Story type: Literature
On a sweltering July day a long and ungainly shadow, stretching thirty feet upon the ground, crept noiselessly up an avenue leading to a fashionable hotel at a great summer resort. The sun was setting, and its slanting rays caused the shadow to assume the appearance of an anamorphosis of ludicrous proportions. It was a timid shadow–perhaps a shadow of strange and unnerving experiences.
The original of it was worthy of study. He was a short, stout, stoop-shouldered man; his hair was ragged and dusty, his beard straggling and scant. His visible clothing consisted of a slouch hat, torn around the rim and covered with dust; a woollen shirt; a pair of very badly soiled cotton trousers; suspenders made of rawhide strips, fastened to his trousers with wooden pins, and the strangest of old boots, which turned high up at the toes like canoes (being much too long for his feet), and which had a rakish aspect.
The man’s face was a protest against hilarity. Apparently he had all the appurtenances of natural manhood, yet his whole expression would have at once aroused sympathy, for it was a mixture of childishness, confidence, timidity, humility, and honesty. His look was vague and uncertain, and seemed to be searching hopelessly for a friend–for the guidance of natures that were stronger and minds that were clearer. He could not have been older than thirty-five years, and yet his hair and beard were gray, and his face was lined with wrinkles. Occasionally he would make a movement as if to ward off a sudden and vicious blow.
He carried a knotty stick, and his ample trousers-pockets were filled to such an extent that they made him appear very wide in the hips and very narrow in the shoulders. Their contents were a mystery. The pockets at least produced the good effect of toning down the marvellous ellipticity of his legs, and in doing this they performed a valuable service.
“Hullo! who are you?” gruffly demanded a porter employed in the hotel, as the disreputable-looking man was picking his way with great nicety up the broad interior stairs, afraid that his dusty boots would deface the polished brasses under foot.
“Baker,” promptly replied the man, in a small, timid voice, coming to a halt and humbly touching his hat.
“Baker? Well, what’s your other name?”
The stranger was evidently puzzled by the question. He looked vacantly around the ceiling until his gaze rested upon a glass chandelier above him; but, finding no assistance there, his glance wandered to an oriel, in which there was a caged mocking-bird.
“Jess Baker–that’s all,” he answered at last, in his thin voice and slow, earnest manner.
“What! don’t know your other name?”
“No, I reckin not,” said Baker, after a thoughtful pause. “I reckin it’s jess Baker–that’s all.”
“Didn’t they ever call you anything else?”
Again Baker looked helplessly around until he found the chandelier, and then his eyes sought the oriel. Then he started as if he had received a blow, and immediately reached down and felt his ankles.
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
“What was it?”
“Hunder’d’n One,” he quietly said, looking at his questioner with a shade of fear and suspicion in his face.
The porter believed that a lunatic stood before him. He asked:
“Where are you from?”
“What part of Georgia?”
Again was Baker at sea, and again did his glance seek the chandelier and the oriel.
“Me?” he asked.
“Yes, you. What part of Georgia are you from?”
“Jess Georgy,” he finally said.
“What do you want here?”
“Well, I’ll tell you. I want you to hire me,” he replied, with a faint look of expectancy.
“What can you do?”
“Oh, well, I’ll tell you. Most everything.”
“What salary do you want?”
“Of course you.”
“Oh, well, about five dollars a day, I reckin.”
The porter laughed coarsely. “You needn’t talk to me about it,” he said; “I’m not the proprietor.”
“The which?” asked Baker.
“Oh, ain’t you?” and then he looked very much puzzled indeed.
The porter had had sufficient amusement, and so he demanded, in a brusque and menacing tone, “Now, say–you get away from here quick! We don’t want no crazy tramps around here. You understand?”
Baker did not stir, but stood looking helplessly at the porter, surprised and grieved.
“Get out, I say, or I’ll set the dogs on you!”
A look of deep mortification settled on Baker’s face, but he was not frightened; he did not move a muscle, except to glance quickly around for the dogs.
“Ain’t you going, you crazy old tramp? If you don’t I’ll lock you up and send for the sheriff;” and the porter rattled some keys in his pocket.
Instantly a great horror overspread the countenance of Baker from Georgia. He looked wildly about and seemed ready to run, and labored with an imaginary weight that clung to his ankles. He took a single step in his agitation, and suddenly realized that no such encumbrance detained him. He shook off the delusion and sprang to the bottom of the stairs. His whole appearance had changed. Humility had given way to uncontrollable fear, and he had become a fleeing wild beast that was hunted for its life. He sprang through the outer door and reached the ground in another bound, and gathered his strength for immediate flight from terrors without a name.
“Stop, there!” called a stern, full voice.
Baker obeyed instantly; obeyed as might a man long accustomed to the most servile obedience; as might a dog that has been beaten until his spirit is broken. He bared his head, and stood in the warm glow of the fading light, meek and submissive. All signs of fear had disappeared from his face; but he was no longer the Baker from Georgia who, a few minutes ago, had trudged along the gravelled walk after the ungainly shadow. He had sought a thing and had not found it–had bitten a rosy apple and was choked with dust. Even the rakish boots looked submissive, and showed their brass teeth in solemn acquiescence to an inevitability; and somehow they looked not nearly so rakish as formerly.
The voice that had checked Baker had not a kindly tone; it was that of a suspicious man, who believed that he had detected a thief in the act of making off with dishonest booty stored in ample pockets. Yet his face had a generous look, though anger made his eyes harsh. The two men surveyed each other, anger disappearing from the face of one to give place to pity, the other regarding him with mild docility.
“Come along with me,” said the gentleman to Baker.
Evidently Baker had heard those words before, for he followed quietly and tamely, with his dusty old hat in his left hand and his head bowed upon his breast. He walked so slowly that the gentleman turned to observe him, and found him moving laboriously, with his feet wide apart and his right hand grasping an invisible something that weighted down his ankles. They were now passing the end of the hotel on their way to the rear, when they came near a hitching-post, to which rings were affixed with staples. Baker had been looking around for something, and, as the gentleman (who was Mr. Clayton, the proprietor of the hotel) stopped near the post, Baker walked straight up to it, without having looked to the left or the right. Upon reaching it he dropped the invisible something that he carried in his right hand, laid his hat on the ground, slipped the rawhide suspenders from his shoulders, unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it over his head, and laid it on the grass alongside his hat. He then humbly embraced the post and crossed his hands over a ring to which a chain was attached. He laid his cheek against his bare right arm and waited patiently, without having uttered a protest or made an appeal. The old boots looked up wistfully into his sorrowing face.
His naked back glistened white. It was a map on which were traced a record of the bloody cruelties of many years; it was a fine piece of mosaic–human flesh inlaid with the venom of the lash. There were scars, and seams, and ridges, and cuts that crossed and recrossed each other in all possible directions. Thus stood Baker for some time, until Mr. Clayton kindly called to him:
“Put on your shirt.”
He proceeded to obey silently, but was confused and embarrassed at this unexpected turn of events. He hesitated at first, however, for he evidently did not understand how he could put on his shirt until his hands had been released.
“Your hands are not chained,” explained Mr. Clayton.
The revelation was so unexpected that it almost startled the man from Georgia. He pulled out one hand slowly, that a sudden jerk might not lacerate his wrist. Then he pulled out the other, resumed his shirt and hat, picked up the imaginary weight, and shuffled along slowly after his leader.
“What is your name?” asked the gentleman.
They were soon traversing the corridor in the servants’ quarter of the hotel, when Baker halted and ventured to say:
“I reckin you’r in the wrong curryder.” He was examining the ceiling, the floor, and the numbers on the doors.
“No, this is right,” said the gentleman.
Again Baker hobbled along, never releasing his hold on the invisible weight. They halted at No. 13. Said Baker, with a shade of pity in his voice,–
“‘Taint right. Wrong curryder. Cell hunder’d’n one’s mine.”
“Yes, yes; but we’ll put you in this one for the present,” replied the gentleman, as he opened the door and ushered Baker within. The room was comfortably furnished, and this perplexed Baker more and more.
“Hain’t you got it wrong?” he persisted. “Lifer, you know. Hunder’d’n One–lifer–plays off crazy–forty lashes every Monday. Don’t you know?”
“Yes, yes, I know; but we’ll not talk about that now.”
They brought a good supper to his room, and he ate ravenously. They persuaded him to wash in a basin in the room, though he begged hard to be permitted to go to the pump. Later that night the gentleman went to his room and asked him if he wanted anything.
“Well, I’ll tell you. You forgot to take it off,” Baker replied, pointing to his ankles.
The gentleman was perplexed for a moment, and then he stooped and unlocked and removed an imaginary ball and chain. Baker seemed relieved. Said the gentleman, as Baker was preparing for bed:
“This is not a penitentiary. It is my house, and I do not whip anybody. I will give you all you want to eat, and good clothes, and you may go wherever you please. Do you understand?”
Baker looked at him with vacant eyes and made no reply. He undressed, lay down, sighed wearily, and fell asleep.
A stifling Southern September sun beat down upon the mountains and valleys. The thrush and the mocking-bird had been driven to cool places, and their songs were not heard in the trees. The hotel was crowded with refugees from Memphis. A terrible scourge was sweeping through Tennessee, and its black shadow was creeping down to the Gulf of Mexico; and as it crept it mowed down young and old in its path.
“Well, Baker, how are you getting along?” It was the round, cheerful voice of Mr. Clayton.
The man from Georgia was stooping over a pail, scouring it with sand and a cloth. Upon hearing the greeting he hung the cloth over the pail and came slowly to the perpendicular, putting his hands, during the operation, upon the small of his back, as if the hinges in that region were old and rusty and needed care.
“Oh, well, now, I’ll tell you. Nothin’ pertickler to complain on, excep’—-“
“I don’t believe it’s quite exactly right.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, now, you see–there ain’t nobody a-listenin’, is there?”
“I think they ought to give me one more piece, any way.”
“Piece of what?”
“Mebbe two more pieces.”
“Pie. It was pie I was a-talkin’ about all the time.”
“Don’t they give you sufficient?”
“No, sir; not nigh enough. An’–an’–come here closter. I’m a-gittin’ weak–I’m a-starvin’!” he whispered.
“You shall not starve. What do you want?”
“Well, now, I was jess a-thinkin’ that one or two more pieces fur dinner every day–every day—-“
“Yes, sir; pie. I was a-talkin’ about pie.”
“You shall certainly have it; but don’t they give you any?”
“Oh, well, they do give me some.”
“Yes, sir; every day.”
“How much do they give you?”
“Well, I’ll tell you. About two pieces, I believe.”
“Aren’t you afraid that much more than that would make you sick?”
“Oh, well, now, I’m a-goin’ to tell you about that, too, ’cause you don’t know about it. You see, I’m mostly used to gittin’ sick, an’ I ain’t mostly used to eatin’ of pie.” He spoke then, as he always spoke, with the most impressive earnestness.
Baker had undergone a great change within the two months that had passed over him at the hotel. Kindness had driven away the vacant look in his eyes and his mind was stronger. He had found that for which his meagre soul had yearned–a sympathizing heart and a friend. He was fat, sleek, and strong. His old boots–the same as of yore, for he would not abandon them–looked less foolish and seemed almost cheerful. Were they not always in an atmosphere of gentleness and refinement, and did they not daily tread the very ground pressed by the bravest and richest boots in the land? It is true that they were often covered with slops and chickens’ feathers, but this served only to bring out in bolder relief the elevating influences of a healthy morality and a generous prosperity that environed them. There are many boots that would have been spoiled by so sudden an elevation into a higher sphere of life; but the good traits of Baker’s boots were strengthened not only by a rooting up of certain weaknesses, but also by the gaining of many good qualities which proved beneficial; and to the full extent of their limited capability did they appreciate the advantages which their surroundings afforded, and looked up with humble gratitude whenever they would meet a friend.
There were six hundred guests at the hotel, and they all knew Baker and had a kind word to give him. But they could never learn anything about him other than that his name was Baker–“jess Baker, that’s all”–and that he came from Georgia–“jess Georgy.” Occasionally a stranger would ask him with urgent particularity concerning his past history, but he then would merely look helpless and puzzled and would say nothing. As to his name, it was “jess Baker;” but on rare occasions, when pressed with hard cruelty, his lips could be seen to form the words, “Hunder’d’n One,” as though wondering how they would sound if he should utter them, and then the old blank, suffering look would come into his face. It had become quite seldom that he dodged an imaginary blow, and the memory of the ball and chain was buried with other bitter recollections of the past. He had free access to every part of the house, and was discreet, diligent, faithful, and honest. Sometimes the porters would impose upon his unfailing willingness and great strength by making him carry the heaviest trunks up three or four flights of stairs.
One day the shadow of death that was stealing southward passed over the house containing so much life, and happiness, and wealth, and beauty. The train passed as usual, and among the passengers who alighted was a man who walked to the counter in a weary, uncertain manner. One or two persons were present who knew him, and upon grasping his hand they found that it was cold. This was strange, for the day was very hot. In his eyes was a look of restlessness and anxiety, but he said that he had only a pain across the forehead, and that after needed rest it would pass away. He was conducted to a room, and there he fell across the bed, quite worn out, he said. He complained of slight cramps in the legs and thought that they had been caused by climbing the stairs. After a half-hour had passed he rang his bell violently and sent for the resident physician. That gentleman went to see him, and after remaining a few minutes went to the office, looking anxious and pale. He was a tall, quiet man, with white hair. He asked for Mr. Clayton, but when he was informed that that gentleman was temporarily absent he asked for Baker.
“Is your patient very ill, doctor?” inquired the cashier, privately and with a certain dread.
“I want Baker,” said the doctor, somewhat shortly.
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Send me Baker instantly.”
The physician had a secret of life and death. To treat it wisely he required confidants of courage, sagacity, patience, tact, and prompt action. There were only two to whom he should impart it,–one was the proprietor and the other the man from Georgia.
When Baker had come the physician led him up-stairs to the floor which held the patient’s room, brought him to the window at the end of the corridor and turned him so that the light fell full upon his face.
“Baker, can you keep a secret?”
“Yes; can you keep a secret?”
“Well, let me tell you about it; I don’t know; mebbe I can.”
“Have you ever seen people die?”
“Oh, yes, sir!”
“A great many in the same house?”
“Yes, sir; yes, sir.”
“Baker,” said the physician, placing his hand gently on the broad shoulder before him, and looking the man earnestly in the eyes, and speaking very impressively–“Baker, are you afraid to die?”
There was no expression whatever upon his patient, gentle face. He gazed past the physician through the window and made no reply.
“Are you afraid of death, Baker?”
There was no sign that he would answer the question or even that he comprehended it. He shifted his gaze to his upturned boot-toes and communed with them, but still kept silence.
“There is a man here, Baker, who is very ill, and I think that he will die. I want some one to help me take care of him. If you go into his room, perhaps you, too, will die. Are you afraid to go?”
“Was you a-talkin’ ’bout wantin’ me to wait on him?”
A brighter look came into Baker’s face and he said:
“Oh, now, I’ll tell you; I’ll go.”
They entered the stranger’s room and found him suffering terribly. The physician already had put him under vigorous treatment, but he was rapidly growing worse. Baker regarded him attentively a moment, and then felt his pulse and put his hand on the sufferer’s forehead. A look of intelligence came into his sad, earnest face, but there was not a trace of pallor or fear. He beckoned the physician to follow him out to the passage, and the two went aside, closing the door.
“He’s a-goin’ to die,” said Baker, simply and quietly.
“Yes; but how do you know?”
“Well, I’ll tell you about that; I know.”
“Have you seen it before?”
“Are you afraid of it?”
“Oh, well, they all ought to know it,” he said, with a sweep of his hand towards the corridors.
“Hurry and find Mr. Clayton first and bring him to me.”
Baker met Mr. Clayton at the main entrance below and beckoned him to follow. He led the way into a dark room stored with boxes and then into the farther corner of it. There he stood Mr. Clayton with his back against the wall and looked straight into his face. His manner was so mysterious, and there was so strange an expression in his face,–a kind of empty exaltation it seemed,–and his familiarity in touching Mr. Clayton’s person was so extraordinary, that that gentleman was alarmed for Baker’s sanity. Then Baker leaned forward and whispered one terrible word,–
” Cholery! “
Cholera! Great God! No wonder that Mr. Clayton turned deathly pale and leaned heavily against the wall.
At midnight the stranger died, and none in the house had heard of the frightful danger which had come to assail them. The physician and Baker had been with him constantly, but their efforts had availed nothing; and after preparing him for the grave they went out and locked the door. Mr. Clayton was waiting for them. The anxious look in the faces of the two gentlemen was intensified; Baker’s evinced nothing but calm consciousness of responsibility. The guests were slumbering.
“We must alarm the house,” whispered Mr. Clayton.
The doctor shook his head sadly. “If we do,” he said, “there will be a panic; and, besides, the night air of these mountains is very cool, and if they go from their warm beds into it, likely without taking time to dress, the danger will be great.”
They both seemed helpless and undecided, and in need of some one to choose between two evils for them. They turned to Baker in silence and for his decision. He seemed to have expected it, for without a word, without submitting it for their concurrence, he went to the end of that passage and rapped upon a door. There was an answer, Baker mentioned his name, the door was opened, and the dreadful news was quietly imparted. The guest was terror-stricken, but a word from Baker gave him heart, and he hastily but quietly began preparations to leave the house. Thus went Baker from one door to another, imposing silence and care and careful dressing, and advising the people to take with them such bedding as they could. Mr. Clayton and the physician, observing the remarkable success of Baker’s method, adopted it, and soon the three men had the great house swarming. It was done swiftly, quietly, and without panic, and the house became empty.
But selfishness appeared without shame or covering. Every one in the house wanted Baker’s assistance, for all the porters had fled, and there was none other than he to work. So he staggered and toiled under the weight of enormous trunks; listened to a hundred orders at once; bore frightened children and fainting women in his strong, sure arms; labored until his face was haggard and his knees trembled from exhaustion. He did the work of fifty men–a hundred men.
The seeds of the plague had been sown. Towards morning the physician retired to his room, stricken down. Baker administered to his needs, and discovered a surprising knowledge of the malady and its treatment. A few of those who had scattered about in the surrounding hills were taken down and brought to the house moaning with fear and pain. Baker treated them all. Mr. Clayton and a few other stout hearts provided him with whatever he ordered, and assisted in watching and in administering the simple remedies under his direction. These were such as the resources of the hotel permitted,–warm blankets, hot brandy, with water and sugar, or pepper and salt in hot water, heated bricks at the feet, and rubbing the body with spirits of camphor. Many recovered, others grew worse; the physician was saved.
At sunrise, while Baker was working vigorously on a patient, he suddenly straightened himself, looked around somewhat anxiously, and reeled backward to the wall. The strong man had collapsed at last. Leaning against the partition, and spreading out his arms against it to keep from falling, he worked his way a few feet to the door, and when he turned to go out his hand slipped on the door-facing and he fell heavily upon his face in the passage. He lay still for a moment, and then crawled slowly to the end of the passage and lay down. He had not said a word nor uttered a groan. It was there, silent, alone, and uncomplaining, that Mr. Clayton found this last victim of the plague waiting patiently for death. Others were hastily summoned. They put him upon a bed, and were going to undress him and treat him, but he firmly stopped them with uplifted hand, and his sunken eyes and anxious face implored more eloquently than his words, when he said:
“No, no! Now, let me tell you: Go an’ take care of ’em.”
Mr. Clayton sent them away, he alone remaining.
“Here, Baker; take this,” he gently urged.
But the man from Georgia knew better. “No, no,” he said; “it won’t do no good.” His speech was faint and labored. “I’ll tell you: I’m struck too hard. It won’t do no good. I’m so tired…. I’ll go quick … ’cause I’m … so tired.”
His extreme exhaustion made him an easy prey. Death sat upon his face, and was reflected from his hollow, suffering, mournful eyes. In an hour they were dimmer; then he became cold and purple. In another hour his pulse was not perceptible. After two more hours his agony had passed.
“Baker, do you want anything?” asked Mr. Clayton, trying to rouse him.
“Me?” very faintly came the response.
“Yes. Do you want anything?”
“Oh, … I’ll tell you: The governor … he found out my brother … done it … an’ … an’ he’s goin’ to … pardon me…. Fifteen years, an’ played off … played off crazy…. Forty lashes every Monday … mornin’…. Cell hunder’d’n one’s mine…. Well, I’ll tell you: Governor’s goin’ to … pardon me out.”
He ceased his struggling to speak. A half-hour passed in silence, and then he roused himself feebly and whispered:
“He’ll … pardon … me.”
The old boots stared blankly and coldly at the ceiling; their patient expression no longer bore a trace of life or suffering, and their calm repose was undisturbed by the song of the mocking-bird in the oriel.