle round and round in futile rings, going nowhere; and then again there are prayers that are like sparks struck off from the wheels of the prophet’s chariot of fire, coursing their way upward in spiritual splendour to blaze on the sills of the Judgment Seat. This prayer was one of those prayers.
After that Judge Priest bowed his head again and spoke the benediction.
It turns out that I was right a while back when I predicted this chapter of this book might end with Judge Priest sitting at his desk in his room at the old courthouse. On the morning of the day following the day of this funeral he sat there, putting the last words to his decision touching upon the merits of the existing controversy in the congregation of the True Believers’ Afro-American Church of Zion. The door opened and in walked Beck Giltner, saloon keeper, sure-thing gambler, handy-man-with-a-gun, and, according to the language of a resolution unanimously adopted at a mass meeting of the Law and Order League, force-for-evil.
Beck Giltner was dressed in his best. He wore his wide-brimmed, black soft hat, with its tall crown carefully dented in, north, east, south and west; his long black coat; his white turn-down collar; his white lawn tie; and in the bosom of his plaited shirt of fine white linen his big diamond pin, that was shaped like an inverted banjo. This was Beck Giltner’s attire for the street and for occasions of ceremony. Indoors it was the same, except that sometimes he took the coat off and turned back his shirt cuffs.
“Good mornin’, Beck,” said the judge. “Well?”
“Judge Priest,” said Giltner, “as a rule I don’t come to this courthouse except when I have to come. But to-day I’ve come to tell you something. You made a mistake yesterday!”
“A mistake, suh?” The judge’s tone was sharp and quick.
“Yes, suh, that’s what you did,” returned the tall gambler. “I don’t mean in regards to that funeral you held for that dead girl. You probably don’t care what I think one way or the other, but I want to tell you I was strong for that, all the way through. But you made a mistake just the same, Judge; you didn’t take up a collection.
“It had been a good many years since I was inside of a church, until I walked with you and the others to that little nigger meetin’-house yesterday—forty-odd years I reckon; not since I was a kid, anyway. But to the best of my early recollections they always took a collection for something or other every time I did go to church. And yesterday you overlooked that part altogether.
“So last night I took it on myself to get up a collection for you. I started it with a bill or so off my own roll. Then I passed the hat round at several places where you wouldn’t scarcely care to go yourself. And I didn’t run across a single fellow that failed to contribute. Some of ‘em don’t move in the best society, and there’s some more of ‘em that you’d only know of by reputation. But every last one of ‘em put in something. There was one man that didn’t have only seven cents to his name—he put that in. So here it is—four hundred and seventy-five dollars and forty-two cents, accordin’ to my count.”
From one pocket he fetched forth a rumpled packet of paper money and from the other a small cloth sack, which gave off metallic clinking sounds. He put them down together on the desk in front of Judge Priest.
“I appreciate this, ef I am right in my assumption of the motives which actuated you and the purposes to which you natchally assumed this here money would be Applied,” said Judge Priest as the other man waited for his response. “But, son, I can’t take your money. It ain’t needed. Why, I wouldn’t know whut to do with it. There ain’t no out-standin’ bills connected with that there funeral.
“All the expense entailed was met—privately. So you see—”
“Wait just a minute before you say no!” interrupted Giltner. “Here’s my idea and it’s the idea of all the others that contributed: We-all want you to take this money and keep it—keep it in a safe, or in your pocket, or in the bank to your credit, or anywheres you please, but just keep it. And if any girl that’s gone wrong should die and not have any friends to help bury her, they can come to you and get the cash out of this fund to pay for puttin’ her away. And if any other girl should want to go back to her people and start in all over again and try to lead a better life, why you can advance her the railroad fare out of that money too. You see, Judge, we are aimin’ to make a kind of a trust fund out of it, with you as the trustee. And when the four seventy-five forty-two is all used up, if you’ll just let me know I’ll guarantee to rustle up a fresh bank roll so you’ll always have enough on hand to meet the demands. Now then, Judge, will you take it?”
Judge Priest took it. He stretched out and scooped in currency and coin sack, using therefor his left hand only. The right was engaged in reaching for Beck Giltner’s right hand, the purpose being to shake it.
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