More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine
gold. Sweeter also than honey and the honey-comb!"
I turned sharply toward the speaker who shambled at my
elbow. His sunken eyes were dull and lustreless, his bloodless face gleamed
pallid as a death mask above the blood-red jersey—the emblem of the soldiers
I don't know why I stopped, lingering, but, as he passed,
I said, "Brother, I also was meditating upon God's wisdom and His testimonies."
The pale fanatic shot a glance at me, hesitated, and fell
into my own pace, walking by my side.
Under the peak of his Salvation Army cap his eyes shone
in the shadow with a strange light.
"Tell me more," I said, sinking my voice below the roar
of traffic, the clang! clang! of the cable-cars, and the noise of feet
on the worn pavements—"tell me of His testimonies."
"Moreover by them is Thy servant warned and in keeping
of them there is great reward. Who can understand His errors? Cleanse Thou
me from secret faults. Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins.
Let them not have dominion over me. Then shall I be upright and I shall
be innocent from the great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and
the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight,—O Lord! My strength
and my Redeemer!"
"It is Holy Scripture that you quote," I said; "I also
can read that when I choose. But it cannot clear for me the reasons—it
cannot make me understand—"
"What?" he asked, and muttered to himself.
"That, for instance," I replied, pointing to a cripple,
who had been born deaf and dumb and horridly misshapen,—a wretched diseased
lump on the sidewalk below Sr. Paul's Churchyard,— a sore-eyed thing that
mouthed and mowed and rattled pennies in a tin cup as though the sound
of copper could stem the human pack that passed hot on the scent of gold.
Then the man who shambled beside me turned and looked
long and earnestly into my eyes.
And after a moment a dull recollection stirred within
me—a vague something that seemed like the awakening memory of a past, long,
long forgotten, dim, dark, too subtle, too frail, too indef-inite— ah!
the old feeling that all men have known—the old strange uneasiness, that
useless struggle to remember when and where it all occurred before.
And the man's head sank on his crimson jersey, and he
muttered, muttered to himself of God and love and compassion, until I saw
that the fierce heat of the city had touched his brain, and I went away
and left him prating of mysteries that none but such as he dare name.
So I passed on through dust and heat; and the hot breath
of men touched my cheek and eager eyes looked into mine. Eyes, eyes,—that
met my own and looked through them, beyond—far beyond to where gold glittered
amid the mirage of eternal hope. Gold! It was in the air where the soft
sunlight gilded the floating moats, it was under foot in the dust that
the sun made gilt, it glimmered from every window pane where the long red
beams struck golden sparks above the gasping gold-hunting hordes of Wall
High, high, in the deepening sky the tall buildings towered,
and the breeze from the bay lifted the sun-dyed flags of commerce until
they waved above the turmoil of the hives below—waved courage and hope
and strength to those who lusted after gold.
The sun dipped low behind Castle William as I turned listlessly
into the Battery, and the long straight shadows of the trees stretched
away over greensward and asphalt walk.
Already the electric lights were glimmering among the
foliage although the bay shimmered like polished brass and the topsails
of the ships glowed with a deeper hue, where the red sun rays fall athwart
Old men tottered along the sea-wall, tapping the asphalt
with worn canes, old women crept to and fro in the coming rwilight,—old
women who carried baskets that gaped for charity or bulged with mouldy
stuffs,—food, clothing?—I could not tell; I did not care to know.
The heavy thunder from the parapets of Castle William
died away over the placid bay, the last red arm of the sun shot up out
of the sea, and wavered and faded into the sombre tones of the afterglow.
Then came the night, timidly at first, touching sky and water with grey
fingers, folding the foliage into soft massed shapes, creeping onward,
onward, more swiftly now, until colour and form had gone from all the earth
and the world was a world of shadows.
And, as I sat there on the dusky sea-wall, gradually the
bitter thoughts faded and I looked out into the calm night with something
of that peace that comes to all when day is ended.
The death at my very elbow of the poor blind wretch in
the Park had left a shock, but now my nerves relaxed their tension and
I began to think about it all,—about the letters and the strange woman
who had given them to me. I wondered where she had found them,—whether
they really were carried by some vagrant current in to the shore from the
wreck of the fated Lorient.
Nothing but these letters had human eyes encountered from
the Lorient, although we believed that fire or berg had been her portion;
for there had been no storms when the Lorient steamed away from Cherbourg.
And what of the pale-faced girl in black who had given
these letters to me, saying that my own heart would teach me where to place
I felt in my pockets for the letters where I had thrust
them all crumpled and wet. They were there, and I decided to turn them
over to the police. Then I thought of Cusick and the City Hall Park and
these set my mind running on Jamison and my own work,—ah! I had forgotten
that,— I had forgotten that I had sworn to stir Jamison's cold, sluggish
blood! Trading on his fiancée's reported suicide,—or murder! True,
he had told me that he was satisfied that the body at the Morgue was not
Miss Tufft's because the ring did not correspond with his fiancée's
ring. But what sort of a man was that!—to go crawling and nosing about
morgues and graves for a full-page illustration which might sell a few
extra thousand papers. I had never known he was such a man. It was strange
too—for that was not the sort of illustration that the Weekly used; it
was against all precedent— against the whole policy of the paper. He would
lose a hundred subscribers where he would gain one by such work.
"The callous brute!" I muttered to myself, "I'll wake
I sat straight up on the bench and looked steadily at
a figure which was moving toward me under the spluttering electric light.
It was the woman I had met in the Park.
She came straight up to me, her pale face gleaming like
marble in the dark, her slim hands outstretched.
"I have been looking for you all day—all day," she said,
in the same low thrilling tones,—"I want the letters back; have you them
"Yes," I said, "I have them here,—take them in Heaven's
name; they have done enough evil for one day!"
She took the letters from my hand; I saw the ring, made
of the double serpents, flashing on her slim finger, and I stepped closer,
and looked her in the eyes.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I? My name is of no importance to you," she answered.
"You are right," I said, "I do not care to know your name.
That ring of yours—"
"What of my ring?" she murmured.
"Nothing ,—a dead woman lying in the Morgue wears such
a ring. Do you know what your letters have done? No? Well I read them to
a miserable wretch and he blew his brains out!"
"You read them to a man!"
"I did. He killed himself."
"Who was that man?"
With something between a sob and a laugh she seized my
hand and covered it with kisses, and I, astonished and angry, pulled my
hand away from her cold lips and sat down on the bench.
"You needn't thank me," I said sharply; "if I had known
that,—but no matter. Perhaps after all the poor devil is better off somewhere
in other regions with his sweetheart who was drowned,— yes, I imagine he
is. He was blind and ill,—and broken-hearted."
"Blind?" she asked gently.
"Yes. Did you know him?"
"I knew him."
"And his swcetheart, Aline?"
"Aline," she repeated softly,—"she is dead. I come to
thank you in her name."
"For what ?—for his death?"
"Ah, yes, for that."
"Where did you get those letters?" I asked her, suddenly.
She did not answer, but stood fingering the wet letters.
Before I could speak again she moved away into the shadows
of the trees, lightly, silently, and far down the dark walk I saw her diamond
Grimly brooding, I rose and passed through the Battery
to the steps of the Elevated Road.
These I climbed, bought my ticket, and stepped out to
the damp platform. When a train came I crowded in with the rest, still
pondering on my vengeance, feeling and believing that I was to scourge
the conscience of the man who speculated on death.
And at last the train stopped at 28th Street, and I hurried
out and down the steps and away to the Morgue.
When I entered the Morgue, Skelton, the keeper, was standing
before a slab that glistened faintly under the wretched gas jets. He heard
my footsteps, and turned around to see who was coming. Then he nodded,
"Mr. Hilton, just take a look at this here stiff—I'll
be back in a moment— this is the one that all the papers take to be Miss
Tufft,—but they're all off, because this stiff has been here now for two
I drew out my sketching-block and pencils.
"Which is it, Skelton?" I asked, fumbling for my rubber.
"This one, Mr. Hilton, the girl what's smilin'. Picked
up off Sandy Hook, too. Looks as if she was asleep, eh?"
"What's she got in her hand—clenched tight? Oh,—a letter.
Turn up the gas, Skelton, I want to see her face."
The old man turned the gas jet, and the flame blazed and
whistled in the damp, fetid air. Then suddenly my eyes fell on the dead.
Rigid, scarcely breathing, I stared at the ring, made
of two twisted serpents set with a great diamond,—I saw the wet letters
crushed in her slender hand,—I looked, and—God help me!—I looked upon the
dead face of the girl with whom I had been speaking on the Battery!
"Dead for a month at least," said Skelton, calmly.
Then, as I felt my senses leaving me, I screamed out,
and at the same instant somebody from behind seized my shoulder and shook
me savagely— shook me until I opened my eyes again and gasped and coughed.
"Now then, young feller!" said a Park policeman bending
over me, "if you go to sleep on a bench, somebody'll lift your watch!"
I turned, rubbing my eyes desperately.
Then it was all a dream—and no shrinking girl had come
to me with damp letters,—I had not gone to the office—there was no such
person as Miss Tufft,—Jamison was not an unfeeling villain,—no, indeed!—he
treated us all much better than we deserved, and he was kind and generous
too. And the ghastly suicide! Thank God that also was a myth,—and the Morgue
and the Battery at night where that pale-faced girl had—ugh!
I felt for my sketch-block, found it; turned the pages
of all the animals that I had sketched, the hippopotami, the buffalo, the
tigers—ah! where was that sketch in which I had made the woman in shabby
black the principal figure, with the brooding vultures all around and the
crowd in the sunshine—? It was gone.
I hunted everywhere, in every pocket. It was gone.
At last I rose and moved along the narrow asphalt path
in the falling twilight.
And as I turned into the broader walk, I was aware of
a group, a policeman holding a lantern, some gardeners, and a knot of loungers
gathered about something,—a dark mass on the ground.
"Found 'em just so," one of the gardeners was saying,
"better not touch 'em until the coroner comes."
The policeman shifted his bull's-eye a little; the rays
fell on two faces, on two bodies, half supported against a park bench.
On the finger of the girl glittered a splendid diamond, set between the
fangs of two gold serpents. The man had shot himself; he clasped two wet
letters in his hand. The girl's clothing and hair were wringing wet, and
her face was the face of a drowned person.
"Well, sir," said the policeman, looking at me; "you seem
to know these two people—by your looks—"
"I never saw them before," I gasped, and walked on, trembling
in every nerve.
For among the folds of her shabby black dress I had noticed
the end of a paper,—my sketch that I had missed!