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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 29
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 29 Post by :DigitalDuo Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :1618

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 29

Chapter XXIX

Anderson, as he went away that night, had before his eyes Charlotte's little face, the intensity of which had seemed to make it fairly luminous in the dim light, as she had turned it towards him. There was in that face at once unreasoning and childish anger that he was there at all, and in a measure a witness of the distress and disgrace of herself and her family, and a piteous appeal for help--at once a forbidding and a beseeching. For Anderson, naturally, the forbidding seemed most in evidence as an impulse to action. He felt that he must withdraw immediately and save them all the additional mortification that he could. So he hurried away down the road, with the girl's face before his eyes, and the sound of the scolding voice in the house in his ears. The voice carried far. In spite of the wrath in it, it was a sweet, almost a singing, voice, high-pitched but sonorous. It was the voice of little Willy Eddy's German wife, and it came from a pair of strong lungs in a well-developed chest, and was actuated by a strong and indignant spirit. Arthur Carroll, listening to her, was conscious of an absurdly impersonal sentiment of something like admiration. The young woman was really in a manner superb. The occasion was trivial, even ignoble. Carroll felt contemptuous both for her and for himself, and yet she dignified it to a degree. Minna Eddy was built on a large scale; she was both muscular and stout. Her short, blue-woollen skirt, increasing with its fulness her firm hips, disclosed generously her sturdy feet and ankles, which had a certain beauty of fitness as pedestals of support for her great bulk of femininity. She had come out just as she had been about her household tasks, and her cotton blouse, of an incongruous green-figured pattern, was open at the neck, disclosing a meeting of curves in a roseate crease, and one sleeve, being badly worn, revealed a pink boss of elbow. Minna Eddy had a distinctly handsome face, so far as feature and color went. It was a harmonious combination of curves and dimples, all overspread with a deep bloom, as of milk and roses, and her fair hair was magnificent. She had a marvellous growth both for thickness and length, and it was plaited smoothly, covering the back of the head as with a mat. She had come out with a blue handkerchief tied over her head, but she had torn it off, and waved it like a flag of battle in one fat, muscular hand as she lifted on high her voice of musical wrath. She spoke good English, although naturally tinctured by the abuses of the country-side. She had come to America before she could talk at all, and all her training had been in the country. The only trace of her German descent was in the sounds of certain letters, especially _d and _v_. She said _t for _d_, and _f for _v_. Carroll noticed that as he noticed every detail. His senses seemed unnaturally acute, as possibly any animal's may be when at bay, and when the baiting has fairly begun.

A little behind Minna Eddy, and at her right, stood her husband, with a face of utter discomfiture and terror. Now and then he reached out a small, twitching hand and made an ineffectual clutch at her elbow as she talked on. At times he rolled terrified and appealing eyes at Carroll. He seemed even to be begging for his partisanship, although the absurdity of that was obvious.

"Oh, you other man," his eyes seemed to say, "see how terrible a woman can be! What can we do against such might as this?" The room was quite full of people, but Minna Eddy had the platform.

"You, you, you!" she repeated before every paragraph of invective, like a prelude and refrain. "You, you, you!" and she fairly hurled the words at Carroll--"you, you, you! gettin' my man"--with a fierce backward lunge of her bare right elbow towards her husband, who shrank away, and a fierce backward roll of a blue eye--"gettin' my man to take all his money and spend it for no goot. You, you, you! When I haf need of it for shoes and stockings for the children, when I go with my dress in rags. You, you, you!" She went on and on, with a curious variety in the midst of monotony. The stream of her invective flowed on like a river with ever-new ripples. There was a species of fascination in it for the man who was the object of it, and there seemed to be also a compelling quality for the others in the room. There had been no preconcerted movement among Carroll's creditors, but a number of them had that evening descended upon him in a body. In the parlor were the little dressmaker; the druggist; the butcher; Tappan, the milkman; the two stenographers, and Harrison Day, the clerk, who had come on the seven-o'clock train from New York; two men with whom he had dealings in a horse-trade; an old man who had made the garden the previous spring; and another butcher who had driven over from New Sanderson. In the dining-room door stood Marie, the Hungarian maid, and behind her was the coachman. Carroll stood leaning against the corner of the mantel-piece; some of the others were defiantly yet deprecatingly seated, some were standing. Anna Carroll, quite pale, with an odd, fixed expression, stood near her brother. When Charlotte entered the house, she took up a position in the hall, leaning against the wall, near the door. She could hear every word, but she was quite out of sight. She leaned heavily against the wall, for her limbs trembled under her, and she could scarcely stand. Her aunt had looked around as she entered, and a question as to where she had been had shaped itself on her lips: then her look of inquiry and relief had died away in her expression of bitter concentration upon the matter in hand. She had been alarmed about Charlotte, as they had all been. Mrs. Carroll had called softly down the stairs to know if Charlotte had come, and the girl had answered, "Yes, Amy dear."

"Where have you been, dear?" asked the soft voice, from an indistinct mass of floating white at the head of the stairs.

"I'll tell you by-and-by, Amy dear."

"I was alarmed about you," said the voice, "it was so late; about you and Eddy."

"He has come, too."

"Yes, I heard him." Then the voice added, quite distinctly petulant, "I have a headache, but it is so noisy I cannot get to sleep." Then there was a rustle of retreat, and Charlotte leaned against the wall, listening to the hushed turmoil surmounted by that voice of accusation in the parlor. Eddy stood full in the doorway, in a boyish, swaggering attitude, his hands on his hips, and bent slightly, with sharp eyes of intense enjoyment on Minna Eddy. Suddenly, Carroll turned and caught sight of him, and as if perforce the boy's eyes turned to meet his father's. Carroll did not speak, but he raised his hand and pointed to the hall with an upward motion for the stairs, and Eddy went, with a faint whimper of remonstrance. The scolding woman saw the little, retreating figure, and directly the torrent of her vituperation was turned into a new course.

"You, you, you!" she proclaimed; "dressin' your boy up in fine clothes, while mine children have went in rags since you have came to Banbridge! You, you, you! gettin' all my man's money, and dressin' up your boy in clothes that I haf paid for! You, you, you!"

But Minna Eddy had unwittingly furnished the right key-note for a whole chorus. Madame Griggs, who had been rocking jerkily in a small, red-plush chair which squeaked faintly, sprang up, and left it still rocking and squeaking.

"Yes," said she, "yes, that is so. Look at the way the whole family dress, at other people's expense!"

She was hysterical still, yet she had not lost her sense of the gentility of self-restraint. That would come later. Her face worked convulsively, red spots were on her thin cheeks, but there was still an ingratiating, somewhat servile, tone in her voice, and she looked scornfully at Minna Eddy. Then J. Rosenstein, who kept the principal dry-goods store in Banbridge, bore his testimony. His grievances were small, but none the less vital. His business dealings with the Carrolls had been limited to sundry spools of thread and kitchen towellings and buttons, but they were as lead in his estimate of wrong, although he had a grave, introspective expression, out of proportion to the seeming triviality of the matter in his mind. He held in one long hand a slip of paper, and eyed Carroll with dignified accusation.

"This is the fifth bill I have made out," he remarked, and he raised his voice to the pitch of his brethren of the Bowery when they hawk in the street. "The fifth bill I have made out, and it is only for one dollar and fifty-three cents, and I am poor."

His intellectual Semitic face took on an ignoble expression of one who squeezes justice to petty ends for his own deserts. His whine penetrated the rising chorus of the other voices, even of the butcher, who was a countryman of his own, and who said something with dolorous fervor about the bill for meat which had been running for six weeks, and not a dollar paid. He was of a more common sort, and rendered a trifle indifferent by a recent visit to a beer-saloon. He was also somewhat stupefied by an excess of flesh, as to the true exigencies of life in general. After he had spoken he coughed wheezily, settled his swelling bulk more comfortably in the red-velvet chair, and planted his wide-apart, elephantine legs more firmly on the floor, while he mentally appraised the Oriental rug beneath his feet, with a view to the possibility of his taking that in lieu of cash, and making a profitable bargain for its ultimate disposal with a cousin in trade in New York. Looking up, he caught Rosenstein's eyes just turning from a regard of the same rug, and the two men's thoughts met with a mental clash. Then the New Sanderson butcher, who was a great, handsome, blond man with a foam of yellow beard, German, but not Jew, strolled silently over to them, and with sharp eyes on the rug, conferred with the other two in low, eager whispers. From that time they paid little attention to what was going on around them. They talked, they gesticulated, they felt of the rug.

Madame Griggs, settling her skirts genteelly, spoke again. "I guess my bill has been running fully as long as anybody's here," she said, in her small, shrill voice. She eyed the two stenographers as she spoke, with jealous suspicion. There was a certain smartness about their attire, and she suspected them of being City dress-makers. She also suspected the strange young man with them of being a City lawyer, whom they had brought with them to urge their claims. Madame Stella Griggs had a ready imagination. The two stenographers had not spoken at all. From time to time the prettier wept, softly, in her lace-edged handkerchief; the other looked pale and nervous. Whenever she looked at Carroll her mouth quivered. The young man sat still and winked furiously. He had discovered Carroll's address and informed the girls, and they had planned this descent upon their employer. Now they were there, they were frightened and intimidated and distressed. They were a gentle lot, of the sort that are born to be led. Their resentment and sense of injustice overwhelmed them with grief, rather than a desire for retaliation. They were in sore straits for their money, yet all would have walked again into the snare, and they regarded Carroll with the same awed admiration as of old. No one but felt commiseration for him, and trust in his ultimate payment of their wages. They regarded the other creditors with a sort of mild contempt. They felt themselves of another kind, especially from the Germans and Jews. When Willy Eddy's wife had declaimed, one stenographer had whispered to the other, "How vulgar!" and the other had responded with a nod and curl of a lip of scorn. They met Madame Griggs's hostile regard with icy stares. The less pretty girl said to the young man that she thought it was mean for a dressmaker to come there and hound folks like that, and he nodded, winking disapprovingly at poor Madame Griggs, who was just then cherishing the wild idea of consulting him for herself in his supposed capacity of a lawyer. The stenographer, turning from her remark to the clerk, met the laughing but impertinent gaze of one of the horse-trading men, and she turned her back upon him with an emphasis that provoked a chuckle from his companion.

"Got it in the shoulder then, Bill," he remarked, quite audibly, and the other reddened and grinned foolishly. They were rough-looking men with a certain swagger of smartness. They regarded Carroll with a swearing emphasis, yet with a measure of reluctantly compelled admiration.

"I'll be damned if he ain't the first that ever got the better of Jim Dickerson," one had said to the other, as they had driven up to the house that evening. "I'll be ---- damned if I see now how he got the better of me," the other rejoined, with a bewildered expression. As he spoke his mind revolved in the devious mesh of trap which he had set for Carroll, and realized the clean cutting of it by Carroll by the ruthless method of self-interest. Neither man had spoken besides a defiant response to Carroll's polite "Good-evening," when they had entered. They sat and watched and listened. Occasionally one raised a hand, and an enormous diamond glowed with a red light like a ruby. In the four-in-hand tie of the other a scarf-pin in the shape of a horse's head with diamond eyes caught the light with infinitesimal sparks of fire. Above it his clean-shaven, keen, blue-eyed face kept watch, sharply ready to strike anger as the diamonds struck light, and yet with a certain amusement. He had shown his teeth in a smile when Willy Eddy's wife pronounced her tirade. He did so again when she reopened, having regained her wind. When she spoke this time, she glared at Anna Carroll with a dazzling look of spite.

"There ain't no red silk dresses for me to rig out in," said she, and she pointed straight at Anna's silken skirts. "No, there ain't, and there won't be, so long as my man's money goes to pay for _hers_." She said "hers" with a harder emphasis than if she said "yours."

Anna never returned her vicious look, she never moved a muscle of her handsome face, nor changed color. She continued to stand beside her brother, with a curious expression of wide partisanship, and of regard for these people as objects of offence as a whole, rather than as individuals.

"Folks can pretend to be deaf if they want to," said Minna Eddy, "but they hear, an' they'll hear more."

"That was fifteen dollars beside the findings, and they amounted to twelve dollars and sixty-three cents more," said Madame Griggs, and this time she addressed the young man whom she took to be a lawyer. She met his nervous winks with a piteous smile of appealing confidence. She wondered if possibly he might not be willing to undertake her cause in connection with the other supposed dressmakers' at a reduced rate. Nobody paid the slightest attention when she spoke, Anna Carroll least of all.

Suddenly, Henry Lee tiptoed into the room. He came in smiling and nervous. When he saw the assembled company he started, and gave an inquiring glance at Carroll, who regarded him in an absent-minded fashion, as if he hardly comprehended the fact of his entrance. It was the glance of a man whose mind is too crowded to admit of more. But Lee went close to him, bowing low to Anna, and extending his hand with urbanity, flustered, it is true, yet still with urbanity.

"Good-evening, captain," he said, and even then, in sore distress of mind as he was, he looked about at the company for admiration for this proof of his intimacy with such a man.

"Good-evening," Carroll said, mechanically, and he shook hands. Anna Carroll also said "Good-evening," and smiled automatically.

"A fine evening," said Lee, but he got no rejoinder to that. He looked at the company, and his small, smug, fatuous face, which was somewhat pale and haggard, frowned with astonishment. Again he looked for information into Carroll's unanswering face. He looked at an empty chair near him; then he looked at Carroll and his sister standing, and did not seat himself. He also leaned against the mantel on the other corner from Carroll, and endeavored to assume an unconcerned air, as if it were quite the usual thing for him to drop into the house and encounter such a nondescript company. He looked across at the druggist and postmaster, and bowed with flourishing politeness. He said to Carroll, endeavoring to make his voice so unobtrusive that it would be unheard by the company, but with the non-success usual to a nervous and self-conscious man, that he had a word to say to him later on when he was at liberty, some matter of business which he wished to talk over with him.

"Very well," Carroll replied. Then Lee followed up his remark, which had in a measure reassured him.

"Got a cigar handy, captain?" said he. "I came off without one in my pocket."

Carroll took out his cigar-case and extended it to Lee, who took a cigar, bit the end off, and scratched a match. Carroll handed the case mechanically to the postmaster and Drake, who were near. They refused, and he took one himself, as if he did not realize what he was doing, and lit it, his calm, impassively smiling face never changing. He might have been lighting a bomb instead of a cigar, for all the actual realization of the action which he had. He accepted a light from Lee, who had lit his first with trembling haste. At the first puff which he gave, at the first evidence of the fragrant aroma in the room, one turbulent spirit, which had hitherto remained under restraint, burst bounds and overwhelmed all besides. Even Minna Eddy, who was fast warming to a new outburst, even Madame Griggs, who had both hands pressed to her skinny throat because of a lump of emotion there, and whose sunken temples were beating to the sight under the shade of her protuberant frizzes, looked in a hush of wonder and alarm at this furious champion of his own wrongs. Even the two butchers and the dry-goods merchant looked away from the glowing Oriental web upon which they stood. The weeping stenographer sat with her damp little wad of lace-edged handkerchief in her hand and stared at him with her reddened eyes; the other held her flaccid purse, and looked at the speaker. Now and then she nudged violently the friend, who did not seem to notice it.

Tappan, the milkman, arose to his feet. He had been sitting with a stiff sprawl in the corner of a small divan. He arose when the fragrance of that Havana cigar smote his nostrils like the odor of battle. He was in great boots stained with the red shale, for the roads outside Banbridge were heavy from a recent rain. He was collarless, his greasy coat hung loosely over his dingy flannel shirt. He was unshaven, and his face was at once grim and sardonic, bitter and raging. It was the face of an impotent revolutionist, who cursed his impotence, his lack of weapons, his wrong environments for his fierce spirit. He belonged in a country at war. He had the misfortune to be in a country at peace. He belonged in a field of labor wherein weapons and armed men, sown by the need of justice, sprang from the soil. He was in a bucolic pasture, with no appeal. He was a striker with nothing save fate against which to strike. He raged behind prison-bars of circumstance. Now, for once, was an enemy for his onslaught, although even here he was restricted. He was held in check by his ignoble need. He feared lest, in smiting with all the force at his command, the blow recoil upon himself. He feared lest he lose all where he might lose only part. But when he began to speak his caution left him. There was real fire in the grim, unshaven man; the honest fire of resentment against wrong, the spirit of self-defence against odds. He was big enough to disregard self-interest in his defence, and he was impressive. He sniffed as a preliminary to his speech, and there was in that sniff fury, sarcasm, and malignancy. Then he opened his mouth, and before the words came a laugh or the travesty of one. There was something menacing in his laugh. Then he spoke.

"Cigar!" he said. "Have a cigar? Will you have a cigar? Oh yes, a cigar." His voice was murderously low and soft. He even lisped slightly. "A cigar," he repeated. "A cigar. Oh, Lord! If men like me git a hand of chewing-tobacco once a month, they think they are damned lucky. Cigar, Lord!" Then the soft was out of his voice. He cut his words short, or rather he seemed to hammer them down into the consciousness of his auditors. He turned upon the others. "Want to know how that good-for-nothin' liar an' thief gits them cigars?" he shouted. "Want to know? Well, I'll tell you. I give 'em to him, an' you did. How many of you can smoke cigars like them, hey? Smell 'em. Ten or fifteen cents apiece; mebbe more. We give 'em to him. Yes, sir, that's jest what we did. He took the money he owed us for milk and meat and dress-makin' an' other things to buy them cigars. You got up early an' worked late to pay for 'em; he didn't. I got up at half-past three o'clock in the mornin'--half-past three in the winter, when he was asleep in his bed, damn him. The time will come when he won't sleep more than some other folks. I got up at half-past three o'clock, and I snatched a mouthful of breakfast, fried cakes and merlasses, that he'd 'a' turned up his nose at. He had beefsteak an' eggs at our expense, he did, an' I had a cup of damned weak coffee, cause I was too honest or too big a fool, whichever you call it, to buy any coffee I couldn't pay for. He'd 'a' turned up his nose at sech coffee. An' I went without sugar in it, an' I went without milk, so's to give it to him, so's he could git cigars. And as for cream, cream, cream! Lord! Couldn't git enough cream to give him. He was always yellin' for cream. Cream! My wife an' me would no more of thought of our puttin' cream in our coffee than we'd thought of putting in five-dollar gold pieces to sweeten it. No, we saved the cream for him. My wife don't look so young and fat as his wife. His wife has been fed on our cream." Tappan looked hard at Anna Carroll, whom he evidently took for Carroll's wife. He took note of her dress. "My wife never had a silk gown," said he. "Lord! I guess she didn't! She had to git up as early as I did, an' wash milk-pans, so we could give milk to that man, an' he could save money on us to git his wife a silk gown. Lord! Jest look--"

Then Madame Griggs spoke, her small, deprecatory snarl raised almost to hysterical pitch. She was catching the infection of this bigger resentment and sense of outraged justice.

"He didn't save money to git his wife that silk gown with your milk money," said she, "for I made that gown, an' I got the material, an' I 'ain't been paid a cent. That was one of the gowns I made when Ina was married. That silk cost a dollar and a quarter a yard. I could have got it at ninety-eight cents at a bargain, but that wa'n't good enough for her. He didn't take your milk money for that. He didn't take any money to pay anybody for anything he could run in debt for, I can tell you that. He must have paid somebody that wouldn't wait an' wouldn't be cheated."

"Must have been dealin' with a trust, then," said one of the horsemen, with a loud laugh. "Guess he's been cheatin' 'most everything else."

"And that lady ain't his wife, neither," said Madame Griggs to Tappan. "That's his sister. I made another gown for his wife, a lighter shade, an' I 'ain't been paid for that, neither." Suddenly she burst into a hysterical wail. "Oh, dear!" she sobbed. "Oh, dear! Here I've worked early an' late. Here I've got up in the mornin' before light an' worked till most dawn, an' me none too strong, never was, and always havin' to scratch for myself, a poor, lone woman, an' here I am in debt, an' they sendin' out for the money; an' I've worked so hard to build up my business, an' tried to make things nice, an' please, an' here I've got to fail. Oh, dear!" Suddenly she made a weak rush across the room, her silk petticoat giving out a papery rustle, her frizzes vibrating like wire under her hat, crested with ostrich plumes. She danced up to Carroll and looked at him with indescribable piteousness of accusation. "Why couldn't you, if you had to cheat, cheat a man an' not a woman like me?" she demanded, in her high-pitched tremolo.

Carroll took his cigar from his mouth and looked at her. His face was quite pale and rigid. Even Tappan stopped, watching the two. Madame Griggs held up, with almost a sublimity of accusation, her tiny, nervous, veinous hands. The fingers were long and the knuckles were slightly enlarged with strenuous pullings of needles and handling of scissors; the forefinger was calloused. "Look at my hands," said she. "See how thin they be. I've worked them 'most to the bone for your folks. I took a lot of pride in havin' your daughter look nice when she was married. If I was a man an' goin' to steal, I'd steal from somebody besides a woman with no more strength than I have, all alone in the world, and that's been knocked hard ever since she can remember." Then she brought a stiffly starched little handkerchief from the folds of a small purse, and she wept with a low, querulous wail like a baby. Standing before Carroll, "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh--dear!" she wailed.

Carroll laid a hand on her shaking shoulder. It felt to him like a vibrating bone, so meagre it was. He bent over her and said something that the others did not hear, but her wild rejoinder gave them the key. She was fairly desperate; all her obsequiousness had disappeared. She was burning with her wrongs; she even took a certain pleasure in letting herself loose. She shook her shoulder free from his touch. She turned on him, her tearful, convulsed face uncovered, her frizzes tossing, as bold and unrestrained in her wrath as was Minna Eddy, who came forward to her side as she spoke.

"You needn't come wheedlin' around me," she cried. "I don't believe a word of it, not a word. I'll believe it when I see the color of your cash. You're dreadful soft-spoken, an' so is your wife an' your sister an' your daughters. Dreadful soft-spoken! Plenty of soft soap runnin' all over every time you open your mouth. I don't want soft soap. Soft soap won't buy me bread an' butter, nor pay my debts. Folks won't take any soft soap from me instead of money. They want dollars an' cents, an' that's what I want every time, dollars an' cents, an' not soft soap. Yes, it's dollars an'--cents--and not so-ft soa-p." Suddenly the dress-maker, borne high on a wave of hysteria, disclosing the innate coarseness which underlay all her veneer of harmless gentility and fine manners, raised a loud, shrill laugh, ending in a multitude of reverberations like a bell. There was about this unnatural metallic laughter something fairly blood-curdling in its disclosure of overstrained emotion. She laughed and laughed, while the room was silent except for that, and every eye was fixed upon her. Poor, little Estella Griggs, of all that accusing company of Arthur Carroll's petty creditors, had the floor. She laughed and laughed. She threw back her head. Her plumed hat was tilted rakishly one side; her frizzes tossed high above her forehead, revealing the meagre temples; her skinny throat seemed to elongate above her ribboned collar; her thin cheeks, folded into a multitude of lines by her distorting mirth, glowed with a hard red; her eyes gleamed with a glassy brilliance. Then, suddenly, that long, skinny throat seemed to swell visibly. She choked and gurgled, then came a wild burst of sobbing. Hysteria had reached its second stage. It was frightful.

"Good God!" said one of the horsemen, under his breath.

"That's so," said the other. "Let's git out of this."

They elbowed their way out of the room. "See you again," one of them said, curtly, to Carroll as he passed.

"See you to-morrow about that little affair of ours, an' by G--, you've got to pony up, you can take your oath on that, an' don't you forget it," whispered the other in Carroll's ear, with a fierce emphasis, and yet he half grinned with a masculine sympathy in this ultra crisis.

"It's gitting too thick," said the other horseman. "See you to-morrow, and, by G--, you've got to do somethin' or there'll be trouble."

Carroll nodded. He was ashy white. He had strong nerves, but he was delicately organized, man though he was, and with unusual self-control. He felt now a set of sensations verging on those displayed by the laughing, sobbing woman before him. He was conscious of an insane desire to join in that laugh, in those sobbing shrieks. His throat became constricted, his hands became as ice. The tragic absurdity of the situation filled him at once with a monstrous mirth and grief. The antitheses of emotion struggled together within him. He looked at the little, frantic creature before him, and opened his mouth to speak, but he said nothing. Anna Carroll caught his elbow.

"Come away, Arthur," she whispered.

She was trembling herself, but she had been braced to something of this kind from being a woman herself, and was not so intimidated. Carroll strove to speak again. Minna Eddy suddenly joined in her torrent of vituperation with the dress-maker's. She caught up the soft-soap idea with a peal of laughter more sustained than that of Madame Griggs, for she had a better poise of mentality, and her wrath was untempered with the grief and self-pity of a small, helpless woman who was fitted by nature for petting rather than for warfare.

"Soft soap!" shouted Minna Eddy, while her small husband vainly clutched at her petticoats. "Soft soap! Lord! I makes my own soft soap. I has plenty to clean with. I don't want no soft soap. I want money." She laughed loud and long, a ringing, mocking peal. Madame Griggs's loud sobbing united with it. The dissonance of unnatural mirth and grief was ghastly.

"Good God! Hear them!" whispered Sigsbee Ray to the druggist.

"I'd rather owe fifty men than one woman," the druggist whispered back.

Lee edged nearer the women and strove to speak. He had a purpose.

Carroll, gazing at the women in a fascinated way, again opened his mouth in vain, and again Anna dragged backward at his arm.

"For Heaven's sake, Arthur, come out of this," she whispered, and he yielded for the second. He let himself be impelled to the door, then suddenly he recovered himself and stepped forward with an accession of dignity and authority which carried weight even in the face of hysterical unreason. He raised his hand and spoke, and there was a hush. Madame Griggs and Minna Eddy remained quiet, like petrified furies, regarding the man's pale face of assertive will.

"I beg you to be quiet a moment and listen to me," he said. "I can do nothing for any of you to-night, and, what is more, I will not do anything to-night. It is impossible for me to deal with you in such an unexpected fashion as this, in such numbers. I have not gone into bankruptcy; no meeting of my creditors had been called. I have and you have no legal representative here. Now I am going, and I advise you all to do likewise. I beg you to excuse me. I know you all, I know the amount of my indebtedness to you all, and I promise you all, if I live, the very last dollar I owe you shall be paid. You must, however, give me a little time, or nobody will get anything. I will communicate with you all later on. Nobody shall lose anything, I say. Now you must excuse me."

"Look at him; he's sick," whispered the pretty stenographer to the other, whose soft, little sob of response alone broke the hush as Carroll went out with his sister at his side. Their shadows moved across the room as they ascended the stairs in the hall. The creditors, left alone, regarded one another in a hesitating fashion. The two women, Minna Eddy and Estella Griggs, remained quiet. Presently the two butchers and the dry-goods merchant, standing about the Oriental rug, quite a fine Bokhara, resumed their whispered colloquy regarding it, then they went out. Lee began talking to the druggist and the postmaster, with Willie Eddy at his elbow listening eagerly.

"Carroll's sick," said Lee, with a curious effect of partisanship towards himself, as well as Carroll. "He's sick, and it is too bad. His nerves are a wreck."

"Well, our nerves are becoming wrecks," the postmaster rejoined, dryly.

"That's so," said the druggist, with a worried look. "I don't know but I'll have to mortgage my stock. I've lost more than I can afford in that United Fuel."

"I don't like to own up I've been bit," said the postmaster, "but when it comes to being sick, and nerves being wrecks, there are others with full as much reason as Carroll."

"He'll pay up every cent," said Lee, eagerly.

"Maybe he will pay his debts," said the postmaster. "I am not going to say he won't. I suppose he means to. But when it comes to making things good, when he has simply led you by the nose into disastrous speculations, I don't know. Bigger men than Arthur Carroll don't do it."

"That's so," said Drew. "It's one thing to pay your butcher's bill in the long run, and be above stealing goods off the counter, but a man can cheat his fellow-men in a stock trade and think pretty well of himself, and other folks think well of him."

"That's so," said Sigsbee Ray.

"I haven't any doubt that he will arrange that," said Lee. "And, for that matter, the United Fuel may look up yet. I had a prospectus--"

"Prospectus be damned!" said the postmaster. He seldom used an oath, and his tongue made a vicious lurch over it.

The druggist gave an enormous sigh. "Well, it won't come up to-night, and I've left my little boy alone in the store," said he. "I've got to be going."

"So have I," said the postmaster. "My wife is alone."

"My wife always stands up for Carroll," said Lee, trotting nervously after the other men as they left the room. "Says she guesses he will end up by paying his bills as well as other men that are blaming him."

"Hope to God he will," said the postmaster.

The clerk and the two stenographers from Carroll's office had been having their heads together over a time-table. They also slipped out after the three men. The elder one still sniffed softly in her handkerchief.

The young man looked around at the stair up which Carroll had disappeared, and winked as he went out. There were left Carroll's coachman, the Hungarian girl, Madame Estella Griggs, Willy Eddy, and his wife. The coachman heard a noise of pounding in the stable and ran out. Marie remained in the doorway looking at the others with her piteous red eyes; Minna Eddy advanced towards her.

"They owe you your wages, don't they?" said she, with no sympathy, but rather a menace.

Little Marie shrank back. "Yis," said she, pursing her lips.

"You're a fool!" said Minna Eddy.

Marie smiled feebly at her.

Minna Eddy stood glaring around the room. Her husband was at her elbow, watching her anxiously.

"Come home now, Minna," he pleaded.

But she stamped her foot suddenly. "I ain't goin' to stand it!" she declared. "I'm goin' to take what I can get, I be." Her eyes rested first upon one thing, then another, then she looked hard at the Oriental rug, which the three tradesmen had discussed. Then she swooped upon it and began gathering it up from the floor.

"Oh, Minna! Oh, Minna!" gasped little Willy Eddy.

"You lemme be," she said, fiercely. "I see'd them men lookin' at this. It ain't handsome, but it's worth good money. I heard something they said. I ain't goin' to lose all that money. I'm goin' to take what I can git, I be."

"Minna, you--"

"Lemme be."

"It ain't accordin' to law, Minna."

"What do you s'pose I care about the law?" She turned to Estella Griggs, who was watching her eagerly, with a gathering light of fierce greed in her eyes. "If you take my advice you'll help yourself to something while you have the chance," said she.

"Oh, Minna, it's stealin'! You'll be liable--"

"Liable to nothin'. Stealin'! If folks don't steal no more 'n I do, I'll risk 'em. I'm a-takin' my lawful pay, I be. If you take my advice, you'll take somethin', too."

Minna Eddy moved from the room with the rug gathered up in a roll in her arms, but Marie had been gradually recovering herself. Now she came forward.

"You must not take that; that iss not your rug," said she. "You must not take that."

"Git out," said Minna Eddy. She thrust at the Hungarian with her rug-laden arms, but the little peasant was as strong as she. Marie caught hold of the rug and pulled; Minna also pulled.

"You lemme go," said Minna, with a vicious voice, but lowered, for obvious reason.

"You must not take that," said Marie. She was, however, rather fainter-hearted than the other woman.

Minna suddenly got the mastery. The Hungarian almost tumbled backward. Minna, with the rug, was out of the room, her trembling, almost whimpering husband at her heels. Madame Griggs looked at Marie. Her distorted face was at once greedy, anguished, and cunning. She began to gasp softly.

"Oh! Oh!" said she. "Oh!"

Marie regarded her in wondering agitation.

"Water! water! quick! Oh, get some water!" moaned Madame Griggs. "I am faint! Water!" She sank into a chair, her head fell back. She rolled her eyes at the terrified girl; she gasped feebly between her parted lips.

Marie ran. Then up rose Madame Estella Griggs. She swept the tea-table of its little Dresden service and some small, silver spoons. She gathered them up in a little, lace-trimmed table-cover, and she fled with that booty and a sofa-pillow which she caught from the divan on her way out.

When Marie returned she stood gaping with the glass of water. She was not over-shrewd, but she took in at once the situation. She understood that the second lady had fled like the first, with the teacups, the spoons, the table-cover, and the sofa-pillow. She stood looking desolately around the room, and her simple heart tasted its own bitterness.

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 30 The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 30

The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 30
Chapter XXXCharlotte had followed her father and aunt up-stairs that night, starting up softly like a shadow from her place in the hall. She went silently behind them until they reached the open door of Anna's room; then her father turned and saw her."You here, Charlotte?" he said."Yes, papa," replied Charlotte, turning a pitiful but altogether stanch little face up to his.He put his arm around her, drew her head against his shoulder, tipped up her face, and kissed her. "Go to bed now, darling," he whispered."Papa, I can't; I--""There is nothing you can do, sweetheart; there is nothing for you

The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 28 The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 28

The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 28
Chapter XXVIIIDuring the progress of the tea at the Andersons' Eddy kept furtively glancing at his sister with an expression which signified congratulation."Ain't you glad you stayed?" the expression said, quite plainly."Did you ever have such nice things to eat? And only think what a snippy meal we should have had at home!"Charlotte met the first of the glances with a covertly chiding look and an imperceptible shake of her head; then she refused to meet them, keeping her eyes away from her exultant brother. She herself was actually hungry, poor child, for the truth was that for the last few