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“O Beau,” said Colonel Jeems Bee, “you've cotched it now! Reybold's even with you. Little Crutch has cooked your goose! Crutch is right eloquent when his wind will permit.”
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 child's nature. Mr. Reybold was impressed with something in the attitude of the two, which made him forget his own interest in the controversy.
Beau answered with a tone of nearly tender pacification :
“Now, my little man; come, don't be hard on the old veteran! He's down, old Beau is, sence the time he owned his blooded pacer and dined with the Corps Diplomatique; Beau's down sence then ; but don't call the old feller hard names. We take it back, don't we?-we take them words back ?"
“There's 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 p’int out of our jurisdiction. Abe, give Beau a julep. He seems to have been demoralized by little Crutch's last.”
“ Take them hard words back, Bub," whined the licensed mendicant, with either real or affected pain; “it's a p’int of honor I'm a standin' on. Do, now, little Major !”
“I shan't !” cried the boy. “Go and work like me. You're big, and you called Mr. Reybold mean. Haven't you got a wife or little girl, or nobody to work for? You ought to work for yourself, anyhow. Oughtn’t 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 worthy's 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 vagrant's eyes. Reybold felt a sense of pity. He put his hand in his pocket and drew forth a dollar.
“Here, Beau," he said, “I'll make an exception. You seem to have some feeling. Don't mind the boy!'
In an instant the coin was flying from his hand through the air. The beggar, with a livid face and clinched cane, confronted the Congressman like a maniac.
“You bilk !” he cried. “You supper customer! I'll brain you! I had rather parted with my shoes at a dolly shop and gone gadding the hoof, without a doss to sleep on-a town pauper, done on the vag—than to have been made scurvy in the sight of that child and deserve his words of shame!”
He threw his head upon the table and burst into tears.
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.
“Dog my skin!” said Jeems Bee, “ if I ever made a 'pintment that give me sech satisfaction! I feel as if I had sot a nigger free!”
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, he's not got long to stay. His crutches is growing too heavy for that expandin’sperit. Some day we'll 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 Speaker's 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 Clerk's 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.
“Ah! little Major," he said, “poor Beau has been waiting for you to take those bad words back. Old Beau thought it was all bob with his little cove."
“Beau,” said the boy, “I've 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.”
The outcast raised his gold-headed cane and hobbled up and down the room with a laced handkerchief at his eyes.
“Great God !” he exclaimed, “another generation is going out, and here I stay without a stake, playing a lone hand forever and forever.”
“Beau,” said Reybold, “there's hope while one can feel. Don't go away until you have a good word from our little passenger.”
The outstretched hand of the Northern Congressman was not refused by the vagrant, whose eccentric sorrow yet amused the Southern committeemen.
“ Ole Beau's jib-boom of a mustache 'll put his eye out,” said Pontotoc Bibb, “ef he fetches another groan like that.”
“Beau's very shaky around the hams an’ knees,” said Box Izard ; “he's been a good figger, but even figgers can lie ef they stand up too long."
The little boy unclosed his eyes and looked around on all those kindly, watching faces.
“ 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 ?”
They all felt the tread of the mighty hunter before the Lord very near at hand; the hunter whose name is Death.
“ 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! Don't whistle for me now; for I don't get much play, gentlemen! Will the Speaker turn me out if I play with the beach-birds just once? I'm only a little boy working for my mother.”
“Dear Uriel," whispered Reybold, “ here's Old Beau, to whom you once spoke angrily. Don't you see him ?”
The little boy's eyes came back from far-land somewhere, and he saw the ruined gamester at his feet.
“Dear Beau,” he said, “I can't get off to go home with you. They won't excuse me, and I give all my money to mother. But you go to the back gate. Ask for Joyce. She'll give you a nice warm meal every day. Go with him, Mr. Reybold ! If you ask for him it will be all right; for Joyce—dear 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 bird—a 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.
A LITTLE face there was,
They said it was a son.
A son to me-low strangel
Who never was a man,
A boy, as I began.
The doubled sea, and the troubled heaven,