The languor of a Southern May was in the air. It was a season dear to the heart of a negro. Work on the wharves was slowing down, and the men were putting in only two or three days a week. There were always some of them lying about the court, basking in the sun, laughing, and telling stories while they waited for their women to come from the "white folks'" kitchens, with their full dinner pails.
Near the entrance, the stevedores usually lounged, their great size differentiating them from most of the other men. They had bright bandanas about their thick necks, and under their blue cotton shirts moved broad, flat backs that could heft a five hundred pound cotton bale. Earning more money than the others, and possessing vast physical strength in a world of brute force, they lorded it swaggeringly about the court; taking the women that they wanted, and dressing them gorgeously in the clashing crimsons and purples that they loved.
Grief over the loss of Robbins had stormed itself out at the funeral. Peter's ill
fortune still occasioned general comment, but slight concern to the individual. There was an air of gaiety about. The scarlet of the geraniums was commencing to flicker in a run of windy flame on each window sill; and from the bay came the smell of salt air blown across young marsh-grass.
At the wharf, across the narrow street, the fishermen were discharging strings of gleaming whiting and porgy. Vegetable sloops, blowing up from the Sea Islands, with patched and tawny sails, broke the flat cobalt of the inner harbor with the crosswash of their creamy wakes.
Through the back door of the cookshop Maria, the huge proprietress, could be seen cutting shark-steaks from a fourfoot hammer-head that one of the fishermen had given her. All in all, it was a season for the good things of life, to be had now for scarcely more than the asking.
Only Porgy sat lonely and disconsolate in his doorway and watched the sunlight creep up the eastern wall until it faded to a faint red at the top, then the blue dusk grew under the wharf, and swirled through the street and court. He had not been able to get to his stand since Peter's departure; and the small store of coins, which he kept under a loose brick in his hearth, was nearing ex-
haustion. Also, he missed his old friend keenly and could not enter into the lighthearted life about him.
Presently two women entered. Porgy saw that they were Robbins' widow, and her sister, who now shared her room. He had been awaiting their coming eagerly, as they had left in the early afternoon to carry bed-clothing and food to the jail for Peter.
"How yuh fin' um, Sister?" he hailed.
The younger woman paused, standing in the shadow, and the widow lowered herself to a seat beside Porgy. She had put her grief aside, and gone resolutely about her task of earning a living for the three children.
"I can't puzzle dis t'ing out," she said after a while. "De old man ain't done nuttin', an' dey done gots urn lock up like a chicken t'ief. Dey say dey gots tuh keep um till dat nigger Crown get ketch; an, Gawd knows when dat debble ob a t'ing goin' tuh happen."
"It sho pay nigger tuh go blin' in dis world," contributed the young woman. "Porgy ain't gots much leg, but he sho got sense."
After a moment of reflection, Porgy replied: "Sense do berry well, but he can't lift no weight."
A big stevedore was crossing the court, his body moving easily with the panther-like flow of enormous muscular power under absolute control.
The beggar's eyes became wistful.
"Sense gots power tuh take a t'ing atter yuh gits dere," he said. "But he nebber puts bittle in a belly what can't leabe he restin' place. What I goin' do now sence Peter gone, an' I can't git on de street?"
"Pray, Brudder, pray," said the widow devoutly. "Ain't yuh see Gawd done soften de haht of dat yalluh buryin' ondehtakuh attuh I done pray tuh him fuh a whole day an' night? Gawd gots leg fuh de cripple."
"Bless de Lord!" ejaculated the young woman.
"An' he gots comfort fuh de widder."
"Oh, my Jedus!" crooned Porgy, beginning to sway.
"An' food fuh de fadderless."
"An' he goin' raise dis poor nigger out de dus'."
"An' set um in de seat ob de righteous."
"Amen, my Sister!"
For a little while the three figures, showing now only as denser shadows in a world of shade, swayed slowly from side to side.
Then, without saying a word, Porgy drew himself across his threshold, and closed the door very softly.
It was not yet day when Porgy awakened suddenly. His eyes were wide, and his face was working with unwonted emotion. In the faint light that penetrated his bleared window from a street lamp, he made his way to the hearth, and removed the brick from his secret depository. With feverish haste he counted his little store, placing the coins in a row before him. Then with the utmost care he recounted them, placing them in little piles, one for the coppers, one for the nickels, and one for the dimes. When he had fully satisfied himself as to the extent of his wealth, his tension relaxed, and, tying the money in a rag which he tore from his bedclothing, he closed his hand firmly upon it, crawled back into bed, and immediately fell asleep.
Two days later, Porgy drove his chariot out through the wide entrance into a land of romance and adventure. He was seated
with the utmost gravity in an inverted packing-case that proclaimed with unconscious irony the virtues of a wellknown toilet soap. Beneath the box two solid lop-sided wheels turned heavily. Before him, between a pair of improvised shafts, a patriarchal goat tugged with the dogged persistence of age which has been placed upon its mettle, and flaunted an intolerable stench in the face of the complaisant and virtuous soap box.
As oblivious of the mirth-provoking quality of his appearance, as he was of a smell to which custom had inured him, Porgy turned his equipage daringly into a new thoroughfare, and drove through a street where high, bright buildings stood between wide gardens, and where many ladies passed and repassed on the sidewalks, or in glittering carriages.
But the magic that had come to pass, even in the triumph of that first morning, stirred vague doubts and misgivings within him. He noticed that while he occasioned slight comment in the negro quarter, no sooner had he entered the white zone, than people commenced to pass him with averted faces, and expressions that struggled between pity and laughter. When he finally reached his old stand before the apothecary shop, these misgivings crystallized into a definite fear.
Several of his clients happened to be passing the shop together. One of them was clerk to an apothecary further down the street. He seized his nose with one hand, while he pointed at Porgy with the other. Then all seized their noses, shaking with laughter, and waited to see what would happen.
Porgy looked his outfit over carefully. Certainly it was working with the utmost satisfaction. Somewhat mystified, he tied the ancient animal to a post, and, with great gravity, swung himself out of his wagon, across the pavement, and to his old stand.
The boys who had laughed stood nearby, and were joined by others, until soon there was quite a group.
Presently there issued from the shop the loud voice of the proprietor: "Oh, Mary, come quick, and bring the broom. Something has died again." Then followed the sound of boxes being overturned, while dust from a prodigious sweeping bellied in clouds from the door. Then the apothecary, very red in the face, came out for air, and found the goat. The burst of laughter that greeted him increased his irritation. Brandishing the broom, and in no uncertain language, he drove Porgy from his door.
But the bystanders had so enjoyed the
joke at the apothecary's expense, and were feeling in such high good humor, that when Porgy had an opportunity to appraise his collections, he found that they amounted to more than he frequently got from a whole day of patient waiting.
It is impossible to conceive of a more radical change than that brought about in Porgy's life by his new emancipation. From his old circumstances which had conspired to anchor him always to one spot, he was now in the grip of new forces that as inevitably resulted in constant change of scene. Soon he became quite a metropolitan, and might have been seen in any part of the city, either sitting in his wagon at the curb, or, if the residents of the locality seemed lenient in their attitude toward goats, disembarking, and trying his luck in the strip of shade along the wall.
In those days, everyone tolerated Porgy--for a while. He had become "a character." The other beggars gnashed their teeth, but were powerless.
On certain days he would turn to the south when he left the court, and soon would emerge into a land of such beauty that he
never lost the illusion that it was unreal. No one seemed to work in that country, except the happy, well-clothed negroes who frequently came to back gates when he passed, and gave him tender morsels from the white folks' kitchens. The great, gleaming houses looked out at him with kindly eyes that peered between solid walls of climbing roses. Ladies on the deep piazzas would frequently send a servant running out to give him a coin and speed him on his way.
Before the houses and the rose-trellises stretched a broad drive, and beyond its dazzling belt of crushed shell the harbor lay between its tawny islands, like a sapphire upon a sailor's weathered hand. Sometimes Porgy would steal an hour from the daily rounds, pause there, and watch a great, blunt-nosed steamer heave slowly out of the unknown, to come to rest with a sigh of spent steam, and a dusty thundering of released anchor chains.
"Gawd sho gots a long arm," he would murmur; or, "Porgy, yo' sho is a little somethin' aftuh all."
Then there would be other days when he would repair to the narrow retail street, with its unbelievable windows, and drawing near to the curb, between the tall carriages of the shoppers would fall heir to the pen-
nies which they got with their change, and which were of no value to such as they.
Always kind hands dropped coins in his cup, and sped him on. They were great days for Porgy. And great were the nights when he would tell of his adventures to the envious circle that gathered in the dusk of the court.
But Porgy was by nature a dreamer, and there were times even in those days, when his mind returned with wistful longing to the old uninterrupted hours when he used to sit, lost in meditation, under the unmarked drift of time. Some day, he would tell himself, there would come one with a compassion so great that he would give both Porgy and the goat place by his doorstep. Then life would be perfect indeed.
June, and the cotton season was over. The last tramp steamer had faded into the horizon. Great sheds that linked land and sea lay empty and dark, and through their cavernous depths echoed the thud and suck of waves against the bulkheads. The last of the stevedores had departed, some to the plantations, others to the phosphate mines, and still others to the river barges.
The long, hot days, so conducive to indolence, brought a new phase of life to Catfish Row. The loud talk and noisy comings and goings diminished. Men came in earlier in the evenings, and spent more time with their women.
Porgy sat alone in his doorway. In a room overhead a man and his wife were engaged in a friendly quarrel that ended in laughter. From an open window nearby came the sound of drowsy child voices. In the crowded dark about him, Life, with cruel preoccupation, was engrossed with its eternal business.
A large, matronly woman who lived near him, passed, carrying a pail of water. She stopped, set down her burden, and dropped a hand on Porgy's shoulder.
"What de matter wid dis man, he ain't gots nuttin' tuh say?" she asked him kindly.
Porgy's face contracted with emotion. He caught her hand and hurled it from him. "Lemme be," he rasped, in a tight, husky voice. "Yuh done gots yuh own man. Ain't yuh?"
"Oh, Lawd!" she laughed, as she turned away. "Yuh ain't t'ink I wantin' yeah, is yuh? Do listen tuh de man."
Through the early night a woman had lain in the dust against the outer wall of Maria's cook-shop. She was extremely drunk and unpleasant to look upon. Exactly when she had dropped, or been dropped there, no one knew. Porgy had not seen her when he had driven in at sunset. But he had heard some talk of her among those who had entered later. One of the men had come in laughing.
"I seen Crown's Bess outside," he said. "Must be she come aroun' tuh look fur um."
"She sho goin' tuh hab one long res', ef she goin' wait dere fur um. Dat nigger gone f'om hyuh fas' and far!" another had averred.
It was ten o'clock; and Maria was closing her shop. The great negress was in the act of fastening the window, when the tall, gaunt form of the woman lurched through the door into the faint illumination of the smoking lamp. The visitor measured the distance to the nearest bench with wandering and vacant eyes, plunged for it, and collapsed, with head and arms thrown across a table.
Maria was exasperated, but equal to the emergency. Catching the woman around the middle, she swung her easily to the door,
dropped her into outer darkness, and returned to the window.
A crash caused her to turn suddenly. There was the woman again, sprawled across the table as before.
"I swear tuh Gawd!" exclaimed the provoked negress. "Ef yuh ain't de persistentes' nigger I ebber seen." She went over, lifted the woman's head, and looked into eyes in the far depths of which a human soul was flickering feebly.
"Somethin' tuh eat," the woman whispered. "Lemme hab somethin' tuh eat, an' I'll go."
Growling like an approaching equinoctial gale, Maria brought bread and fish; and emptying the dregs of the coffeepot into a cup, placed it before her.
"Now, eat an' trabble, Sister," she advised laconically.
The woman raised her head. An ugly scar marked her left cheek, and the acid of utter degradation had etched hard lines about her mouth; but eyes into which human consciousness was returning looked fearlessly into the determined face of the big negress. For a moment she ate wolfishly; then asked suddenly:
"Who lib in dat room 'cross de way?"
"Porgy," she was informed, "but such as
yuh ain't gots no use fuh he. He a cripple, an' a beggar."
"He de man wid goats"
"Yes, he gots goat."
The woman's eyes narrowed to dark, unfathomable slits.
"I hyuh say he gits good money fum de w'ite folks," she said slowly.
In silence the meal was finished. Then the woman steadied herself a moment with hands against a table, and, without a word to Maria, walked quickly, with an almost haughty carriage, from the room.
She crossed the narrow drive with a decisive tread, opened the door of Porgy's room, entered, and closed the door behind her.
It was late afternoon. Serena Robbins entered the court, paused at Porgy's door, and gave a sharp rap on the weathered panel. The door was opened by a woman. The visitor looked through her, and spoke directly to Porgy, who sat within.
"I gots good news," she announced. "I done been tuh see my w'ite folks 'bout Peter; an' dey say dey gots a friend who is a lawyer, an' he kin git urn out. I tell urn
tuh sen' um tuh see you 'bout um, 'cause yuh gots so much sense when yuh talks tuh w'ite folks."
Having delivered her message, Serena turned a broad back upon the woman who stood silently in the doorway, and with the bearing of an arbiter of social destinies, strode to her corner of the court.
Across the drive, Maria, vast and moist, hung over her stove in a far corner of her cook-shop. Several negroes sat at the little tables, eating their early suppers, laughing and chaffing.
"Yuh sho got good-lookin' white gals in dis town," drawled a slender young octoroon. He was attired in sky-blue, peg-top trousers, yellow spats, and in the center of a scarlet bow-tie gleamed an immense paste horseshoe.
"Do listen tuh Sportin' Life !" said a black, loutish buck admiringly. "Ef he ain't lookin' at de rollin' bones, he always gots he eye on de women."
Maria's heavy tread shook the room as she crossed and stood, with arms akimbo, scowling down at her iridescent guest. The man looked up, lowered his eyes quickly, and shifted uneasily in his chair.
"Nigger !" she finally shot at him, and the impact almost jarred him from his chair.
"I jus' tryin' ter figger out wedder I bettuh kill yuh decent now, wid yuh frien's about yuh; or leabe you fuh de w'ite gentlemens tuh hang attuh a while."
"Come now, old lady, don't talk like dese old-fashioned lamp-oil niggers what have had no adwantage. Why, up in New York, where I been waitin' in a hotel- "
But he got no further.
"Noo Yo'k," she shouted. "Don't yuh try any Noo Yo'kin' aroun' dis town. Ef I had my way, I'd go down tuh dat Noo Yo'k boat, an' take ebbery Gawd's nigger what come up de gang plank wid er Joseph coat on he back an' a glass headlight on he buzzom and drap um tuh de catfish befo' he foot hit decent groun'! Yas; my belly fair ache wid dis Noo Yo'k talk. De fus t'ing dat dem nigger fuhgit is dat dem is nigger. Den dem comes tuh dese decent country mens, and fills um full ob talk wut put money in de funeral ondehtakuh pocket." Breathless, she closed her arraignment by bringing a fist the size of a ham down upon the table with such force that her victim leapt from his chair and extended an ingratiating hand toward her.
"Dat' all right, Auntie. Le's you an' me be frien'."
"Frien' wid yuh?" and her tone dripped
scorn. "One ob dese days I might lie down wid er rattlesnake, and when dat time come, yuh kin come right along an' git intuh de bed. But till den, keep yuh shiny carcase in Noo Yo'k till de debbil ready tuh take chaage ob um!"
Suddenly the anger left her eyes, and her face became grave. She leaned over, and spoke very quietly into his face.
"Fuh Gawd's sake, don't talk dat kind ob talk tuh dese hyuh boys. Dis county ain't nebber yit see a black man git lynch. Dese nigger knows folks, an' dey knows nigger. Fer Gawd' sake keep yuh mout' off w'ite lady. Yuh gots plenty ob yuh own color fuh talk 'bout. Stick tuh dem, an' yuh ain't git inter no trouble."
During Maria's attack upon her guest, the court had been full of the many-colored sounds that accompanied its evening life. Now, gradually the noise shrunk, seeming to withdraw into itself. All knew what it meant. A white man had entered. The protective curtain of silence which the negro draws about his life when the Caucasian intrudes hung almost tangibly in the air. No one appeared to notice the visitor. Each was busily preoccupied with his task. Yet the newcomer made no move that was not noted by fifty pairs of inscrutable eyes.
The man wore a soft hat drawn well down over his face. He was slender and tall, and walked with his body carried slightly forward, like one who is used to meeting and overcoming difficulties.
A young woman passed him. He reached out and touched her on the arm. She stopped, and turned immediately toward him, her eyes lowered, her manner submissive, but utterly negative.
"I am looking for a man by the name of Porgy," he said in a clear pleasant voice. "Can you direct me to his room?"
"Porgy?" she repeated slowly, as though trying to remember. Then she called aloud: "Anybody hyuh know a man by de name ob Porgy?"
Several of the silent bystanders looked up. "Porgy?" they repeated, one after another, with shakes of the head.
The white man laughed reassuringly, as though quite used to the proceeding. "Come," he urged, "I am his friend, Mr. Alan Archdale; I know that he lives here, and I want to help him."
From behind her tubs, Serena advanced, knocking the ashes from her clay pipe as she came. When she was quite close, she stopped, and peered up into the face above her. Then she turned upon the girl.
"Go 'long an' call Porgy," she commanded. "Can't yuh tell folks when yuh see um?"
A light broke over the young woman's face.
"Oh, yuh means Porgy?" she cried, as though she had just heard the name for the first time; "I ain't understan' wut name yuh say, Boss," and echoes arose from different parts of the court. "Oh, yes, de gentleman mean Porgy. How come we ain't understan'." Then the tension in the air broke, and life resumed its interrupted flow.
The young woman stepped to Porgy's door, and called. Presently the door opened, and a woman helped the beggar out to his seat upon the sill, then seated herself behind him in the deep gloom of the room.
Archdale crossed the short distance, and seated himself on the sill beside the negro.
"Tell me about your friend who got locked up on account of the Robbins murder," he asked, without preamble.
In the dim light, Porgy leaned forward and looked long into the keen, kindly face of his questioner.
Archdale gave a surprised exclamation: "Why, you're the old man who used to beg in front of the apothecary shop on King Charles Street!" he said. Then, after a mo-
ment of scrutiny: "But you are not old, after all, are you?" and he studied the face intently. There was a touch of grey in the wool above the ears, and strong character lines flared downward from the nose to corners of a mouth that was, at once, full-lipped and sensuous, yet set in a resolute line most unusual in a negro. With the first indications of age upon it, the face seemed still alive with a youth that had been neither spent nor wasted.
"But, tell me about your friend," said the visitor, breaking a silence that was commencing to become tense.
Porgy's face still wore its mask. "How come yuh tuh care, Boss?" he queried.
"Why, I am the Rutledge's lawyer; and I look after their colored folks for them. I think they must have owned half the slaves in the county. A woman here, Serena Robbins, is the daughter of their old coachman, or something; and she asked them to help her friend out."
"Peter ain't gots no money, yuh know, Boss. An' I jes begs from do' to do'." There was still a shade of suspicion in Porgy's voice.
Archdale laughed reassuringly. "It will not take any money. At least, not much; and I am sure that Mrs. Rutledge will take
care of that. So you can go right ahead and tell me all about it."
Fully satisfied at last, Porgy told the tale of the killing and the subsequent arrest of Peter.
When he had finished the recital, Archdale sat silent for a while. "The dirty hounds!" he said under his breath. Finally he turned wearily to Porgy, and explained slowly:
"Of course we can go to law about this; but it will take no end of time. There is an easier way. He must have someone, who is acceptable to the magistrate, to go his bond. Do you know a man by the name of Huysenberg, who keeps a corner-shop down by the West-end wharf?"
Porgy, listening intently, nodded.
Archdale handed him a bill. "Take this ten dollars to him, and tell him that you want him to go Peter's bond. He hasn't any money of his own, and his shop is in his wife's name, but he has an arrangement with the magistrate that makes him entirely satisfactory."
He handed Porgy a card with an address pencilled under a printed name. "You will find me here," he said. "If Peter is not out in two days after you hand over the ten, let me know." Then, with a brisk,
but friendly "Good night," he left the court.
There was great rejoicing in Catfish Row. Peter had returned. The ten dollar bill which Archdale had given Porgy had worked the miracle. Except for the fact that the old negro's shoulders drooped, and his grip on actualities seemed weakened by his confinement, there was no evidence to show that he had been absent. He had gone to the horse-dealer, and had found his ancient beast still awaiting a purchaser. Another contract had been signed which had started him off again on the eternal weekly payment. The German had driven back with the furniture, which Peter had docilely purchased for the second time. Again "The Great Emancipator" had been hung in his accustomed place above the mantel. Now, each morning, the old wagon rattled out over the cobbles, with the usual number of small, ecstatic, black bodies pendant from its dilapidated superstructure.
"De buckra sho gots nigger figgered out tuh a cent!" said Peter philosophically, and even with a note of admiration in his voice. "Dem knows how much money wagon make
in er week; an' de horse man, de furniture man, an' de lan'lo'd mek dey 'rangement' accordin'. But I done lib long 'nough now tuh beat 'em all, 'cause money ain't no use tuh a man attuh he done pass he prime, nohow."
When the old man had settled firmly back into his nook, and had an opportunity to look about him, he noticed a change in Porgy.
"I tell yuh dat nigger happy," he said to Serena, one evening while they were smoking their pipes together on her washing bench.
"Go 'long wid yuh !" she retorted. "Dat 'oman ain't de kin' tuh mek man happy. It tek a killer like Crown tuh hol' she down."
"Dat may be so," agreed the old man sagely. "But Porgy don' know dat yit. An' 'side, ef a man is de kin' wut needs er 'oman, he goin' be happy regahdless. Him dress she up in he own eye till she look lak de Queen of Sheba tuh um. Porgy t'ink right now dat he gots a she-gawd in he room."
"He sho' gots de kin' wut goin' gib um hell," Serena commented cynically. "Dat 'oman ain't fit tuh 'sociate wid. Much as I like Porgy, I wouldn't swap t'ree wo'd wid she."
"Dat's all so, Sister," conceded Peter. "But yuh keep yo' eye on Porgy. He usen tuh hate all dese chillen. Ain't he? Now watch um. Ebery day w'en he come home he gots candy-ball fuh de crowd. An' wut mo', yistuhday I hyuh he an' she singin' tuhgedduh in dey room."
Serena motioned to him to be quiet. Porgy's woman crossed the court to draw a bucket of water from the common tap near Serena's corner. She was neatly dressed, and passed them as though they did not exist. Filling her pail, she swung it easily to her head, and, steadying it lightly with one hand, returned close to them with an air of cool scorn that produced entirely different effects upon her two observers. Serena watched her departure in silence.
"Dat de t'ing!" said Peter, a note of admiration in his voice. "She sho ain't axin' no visit offen none of she neighbor." And he emitted an indiscreet chuckle, which was too much for his friend.
"Yuh po', ole, wall-eyed, sof'-headed gran'daddy ! Ain't yuh 'shame' tuh set dey befo' me, an' talk sweet-mout' 'bout dat murderin' Crown's Bess? Ef I wuz yo' age, an' er man, I'd sabe my sof' wo'd fer de Gawd-farin' ladies."
"Ef yuh wuz my age, an' a man-" com-
menced Peter. He hesitated, and looked long at her with his dim, kindly eyes; then he shook his head. "No; it ain't no use. Yuh wouldn't onderstan'. Dat somet'ing shemale sense ain't goin' tuh help yuh none wid." And, still shaking his head, he knocked out his pipe, and departed in the direction of the stable, where he was presently greeted by a soft, comprehending whinny.
Bess entered Porgy's room and swung her pail of water to its place beside the new wood stove that had superseded the old, open hearth, and busied herself with preparations for supper.
Porgy was seated in a low chair near the door. He was smoking contentedly, and the odd tension that had characterized him, even in his moments of silent thought, had given place to a laxed attitude of body and an expression of well-being.
An infinitesimal negro passed with a whistle and a double shuffle.
"Look hyuh, sonny!" called Porgy.
The boy paused, hesitated, and advanced slowly. Porgy held out a large round ball, striped red and white. "How 'bout er sweet?" he said a little self-- consciously. The boy took the candy, and shuffled uneasily from foot to foot.
"Dat's right," said Porgy, with a burst of sudden, warm laughter, that somehow startled the child. "Now yuh come again an' see Porgy an' Bess."