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Chapter 23

XXIII.

Lemuel's friend entered upon his duties with what may also be called artistic zeal. He showed a masterly touch in managing the elevator from the first trip. He was ready, cheerful, and obliging; he lacked nothing but a little more reluctance and a Seaside Library novel to be a perfect elevator-boy.

The ladies liked him at once; he was so pleasant and talkative, and so full of pride in Lemuel that they could not help liking him; and several of them promptly reached that stage of confidence where they told him, as an old friend of Lemuel's, they thought Lemuel read too much, and was going to kill himself if he kept on a great deal longer. The mate said he thought so too, and had noticed how bad Lemuel looked the minute he set eyes on him. But he asked what was the use? He had said everything he could to him about it. He was always just so, up at home. As he found opportunity he did what he could to console Lemuel with furtive winks and nods.

Lemuel dragged absently and haggardly through the day. In the evening he told Mrs. Harmon that he had to go round and see Mr. Sewell a moment.

It was then nine o'clock, and she readily assented; she guessed Mr. Williams—he had told her his name was Williams—could look after the office while he was gone. Mr. Williams was generously glad to do so. Behind Mrs. Harmon's smooth large form, he playfully threatened her with his hand levelled at his shoulder; but even this failed to gladden Lemuel.

It was half-past nine when he reached the minister's house, and the maid had a visible reluctance at the door in owning that Mr. Sewell was at home. Mrs. Sewell had instructed her not to be too eagerly candid with people who came so late; but he was admitted, and Sewell came down from his study to see him in the reception-room.

"What is the matter?" he asked at once, when he caught sight of Lemuel's face; "has anything gone wrong with you, Mr. Barker?" He could not help being moved by the boy's looks; he had a fleeting wish that Mrs. Sewell were there to see him, and be moved too; and he prepared himself as he might to treat the trouble which he now expected to be poured out.

"Yes," said Lemuel, "I want to tell you; I want you to tell me what to do."

When he had put the case fully before the minister, his listener was aware of wishing that it had been a love-trouble, such as he foreboded at first.

He drew a long and deep breath, and before he began to speak he searched himself for some comfort or encouragement, while Lemuel anxiously scanned his face.

"Yes—yes! I see your—difficulty," he began, making the futile attempt to disown any share in it. "But perhaps—perhaps it isn't so bad as it seems. Perhaps no harm will come. Perhaps he really means to do well; and if you are vigilant in—in keeping him out of temptation——" Sewell stopped, sensible that he was not coming to anything, and rubbed his forehead.

"Do you think," asked Lemuel, dry mouthed with misery, "that I ought to have told Mrs. Harmon at once?"

"Why, it is always best to be truthful and above-board—as a principle," said the minister, feeling himself somehow dragged from his moorings.

"Then I had better do it yet!"

"Yes," said Sewell, and he paused. "Yes. That is to say—As the mischief is done—Perhaps—perhaps there is no haste. If you exercise vigilance—But if he has been in prison—Do you know what he was in for?"

"No. I didn't know he had been in at all till we got to my room. And then I couldn't ask him—I was afraid to."

"Yes," said Sewell, kindly if helplessly.

"I was afraid, if I sent him off—or tried to—that he would tell about my being in the Wayfarer's Lodge that night, and they would think I had been a tramp. I could have done it, but I thought he might tell some lie about me; and they might get to know about the trial——"

"I see," said Sewell.

"I hated to lie," said Lemuel piteously, "but I seemed to have to."

There was another yes on the minister's tongue; he kept it back; but he was aware of an instant's relief in the speculation—the question presented itself abstractly—as to whether it was ever justifiable or excusable to lie. Were the Jesuitical casuists possibly right in some slight, shadowy sort? He came back to Lemuel groaning in spirit. "No—no—no!" he sighed; "we mustn't admit that you had to lie. We must never admit that." A truth flashed so vividly upon him that it seemed almost escape. "What worse thing could have come from telling the truth than has come from withholding it? And that would have been some sort of end, and this—this is only the miserable beginning."

"Yes," said Lemuel, with all desirable humility. "But I couldn't see it at once."

"Oh, I don't blame you; I don't blame you," said Sewell. "It was a sore temptation. I blame myself!" he exclaimed, with more comprehensiveness than Lemuel knew; but he limited his self- accusal by adding, "I ought to have told Mrs. Harmon myself what I knew of your history; but I refrained because I knew you had never done any harm, and I thought it cruel that you should be dishonoured by your misfortunes in a relation where you were usefully and prosperously placed; and so—and so I didn't. But perhaps I was wrong. Yes, I was wrong. I have only allowed the burden to fall more heavily upon you at last."

It was respite for Lemuel to have some one else accusing himself, and he did not refuse to enjoy it. He left the minister to wring all the bitterness he could for himself out of his final responsibility. The drowning man strangles his rescuer.

Sewell looked up, and loosened his collar as if really stifling. "Well, well. We must find some way out of it. I will see—see what can be done for you to-morrow."

Lemuel recognised his dismissal. "If you say so, Mr. Sewell, I will go straight back and tell Mrs. Harmon all about it."

Sewell rose too. "No—no. There is no such haste. You had better leave it to me now. I will see to it—in the morning."

"Thank you," said Lemuel. "I hate to give you so much trouble."

"Oh," said Sewell, letting him out at the street-door, and putting probably less thought and meaning into the polite words than they had ever contained before, "it's no trouble."

He went upstairs to his study, and found Mrs. Sewell waiting there.
"Well, now—what, David?"

"Now what?" he feebly echoed.

"Yes. What has that wretched creature come for now?"

"You may well call him a wretched creature," sighed Sewell.

"Is he really engaged? Has he come to get you to marry him?"

"I think he'd rather have me bury him at present." Sewell sat down, and, bracing his elbow on his desk, rested his head heavily on his hand.

"Well," said his wife, with a touch of compassion tempering her curiosity.

He began to tell her what had happened, and he did not spare himself in the statement of the case. "There you have the whole affair now. And a very pretty affair it is. But, I declare," he concluded, "I can't see that any one is to blame for it."

"No one, David?"

"Well, Adam, finally, of course. Or Eve. Or the Serpent," replied the desperate man.

Seeing him at this reckless pass, his wife forebore reproach, and asked, "What are you going to do?"

"I am going around there in the morning to tell Mrs. Harmon all about Barker."

"She will send him away instantly."

"I dare say."

"And what will the poor thing do?"

"Goodness knows."

"I'm afraid Badness knows. It will drive him to despair."

"Well, perhaps not—perhaps not," sighed the minister. "At any rate, we must not let him be driven to despair. You must help me, Lucy."

"Of course."

Mrs. Sewell was a good woman, and she liked to make her husband feel it keenly.

"I knew that it must come to that," she said.

"Of course, we must not let him be ruined. If Mrs. Harmon insists upon his going at once—as I've no doubt she will—you must bring him here, and we must keep him till he can find some other home." She waited, and added, for a final stroke of merciless beneficence, "He can have Alfred's room, and Alf can take the front attic."

Sewell only sighed again. He knew she did not mean this.

Barker went back to the St. Albans, and shrunk into as small space in the office as he could. He pulled a book before him and pretended to read, hiding the side of his face toward the door with the hand that supported his head. His hand was cold as ice, and it seemed to him as if his head were in a flame. Williams came and looked in at him once, and then went back to the stool which he occupied just outside the elevator-shaft when not running it. He whistled softly between his teeth, with intervals of respectful silence, and then went on whistling in absence of any whom it might offend.

Suddenly a muffled clamour made itself heard from the depths of the dining-room, like that noise of voices which is heard behind the scenes at the theatre when an armed mob is about to burst upon the stage. Irish tones, high, windy, and angry, yells, and oaths defined themselves, and Mrs. Harmon came obesely hurrying from the dining- room toward the office, closely followed by Jerry, the porter. When upon duty, or, as some of the boarders contended, when in the right humour, he blacked the boots, and made the hard-coal fires, and carried the trunks up and down stairs. When in the wrong humour, he had sometimes been heard to swear at Mrs. Harmon, but she had excused him in this eccentricity because, she said, he had been with her so long. Those who excused it with her on these grounds conjectured arrears of wages as another reason for her patience. His outbreaks of bad temper had the Celtic uncertainty; the most innocent touch excited them, as sometimes the broadest snub failed to do so; and no one could foretell what direction his zigzag fury would take. He had disliked Lemuel from the first, and had chafed at the subordination into which he had necessarily fallen. He was now yelling after Mrs. Harmon, to know if she was not satisfied with wan gutther-snoipe, that she must nades go and pick up another, and whether the new wan was going to be too good to take prisints of money for his worruk from the boarthers, and put all the rest of the help under the caumpliment of refusin' ut, or else demanin' themselves by takin' ut? If this was the case, he'd have her to know that she couldn't kape anny other help; and the quicker she found it out the betther. Mrs. Harmon was trying to appease him by promising to see Lemuel at once, and ask him about it.

The porter raised his voice an octave. "D' ye think I'm a loyar, domn ye? Don't ye think I'm tellin' the thruth?"

He followed her to the little office, whither she had retreated on a purely mechanical fulfilment of her promise to speak to Lemuel, and crowded in upon them there.

"Here he is now!" he roared in his frenzy. "He's too good to take the money that's offered to 'um! He's too good to be waither! He wannts to play the gintleman! He thinks 'umself too good to do what the other servants do, that's been tin times as lahng in the house!"

At the noise some of the ladies came hurrying out of the public parlour to see what the trouble was. The street-door opened, and Berry entered with the two art-students. They involuntarily joined the group of terrified ladies.

"What's the row?" demanded Berry. "Is Jerry on the kick?"

No one answered. Lemuel stood pale and silent, fronting the porter, who was shaking his fist in his face. He had not heard anything definite in the outrage that assailed him. He only conjectured that it was exposure of Williams's character, and the story of his own career in Boston.

"Why don't you fire him out of there, Barker?" called the law- student. "Don't be afraid of him!"

Lemuel remained motionless; but his glance sought the pitying eyes of the assembled women, and then dropped before the amaze that looked at him from those of Miss Carver. The porter kept roaring out his infamies.

Berry spoke again.

"Mrs. Harmon, do you want that fellow in there?"

"No, goodness knows I don't, Mr. Berry."

"All right." Berry swung the street-door open with his left hand, and seemed with the same gesture to lay his clutch upon the porter's collar. "Fire him out myself!" he exclaimed, and with a few swiftly successive jerks and bumps the burly shape of the porter was shot into the night. "I want you to get me an officer, Jerry," he said, putting his head out after him. "There's been a blackguard makin' a row here. Never mind your hat! Go!"

"Oh, my good gracious, Mr. Berry!" gasped Mrs. Harmon, "what have you done?" "If it's back pay, Mrs. Harmon, we'll pass round the hat. Don't you be troubled. That fellow wasn't fit to be in a decent house."

Berry stopped a moment and looked at Lemuel. The art-students did not look at him at all; they passed on upstairs with Berry.

The other ladies remained to question and to comment. Mrs. Harmon's nephew, to whom the uproar seemed to have penetrated in his basement, came up and heard the story from them. He was quite decided. He said that Mr. Berry had done right. He said that he was tired of having folks damn his aunt up hill and down dale; and that if Jerry had kept on a great deal longer, he would have said something to him himself about it.

The ladies justified him in the stand he took; they returned to the parlour to talk it all over, and he went back to his basement. Mrs. Harmon, in tears, retired to her room, and Lemuel was left standing alone in his office. The mate stole softly to him from the background of the elevator, where he had kept himself in safety during the outbreak.

"Look here, mate. This thing been about your ringin' me in here?"

"Oh, go away, go away!" Lemuel huskily entreated.

"Well, that's what I intend to do. I don't want to stay here and git you into no more trouble, and I know that's what's been done. You never done me no harm, and I don't want to do you none. I'm goin' right up to your room to git my clo'es, and then I'll skip."

"It won't do any good now. It'll only make it worse. You'd better stay now. You must."

"Well, if you say so, mate."

He went back to his elevator, and Lemuel sat down at his desk, and dropped his face upon his arms there. Toward eleven o'clock Evans came in and looked at him, but without speaking; he must have concluded that he was asleep; he went upstairs, but after a while he came down again and stopped again at the office door, and looked in on the haggard boy, hesitating as if for the best words. "Barker, Mr. Berry has been telling me about your difficulty here. I know all about you—from Mr. Sewell." Lemuel stared at him. "And I will stand your friend, whatever people think. And I don't blame you for not wanting to be beaten by that ruffian; you could have stood no chance against him; and if you had thrashed him it wouldn't have been a great triumph."

"I wish he had killed me," said Lemuel from his dust-dry throat.

"Oh no; that's foolish," said the elder, with patient, sad kindness. "Who knows whether death is the end of trouble? We must live things down, not die them down." He put his arm caressingly across the boy's shoulder.

"I can never live this down," said Lemuel. He added passionately, "I wish I could die!"

"No," said Evans. "You must cheer up. Think of next Saturday. It will soon be here, and then you'll be astonished that you felt so bad on Tuesday."

He gave Lemuel a parting pressure with his arm, and turned to go upstairs.

At the same moment the figure of Mrs. Harmon's nephew, distracted, violent, burst up through the door leading to the basement.

"Good heavens!" exclaimed the editor, "is Mr. Harmon going to kick?"

"The house is on fire!" yelled the apparition.

A thick cloud of smoke gushed out of the elevator-shaft, and poured into the hall, which it seemed to fill instantly. It grew denser, and in another instant a wild hubbub began. The people appeared from every quarter and ran into the street, where some of the ladies began calling up at the windows to those who were still in their rooms. A stout little old lady came to an open window, and paid out hand over hand a small cable on which she meant to descend to the pavement; she had carried this rope about with her many years against the exigency to which she was now applying it. Within, the halls and the stairway became the scene of frantic encounter between wives and husbands rushing down to save themselves, and then rushing back to save their forgotten friends. Many appeared in the simple white in which they had left their beds, with the addition of such shawls or rugs as chance suggested. A house was opened to the fugitives on the other side of the street, and the crowd that had collected could not repress its applause when one of them escaped from the hotel-door and shot across. It applauded impartially men, women, and children, and, absorbed in the spectacle, no one sounded the fire-alarm; the department began to be severely condemned among the bystanders before the engines appeared.

Most of the ladies, in their escape or their purpose of rescue, tried each to possess herself of Lemuel, and keep him solely in her interest. "Mr. Barker! Mr. Barker! Mr. Barker!" was called for in various sopranos and contraltos, till an outsider took up the cry and shouted, "Barker! Barker! Speech! Speech!" This made him very popular with the crowd, who in their enjoyment of the fugitives were unable to regard the fire seriously. A momentary diversion was caused by an elderly gentleman who came to the hotel-door, completely dressed except that he was in his stockings, and demanded Jerry. The humourist who had called for a speech from Lemuel volunteered the statement that Jerry had just gone round the corner to see a man. "I want him," said the old gentleman savagely. "I want my boots; I can't go about in my stockings."

Cries for Jerry followed; but in fact the porter had forgotten all his grudges and enmities; he had reappeared, in perfect temper, and had joined Lemuel and Berry in helping to get the women and children out of the burning house.

The police had set a guard at the door, in whom Lemuel recognised the friendly old officer who had arrested him. "All out?" asked the policeman.

The smoke, which had reddened and reddened, was now a thin veil drawn over the volume of flame that burned strongly and steadily up the well of the elevator, and darted its tongues out to lick the framework without. The heat was intense. Mrs. Harmon came panting and weeping from the dining-room with some unimportant pieces of silver, driven forward by Jerry and her nephew.

They met the firemen, come at last, and pulling in their hose, who began to play upon the flames; the steam filled the place with a dense mist.

Lemuel heard Berry ask him through the fog, "Barker, where's old
Evans?"

"Oh, I don't know!" he lamented back.

"He must have gone up to get Mrs. Evans."

He made a dash towards the stairs. A fireman caught him and pulled him back. "You can't go up; smoke's thick as hell up there." But Lemuel pulled away, and shot up the stairs. He heard the firemen stop Berry.

"You can't go, I tell you! Who's runnin' this fire anyway, I'd like to know?"

He ran along the corridor which Evans's apartment opened upon. There was not much smoke there; it had drawn up the elevator-well, as if in a chimney.

He burst into the apartment and ran to the inner room, where he had once caught a glimpse of Mrs. Evans sitting by the window.

Evans stood leaning against the wall, with his hand at his breast.
He panted, "Help her—help—"

"Where is she? Where is she?" demanded Lemuel.

She came from an alcove in the room, holding a handkerchief drenched with cologne in her hand, which she passed to her husband's face. "Are you better now? Can you come, dear? Rest on me!"

"I'm—I'm all right! Go—go! I can get along—"

"I'll go when you go," said Mrs. Evans. She turned to Lemuel. "Mr. Evans fainted; but he is better now." She took his hand with a tender tranquillity that ignored all danger or even excitement, and gently chafed it.

"But come—come!" cried Lemuel. "Don't you know the house is on fire?"

"Yes, I know it," she replied. "We must get Mr. Evans down. You must help me." Lemuel had seldom seen her before; but he had so long heard and talked of her hopeless invalidism that she was like one risen from the dead, in her sudden strength and courage, and he stared at the miracle of her restoration. It was she who claimed and bore the greater share of the burden in getting her husband away. He was helpless; but in the open air he caught his breath more fully, and at last could tremulously find his way out of the sympathetic crowd. "Get a carriage," she said to Lemuel; and then she added, as it drove up and she gave an address, "I can manage him now."

Evans weakly pressed Lemuel's hand from the seat to which he had helped him, and the hack drove away. Lemuel looked crazily after it a moment, and then returned to the burning house.

Berry called to him from the top of the outside steps, "Barker, have you seen that partner of yours?"

Lemuel ran up to him. "No!"

"Well, come in here. The elevator's dropped, and they're afraid he went down with it."

"I know he didn't! He wouldn't be such a fool!"

"Well, we'll know when they get the fire under."

"I thought I saw something in the elevator, and as long as you don't know where he is—" said a fireman.

"Well," said Berry, "if you've got the upper hands of this thing,
I'm going to my room a minute."

Lemuel followed him upstairs, to see if he could find Williams. The steam had ascended and filled the upper halls; little cascades of water poured down the stairs, falling from step to step; the long strips of carpeting in the corridors swam in the deluge which the hose had poured into the building, and a rain of heavy drops burst through the ceilings.

Most of the room-doors stood open, as the people had flung them wide in their rush for life. At the door of Berry's room a figure appeared which he promptly seized by the throat.

"Don't be in a hurry!" he said, as he pushed it into the room. "I want to see you."

It was Williams.

"I want to see what you've got in your pockets. Hold on to him,
Barker."

Lemuel had no choice. He held Williams by the arms while Berry went through him, as he called the search. He found upon him whatever small articles of value there had been in his room.

The thief submitted without a struggle, without a murmur.

Berry turned scornfully to Lemuel. "This a friend of yours, Mr.
Barker?"

Still the thief did not speak, but he looked at Lemuel.

"Yes," he dryly gasped.

"Well!" said Berry, staring fiercely at him for a moment. "If it wasn't for something old Evans said to me about you, a little while ago, I'd hand you both over to the police."

Williams seemed to bear the threat with philosophic resignation, but
Lemuel shrank back in terror. Berry laughed.

"Why, you are his pal. Go along! I'll get Jerry to attend to you."

Lemuel slunk downstairs with Williams. "Look here, mate," said the rogue; "I guess I ha'n't used you just right."

Lemuel expected himself to cast the thief off with bitter rejection. But he heard himself saying hopelessly, "Go away, and try to behave yourself," and then he saw the thief make the most of the favour of heaven and vanish through the crowd.

He would have liked to steal away too; but he remained, and began mechanically helping again wherever he saw help needed. By and by Berry came out; Lemuel thought that he would tell some policeman to arrest him; but he went away without speaking to any one.

In an hour the firemen had finished their share of the havoc, and had saved the building. They had kept the fire to the elevator-shaft and the adjoining wood-work, and but for the water they had poured into the place the ladies might have returned to their rooms, which were quite untouched by the flames. As it was, Lemuel joined with Jerry in fetching such things to them as their needs or fancies suggested; the refugees across the way were finally clothed by their efforts, and were able to quit their covert indistinguishable in dress from any of the other boarders.

The crowd began to go about its business. The engines had disappeared from the little street with exultant shrieks; in the morning the insurance companies would send their workmen to sweep out the extinct volcano, and mop up the shrunken deluge, preparatory to ascertaining the extent of the damage done; in the meantime the police kept the boys and loafers out of the building, and the order that begins to establish itself as soon as chaos is confessed took possession of the ruin.

But it was all the same a ruin and a calamitous conclusion for the time being. The place that had been in its grotesque and insufficient fashion a home for so many homeless people was uninhabitable; even the Harmons could not go back to it. The boarders had all scattered, but Mrs. Harmon lingered, dwelling volubly upon the scene of disaster. She did not do much else; she was not without a just pride in it, but she was not puffed up by all the sympathy and consolation that had been offered her. She thought of others in the midst of her own troubles, and she said to Lemuel, who had remained working with Jerry under her direction in putting together such things as she felt she must take away with her—

"Well, I don't know as I feel much worse about myself than I do about poor Mr. Evans. Why, I've got the ticket in my pocket now that he gave me for the Wednesday matinee! I do wonder how he's gettin' along! I guess they've got you to thank, if they're alive to tell the tale. What did you do to get that woman out alive?" Lemuel looked blankly at her, and did not answer. "And Mr. Evans too! You must have had your hands full, and that's what I told the reporters; but I told 'em I guessed you'd be equal to it if any one would. Why, I don't suppose Mrs. Evans has been out of her room for a month, or hardly stepped her foot to the floor. Well, I don't want to see many people look as he did when you first got him out of the house."

"Well, I don't know as I want to see many more fires where I live," said her nephew, as if with the wish to be a little more accurate.

Jerry asked Lemuel to watch Mrs. Harmon's goods while he went for a carriage, and said sir to him. It seemed to Lemuel that this respect, and Mrs. Harmon's unmerited praises, together with the doom that was secretly upon him, would drive him wild.

William Dean Howells