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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDr. Sevier - Chapter 17. Raphael Ristofalo
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Dr. Sevier - Chapter 17. Raphael Ristofalo Post by :Benjamin_Scott Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :2837

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Dr. Sevier - Chapter 17. Raphael Ristofalo

CHAPTER XVII. RAPHAEL RISTOFALO

Richling had a dollar in his pocket. A man touched him on the shoulder.

But let us see. On the day that John and Mary had sold their only bedstead, Mrs. Riley, watching them, had proposed the joint home. The offer had been accepted with an eagerness that showed itself in nervous laughter. Mrs. Riley then took quarters in Prieur street, where John and Mary, for a due consideration, were given a single neatly furnished back room. The bedstead had brought seven dollars. Richling, on the day after the removal, was in the commercial quarter, looking, as usual, for employment.

The young man whom Dr. Sevier had first seen, in the previous October, moving with a springing step and alert, inquiring glances from number to number in Carondelet street was slightly changed. His step was firm, but something less elastic, and not quite so hurried. His face was more thoughtful, and his glance wanting in a certain dancing freshness that had been extremely pleasant. He was walking in Poydras street toward the river.

As he came near to a certain man who sat in the entrance of a store with the freshly whittled corner of a chair between his knees, his look and bow were grave, but amiable, quietly hearty, deferential, and also self-respectful--and uncommercial: so palpably uncommercial that the sitter did not rise or even shut his knife.

He slightly stared. Richling, in a low, private tone, was asking him for employment.

"What?" turning his ear up and frowning downward.

The application was repeated, the first words with a slightly resentful ring, but the rest more quietly.

The store-keeper stared again, and shook his head slowly.

"No, sir," he said, in a barely audible tone. Richling moved on, not stopping at the next place, or the next, or the next; for he felt the man's stare all over his back until he turned the corner and found himself in Tchoupitoulas street. Nor did he stop at the first place around the corner. It smelt of deteriorating potatoes and up-river cabbages, and there were open barrels of onions set ornamentally aslant at the entrance. He had a fatal conviction that his services would not be wanted in malodorous places.

"Now, isn't that a shame?" asked the chair-whittler, as Richling passed out of sight. "Such a gentleman as that, to be beggin' for work from door to door!"

"He's not beggin' f'om do' to do'," said a second, with a Creole accent on his tongue, and a match stuck behind his ear like a pen. "Beside, he's too _much of a gennlemun."

"That's where you and him differs," said the first. He frowned upon the victim of his delicate repartee with make-believe defiance. Number Two drew from an outside coat-pocket a wad of common brown wrapping-paper, tore from it a small, neat parallelogram, dove into an opposite pocket for some loose smoking-tobacco, laid a pinch of it in the paper, and, with a single dexterous turn of the fingers, thumbs above, the rest beneath,--it looks simple, but 'tis an amazing art,--made a cigarette. Then he took down his match, struck it under his short coat-skirt, lighted his cigarette, drew an inhalation through it that consumed a third of its length, and sat there, with his eyes half-closed, and all that smoke somewhere inside of him.

"That young man," remarked a third, wiping a toothpick on his thigh and putting it in his vest-pocket, as he stepped to the front, "don't know how to _look fur work. There's one way fur a day-laborer to look fur work, and there's another way fur a gentleman to look fur work, and there's another way fur a--a--a man with money to look fur somethin' to put his money into. _It's just like fishing!_" He threw both hands outward and downward, and made way for a porter's truck with a load of green meat. The smoke began to fall from Number Two's nostrils in two slender blue streams. Number Three continued:--

"You've got to know what kind o' hooks you want, and what kind o' bait you want, and then, after _that_, you've"--

Numbers One and Two did not let him finish.

"--Got to know how to fish," they said; "that's so!" The smoke continued to leak slowly from Number Two's nostrils and teeth, though he had not lifted his cigarette the second time.

"Yes, you've got to know how to fish," reaffirmed the third. "If you don't know how to fish, it's as like as not that nobody can tell you what's the matter; an' yet, all the same, you aint goin' to ketch no fish."

"Well, now," said the first man, with an unconvinced swing of his chin, "_spunk 'll sometimes pull a man through; and you can't say he aint spunky." Number Three admitted the corollary. Number Two looked up: his chance had come.

"He'd a w'ipped you faw a dime," said he to Number One, took a comforting draw from his cigarette, and felt a great peace.

"I take notice he's a little deaf," said Number Three, still alluding to Richling.

"That'd spoil him for me," said Number One.

Number Three asked why.

"Oh, I just wouldn't have him about me. Didn't you ever notice that a deaf man always seems like a sort o' stranger? I can't bear 'em."

Richling meanwhile moved on. His critics were right. He was not wanting in courage; but no man from the moon could have been more an alien on those sidewalks. He was naturally diligent, active, quick-witted, and of good, though maybe a little too scholarly address; quick of temper, it is true, and uniting his quickness of temper with a certain bashfulness,--an unlucky combination, since, as a consequence, nobody had to get out of its way; but he was generous in fact and in speech, and never held malice a moment. But, besides the heavy odds which his small secret seemed to be against him, stopping him from accepting such valuable friendships as might otherwise have come to him, and besides his slight deafness, he was by nature a recluse, or, at least, a dreamer. Every day that he set foot on Tchoupitoulas, or Carondelet, or Magazine, or Fulton, or Poydras street he came from a realm of thought, seeking service in an empire of matter.

There is a street in New Orleans called Triton _Walk_. That is what all the ways of commerce and finance and daily bread-getting were to Richling. He was a merman--ashore. It was the feeling rather than the knowledge of this that prompted him to this daily, aimless trudging after mere employment. He had a proper pride; once in a while a little too much; nor did he clearly see his deficiencies; and yet the unrecognized consciousness that he had not the commercial instinct made him willing--as Number Three would have said--to "cut bait" for any fisherman who would let him do it.

He turned without any distinct motive and, retracing his steps to the corner, passed up across Poydras street. A little way above it he paused to look at some machinery in motion. He liked machinery,--for itself rather than for its results. He would have gone in and examined the workings of this apparatus had it not been for the sign above his head, "No Admittance." Those words always seemed painted for him. A slight modification in Richling's character might have made him an inventor. Some other faint difference, and he might have been a writer, a historian, an essayist, or even--there is no telling--a well-fed poet. With the question of food, raiment, and shelter permanently settled, he might have become one of those resplendent flash lights that at intervals dart their beams across the dark waters of the world's ignorance, hardly from new continents, but from the observatory, the study, the laboratory. But he was none of these. There had been a crime committed somewhere in his bringing up, and as a result he stood in the thick of life's battle, weaponless. He gazed upon machinery with childlike wonder; but when he looked around and saw on every hand men,--good fellows who ate in their shirt-sleeves at restaurants, told broad jokes, spread their mouths and smote their sides when they laughed, and whose best wit was to bombard one another with bread-crusts and hide behind the sugar-bowl; men whom he could have taught in every kind of knowledge that they were capable of grasping, except the knowledge of how to get money,--when he saw these men, as it seemed to him, grow rich daily by simply flipping beans into each other's faces, or slapping each other on the back, the wonder of machinery was eclipsed. Do as they did? He? He could no more reach a conviction as to what the price of corn would be to-morrow than he could remember what the price of sugar was yesterday.

He called himself an accountant, gulping down his secret pride with an amiable glow that commanded, instantly, an amused esteem. And, to judge by his evident familiarity with Tonti's beautiful scheme of mercantile records, he certainly--those guessed whose books he had extricated from confusion--had handled money and money values in days before his unexplained coming to New Orleans. Yet a close observer would have noticed that he grasped these tasks only as problems, treated them in their mathematical and enigmatical aspect, and solved them without any appreciation of their concrete values. When they were done he felt less personal interest in them than in the architectural beauty of the store-front, whose window-shutters he had never helped to close without a little heart-leap of pleasure.

But, standing thus, and looking in at the machinery, a man touched him on the shoulder.

"Good-morning," said the man. He wore a pleasant air. It seemed to say, "I'm nothing much, but you'll recognize me in a moment; I'll wait." He was short, square, solid, beardless; in years, twenty-five or six. His skin was dark, his hair almost black, his eyebrows strong. In his mild black eyes you could see the whole Mediterranean. His dress was coarse, but clean; his linen soft and badly laundered. But under all the rough garb and careless, laughing manner was visibly written again and again the name of the race that once held the world under its feet.

"You don't remember me?" he added, after a moment.

"No," said Richling, pleasantly, but with embarrassment. The man waited another moment, and suddenly Richling recalled their earlier meeting. The man, representing a wholesale confectioner in one of the smaller cities up the river, had bought some cordials and syrups of the house whose books Richling had last put in order.

"Why, yes I do, too!" said Richling. "You left your pocket-book in my care for two or three days; your own private money, you said."

"Yes." The man laughed softly. "Lost that money. Sent it to the boss. Boss died--store seized--everything gone." His English was well pronounced, but did not escape a pretty Italian accent, too delicate for the printer's art.

"Oh! that was too bad!" Richling laid his hand upon an awning-post and twined an arm and leg around it as though he were a vine. "I--I forget your name."

"Ristofalo. Raphael Ristofalo. Yours is Richling. Yes, knocked me flat. Not got cent in world." The Italian's low, mellow laugh claimed Richling's admiration.

"Why, when did that happen?" he asked.

"Yes'day," replied the other, still laughing.

"And how are you going to provide for the future?" Richling asked, smiling down into the face of the shorter man. The Italian tossed the future away with the back of his hand.

"I got nothin' do with that." His words were low, but very distinct.

Thereupon Richling laughed, leaning his cheek against the post.

"Must provide for the present," said Raphael Ristofalo. Richling dropped his eyes in thought. The present! He had never been able to see that it was the present which must be provided against, until, while he was training his guns upon the future, the most primitive wants of the present burst upon him right and left like whooping savages.

"Can you lend me dollar?" asked the Italian. "Give you back dollar an' quarter to-morrow."

Richling gave a start and let go the post. "Why, Mr. Risto--falo, I--I--, the fact is, I"--he shook his head--"I haven't much money."

"Dollar will start me," said the Italian, whose feet had not moved an inch since he touched Richling's shoulder. "Be aw righ' to-morrow."

"You can't invest one dollar by itself," said the incredulous Richling.

"Yes. Return her to-morrow."

Richling swung his head from side to side as an expression of disrelish. "I haven't been employed for some time."

"I goin' t'employ myself," said Ristofalo.

Richling laughed again. There was a faint betrayal of distress in his voice as it fell upon the cunning ear of the Italian; but he laughed too, very gently and innocently, and stood in his tracks.

"I wouldn't like to refuse a dollar to a man who needs it," said Richling. He took his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. "I've seen the time when it was much easier to lend than it is just now." He thrust his hand down into his pocket and stood gazing at the sidewalk.

The Italian glanced at Richling askance, and with one sweep of the eye from the softened crown of his hat to the slender, white bursted slit in the outer side of either well-polished shoe, took in the beauty of his face and a full understanding of his condition. His hair, somewhat dry, had fallen upon his forehead. His fine, smooth skin was darkened by the exposure of his daily wanderings. His cheek-bones, a trifle high, asserted their place above the softly concave cheeks. His mouth was closed and the lips were slightly compressed; the chin small, gracefully turned, not weak,--not strong. His eyes were abstracted, deep, pensive. His dress told much. The fine plaits of his shirt had sprung apart and been neatly sewed together again. His coat was a little faulty in the set of the collar, as if the person who had taken the garment apart and turned the goods had not put it together again with practised skill. It was without spot and the buttons were new. The edges of his shirt-cuffs had been trimmed with the scissors. Face and vesture alike revealed to the sharp eye of the Italian the woe underneath. "He has a wife," thought Ristofalo.

Richling looked up with a smile. "How can you be so sure you will make, and not lose?"

"I never fail." There was not the least shade of boasting in the man's manner. Richling handed out his dollar. It was given without patronage and taken with simple thanks.

"Where goin' to meet to-morrow morning?" asked Ristofalo. "Here?"

"Oh! I forgot," said Richling. "Yes, I suppose so; and then you'll tell me how you invested it, will you?"

"Yes, but you couldn't do it."

"Why not?"

Raphael Ristofalo laughed. "Oh! fifty reason'."

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