Porgy drove slowly down King Charles Street, and appraised the prospects for hitching and settling awhile in the narrow strip of shade against the walls of the buildings. The day was sweltering, and both cripple and goat were drooping beneath the steady pressure of the sun.
A man passed, walking briskly. Porgy at once recognized the long, easy stride, and the soft felt hat drawn rather low over the eyes. He reached out and gave a slight twist to the tail of his somnambulant animal, which resulted in a shambling trot that brought the vehicle abreast of the pedestrian. But at that moment the gentleman stopped, produced a key, and opening the door of an office, passed in without looking around.
Porgy eyed the office and its environs with evident satisfaction. The building stood very near the old apothecary shop; and between it and its neighbor to the east was an entrance way several feet in width, which breathed forth an inviting coolness from its deep shade. No one was passing at the moment. Porgy turned the head of his beast
toward the entrance, gave a sudden twist to the tail, and drove audaciously across the pavement, and into the retreat. Then he hitched his wagon a few feet from the street, and seated himself, cup in hand, at the pavement's inner edge
"Yuh bes' git along out of Mr. Alan' do way wid dat goat befo' he fin' yuh. Ain't yuh onduhstan' gentlemen ain't likes tuh smell goat?"
Porgy looked up and met the threatening gaze of Simon Frasier.
Frasier was a practising attorney-at-law. He was well past fifty years of age, and his greying wool looked very white in comparison with his uncompromisingly black skin. He had voted the democratic ticket in the dark period of reconstrution, when such action on his part took no little courage, and accordingly enjoyed the almost unlimited toleration of the aristocracy. Without possessing the official sanction of the State for the practice of his profession, he was, by common consent among the lawyers, permitted to represent his own people in the police and magistrates' courts and to turn his hand to other small legal matters into which it was thought inadvisable to enquire too deeply.
Porgy regarded his accuser stonily.
"Ob course gentlemen ain't likes tuh smell goat," he replied.
The door opened, and Archdale looked out. From where Porgy sat he could have touched him with his hand; yet the cripple's gaze never wavered from the face of the negro, and his expression remained unchanged. Forestalling an interruption, he hastened on, in a voice that had become mildly incredulous, as he continued, "But it can't be dat attuh knowing buckra long as yuh been know um, yuh ain't onduhstan' um any better dan tuh t'ink dey would dribe away po' cripple in de heat."
Archdale made a movement that actually crossed Porgy's line of vision; but the be
ggar's face gave no sign of recognition. His voice rose to a pitch of indignation: "Yuh might be a lawyuh, an' all dat; but I ain't goin' tuh hab yuh stan' dey an' tell me dat Mistuh Archdale gots dem po' w'itetrash ways. Ob course he don't likes de smell ob goat; but he gots er haht in he breas' fuh de po' cripple nigger."
A wry smile tugged at the corner of Archdale's mouth.
"All right, Porgy," he said, "I got it all; but, gentleman or no gentleman, I can't have a goat on my doorstep. I would not have one client left in a week."
At the sound of Archdale's voice, Porgy looked around. His entire body seemed to express amazement.
"Why, hyuh's de Boss now !" he cried. Then he turned triumphantly to the negro, and added, "Wut I done tells yuh 'bout de real quality; ain't yuh done see he say I kin stay?"
Archdale became desperate. "I did not say you could," he cried, with the manner of one who puts his foot in the crack of a closing door. "You can wait there today, as I will be in court all morning; but tomorrow you must find somewhere else."
"By tuhmorruh I goin' hab dis goat wash till yuh can't tell um from one of dem rosebush in de pahk!" Porgy assured him with an ingenuous smile. "Yuh is goin' to be mighty lubbin' of dis goat attuh a while, Boss."
"No; goats don't wash, Porgy. Away you go after today." But the power of absolute conviction was not in Archdale's voice. His foot was still in the crack; but he knew that the door was closing.
"All right, Frasier; I'll see you now about your divorce business," he said to the other negro, and showed him into the office.
Presently through an open window be-
hind Porgy came the sound of Archdale's voice:
"All right, Frasier. Out with it. The gentleman who has come down to improve moral conditions among the negroes thinks you are a menace. He is going to have you indicted for granting divorces illegally."
In a voice very different from the one in which he had arraigned Porgy, Frasier began:
"I fin' so much nigger onsattify wid dere marriage, an' I hyuh tell ob a t'ing dey calls divorce."
"Yes?" encouraged his questioner.
"So fuh a long time now I been separate dem wid a divorce wut I mek up fuh de pu'pose. An' he go fine, Boss. I done mek too much nigger happy."
"Have you one of the papers with you?"
Silence; and then Archdale's voice again.
" 'I, Simon Frasier, hereby divorce Rachel Smalls and Columbus Devo for the charge of one dollar; signed, Simon Frasier.' Well, that is simple enough. Where did you get this seal?"
"I done buy um from de junk-shop Jew, Boss."
"Don't you know there is no such thing as divorce in this state?"
"I hyuh tell dere ain't no such t'ing fuh de w'ite folks; but de nigger need um so bad, I ain't see no reason why I can't mek up one wut sati'fy de nigger. He seem tuh work berry well, too, till dat sof' mout' gentleman come 'roun' an' onsettle all my client."
A groan floated through the window to Porgy's ears, causing him to indulge in a slow, malicious smile. Then in a pained voice the negro lawyer proceeded: "He been keepin' me alibe, Boss. An' wut mo', he keep de nigger straight. Dis gentleman say dat dey gots tuh lib tuhgedduh anyhow till dey done dead. Dat's de law, he say. But nigger ain't mek dataway. I done get um all properly moralize, and dis same gentleman tell um dat my paper ain't no mo' dan a license tuh 'dulterate. So now dey just leabe each odduh anyhow, and I ain't gets no dollar. An' now he say he goin' jail me, wut mo'!"
There was a moment of silence, then Porgy heard Archdale's voice calling a number; then: "Hello! Is that the Solicitor's office? Mr. Dennis, please."
"Oh-this is Archdale, Dennis. Yes, another negro. This time it is Frasier, you know, the divorce decree case. Yes, I have him here in my office. Look here; you have
a terrifically heavy docket this term. There is no use taking the State's money and your valuable time on this case."
There followed a pause; then Archdale said hastily, "Oh, no; I am not trying anything; but he is perfectly innocent of any deliberate wrongdoing. Yes, of course; it would be serious if he were responsible; but you know no one takes old Frasier seriously. A no-bill from the grand jury would save no end of time and trouble.
"Yes; I will guarantee that he will stop."
Porgy listened intently, and after a moment he heard Archdale say, "Thank you," and turn his chair toward his client. Then he heard him address the negro.
"We are not going to lock you up this time, Simon. But you will have to stop divorcing your people. I have given my word. If you do it again, snap! to Jail we both go. Do you understandi"
A relieved gasp greeted the announcement, followed by "Gawd bless yuh, Boss. and a moment later Frasier stood blinking in the white glare of the street.
Porgy looked up, and in an exact imitation of Frasier's professional manner, said testily, "Mobe on, please; mobe on. I gots a berry perlite goat hyuh wut objec' tuh de smell ob de jail-bird."
A chuckle sounded from Archdale's office Immediately the light of victory, careful) veiled, but bright, shone in Porgy's eyes He reached behind him and tweaked the goat by the ear. The dejected animal mistook the signal, and started forward
"No, no, bubber," whispered Porgy. "Ain't yuh hear de Boss laugh? When nigger mek de buckra laugh, den he know he done won. Dis wey we goin' spen' we libe. You watch."
The change in Porgy, which Peter had been the first to notice, was now apparent to all who knew him. The defensive barrier of reserve that he had built about his life was down. The long hours when he used to sit fixed and tense, with the look of introspection upon his face, were gone. Even the most skeptical of the women were beginning to admit that Bess was making him a good mate. Not that they mingled freely with the other residents of the court. On the contrary, they seemed strangely sufficient unto themselves in the midst of the intensely gregarious life that was going on about them. Porgy's earnings were adequate to their modest needs, and Bess was always up and out
with the first of the women, and among them all there was none who could bargain more shrewdly with the fishermen and hucksters who sold their wares on the wharf.
Like Porgy, Bess had undergone a subtle change that became more evident from day to day. Her gaunt figure had rounded out, bringing back a look of youthful comeliness, and her face was losing its hunted expression. The air of pride that had always shown in her bearing, which had amounted almost to disdain, that had so infuriated the virtuous during her evil days, was heightened, and, in her bettered condition forced a resentful respect from her feminine traducers.
One morning while she was doing her marketing on the wharf, one of the river men who had known her in the past, hailed her too familiarly. He was at that moment stepping from the top round of a ladder on to the wharf.
"How 'bout ternight?" he asked with a leer.
She was holding a string of whiting in her left hand, and was hanging upon the final penny of a bargain with the fishman. She half turned, and delivered a resounding slap with her right hand. The man staggered backward, hung for a moment, then van-
ished. There was a tremendous splash from the shallow water.
"Twenty cent fuh dis string, an' not one cent mo'," Bess continued coolly to the fishman.
He accepted the price. Bess gave him eighteen cents, and a hard look. He counted the money, glanced at the hand that now hung innocently against her apron, then laughed.
"Just as yuh say, Sister. I ain't quarrelin' none wid yuh dis mornin'."
Bess gave him one of the faint, cryptic smiles that always made men friends and women enemies for her, and departed for Catfish Row, as if nothing had happened to break the dull routine of the morning's chores.
Saturday night, and the court had flung off its workaday clothes and mood. In the corner by Serena's washbench a small intimate circle had gathered about a smoking kerosene lamp. Several women sat on the bench with drowsy little negroes in their laps. A man near the light leaned over a guitar, with a vague wistfulness in his face, and plucked successive chords with a swift,
running vibrance of sound. Then a deep baritone hummed for a second and raised an air:
"Ain't it hahd tuh be a nigger; Ain't it hahd tuh be a nigger; Ain't it hahd tuh be a nigger; 'Cause yuh can't git yo' rights w'en yuh do. "I was sleepin' on a pile ob lumber, Jus' as happy as uh man kin be, W'en a w'ite man come wake me from my slumber, An' he say, 'Yuh gots tuh work now, 'cause yuh free !'"
Then they were all in on the chorus:
"Ain't it hahd tuh be a nigger,"and the gloom hummed with the low, close harmonies.
In another corner the crap circle had gathered. Porgy's delight in the game had not waned with his increasing interests, and he sat fondling the small white cubes, and whispering to them in his old confidential manner.
"Little w'ite babies," he crooned, "come sing fuh dis nigger."
He cast-and won.
Gathering the little heap of pennies and nickels, he passed them behind him to Bess, who squatted in the shadows. She took the money in silence, counted it, dropped it into her apron pocket, and continued to watch the game intently, smiling her cryptic smile when Porgy won, but saying scarcely anything at all.
The negro known as Sportin' Life had come in just as the game was commencing, and had sat in. That he was not altogether above suspicion was evidenced by the fact that the little circle of men refused to allow him to use his own dice, and told him so frankly. He scowled at them, dropped the dice back into his pocket, and started to leave. Then he seemed to think better of it, and joined the circle.
As the game proceeded it became evident that Porgy's luck was with him; he was the most consistent winner, and Sportin' Life was bearing most of the burden. But the mulatto was too good a gambler to evince any discomfiture. He talked steadily, laughed much, and missed no opportunity to drop a sly word of suspicion when Porgy drew in a pot. There was nothing that could be taken up and resented, but Porgy was mystified, and Bess' face was dark with
anger more than once. He had a way of leaning over just as Porgy cast, and placing his face almost on the flags so that he could see under the dice when they struck. Then he would look up, laugh meaningly into Porgy's face, and sometimes clap his hands as though the cripple had managed something very cleverly.
When the game finally broke up it was clear that he had poisoned the minds of the company, and the good nights lacked their usual warmth.
Bess reached into her apron pocket, and drew out the evening's winnings. The coins made quite a little weight in her hand. A late fragment of moon swung over the wall and poured its diminished light into her open palm. She commenced to count the money. Porgy left her, and drew himself into his room. She proceeded to count, absorbed in her task.
"Porgy lucky," said a low voice beside her. "Mus' be yer gots two dollar dere fer um." Sportin' Life lifted his elegant trousers, so that the knees would not bag, and squatted on the flags at her side. He removed his stiff straw hat, with its bright
band, and spun it between his hands. The rnoonlight was full upon his face, with its sinister, sensuous smile.
She looked at him squarely a moment then said in a cold, level voice:
"I can't 'member ebber meetin' a nigger dat I like less dan I does you."
"Thank yer kindly," he replied, not in the least degree daunted. "But jus' de same, I wants ter be frien' wid yer. Me and you ain't usen ter dese small-town slow ways. We ain't been above seein' night-life what is night-life, an' I jus' wants ter talk to you now and den; dat's all."
"I gots no time fuh talk," she told him. "An' wut mo', I t'rough wid de kin' ob nights you is t'inking 'bout."
"No mo' red-eye; none 'tall?" he queried. Nebber gits t'irsty, eh?"
"Yes, Gawd knows, I does git t'irsty now and den," she said impulsively; then added sharply, "But I done t'rough now, I tells yer; I done t'rough."
She arose to go. "Yo' kin' mek me sick," she told him; "an' I ain't wants tuh hab no mo' talk wid yuh."
He got spryly to his feet, and stood beside her. "Oh, come on, le's let bygone be bygone, an' be frien'." Then his voice became
low and ingratiating: "Come; gimme yer han', Sister," he said.
Acquiescent, but mystified, she held out her open palm.
He poured a little pile of white powder into it. There it lay in the moonlight, very clean and white on her dark skin. "Happy dus'!" she said, and her voice was like a gasp. "Take dat t'ing away, nigger. I t'rough wid um, I tells yuh." But she did not turn her hand over and let it fall upon the ground.
"Jus' a little touch fer ole time sake," he whispered. "'Tain't 'nough ter hurt er fly. An' it ain't goin' ter cos' yer one cent."
She stood a moment longer, and her hand trembled, spilling a few grains between her fingers. Then suddenly she clapped her palm over her mouth. When she took it away it was quite empty.
Sportin' Life heaved a sigh of relief, turned and leant against the wall-and waited.
In the corner by Serena's bench the party was breaking up. Only a few women were left, and instead of the blur of general talk, remarks leapt clear. They were discussing the crap game that had just closed.
"Dey is somet'ing berry queer 'bout de
way de money always go tuh de same place,' a voice was saying.
The moonlight ebbed from the cornea where Bess and Sportin' Life stood. Five minutes had passed since she had made her sudden decisive gesture. She stood oddly rigid, with her hands clenched at her sides.
Abruptly she spun around. "Yuh gots mo' ob dat?" Her voice was low and taut.
"Sho' I has!" came the answer, with a confident laugh. "But it don't come cheap. Gimme dat money yer got dere."
Silently she held out her hand, and poured the coins into his palm.
He gave her a small folded paper.
I got more ob dat when yer needs it,' he said, as he turned away.
But she did not hear him. She snatched the paper, opened it, and threw the contents into her mouth.
The court was sinking to sleep. One by one the lighted windows went blank. The women at the wash-bench got to their feet. One yawned noisily, and another knocked her clay pipe out on the flags in a shower of sparks. Then a voice came clearly--the one that had complained before about the crap game.
"I ain't sayin' ef it conjer, er jus' plain loaded dice. All I gots tuh say is dat dam
nigger, Porgy, steal my Sam' wages off him now t'ree week runnin.
Out of the shadows and across the moonlit square a figure flashed, gesturing wildly.
The women leapt back. The one who had done the talking screamed once, the shrill note echoing around the walls. The advancing figure closed convulsive hands upon her shoulders and snatched her body forward. Wide, red-lit eyes glared into her face. A voice half sobbed, half screamed, "Yuh say dat 'bout Porgy? Yuh say Porgy is t'ief?"
The victim was young and strong. She tore the hands from her shoulders and raised her arms before her face. One of the other women reached out to seize the intruder, but was met with a glare so insanely malignant that she retreated screaming.
Above them windows were leaping to light. Dark bodies strained from sills. Feet sounded, running down clapping dilapidated stairways. A shrill, long, terrifying shriek cut across the growing noise, and the women clinched and fell. Bystanders rushed to intervene, and became involved. Always in the centre of the storm a maddened woman whirled like a dervish and called horribly upon her God, striking and clawing wildly.
The babel became terrific. The entire
population of the court contributed to the general confusion. In the rooms above, children wailed out a nameless terror.
Suddenly over the tumult sounded the gong of the patrol wagon, and through the gateway half-a-dozen policemen advanced with pistols out, and clubs ready.
The uproar stopped suddenly at its peak. Shadows dropped back and were gulped by deeper shadow. Feet made no sound in retreating. Solid bodies became fluid, sliding. Yawning doorways drew them in. Miraculously the court was converted into a vacant, walled square, in which stood six erect figures, looking a little theatrical and foolish with their revolvers and clubs, and a woman who shook menacing hands at nothing at all and swore huskily at phantoms.
"No trouble finding the cause of the disturbance," said an authoritative voice. "Get her, men. Better use bracelets. Can't tell about dope cases."
The squad closed quickly. For a moment a grotesque shadow tumbled and shifted in the centre of the court; then a voice said, Steady now." The mass broke into individual figures, and, under the ebbing moonlight, moved toward the entrance with a manacled woman in their midst.
Porgy had opened his door at the first outcry and sat on the sill trying to get the import of the disturbance. Now, as the group passed close to him, he looked up. The woman had ceased her outcry, and was looking about with vague, unseeing eyes. As they walked past his doorway, so close that he could have touched the nearest officer with his hand, she looked down, and her gaze focussed upon the sitting figure. Her body stiffened, and her head lifted with the old, incongruous gesture of disdain.
"Bess!" called Porgy once very loudly; and again, in a voice that sagged, "Bess !"
One of the policemen paused and looked down upon the speaker. But the woman turned deliberately away, and he hastened to rejoin the party. Then the wagon clanged down the darkened street.
Under the gas light that supplemented a far, dusty window in the Recorder's Court, stood Bess. She swayed, and her face twitched ocasionally; but her glance was level, and her head erect.
Behind a high desk sat a man well past middle age. His florid complexion caused
his long grey mustache to appear very white. His eyes were far apart and suggested a kindness that was born of indolence, rather than of wide compassion. His hands were slender and beautifully made, and he sat with elbows on desk, and finger-tips touching. When he spoke it was in a drawl that suggested weariness.
"What is the charge, Officers?" he asked.
"Bein' under the influence of dope, an' creatin' a disturbance in Catfish Row, yer Honor," replied the policeman who stood by the prisoner.
"Not as we was able to see, yer Honor."
The judge turned to the prisoner.
Have you ever been here before?"
"No, suh," came the reply in a low, clear tone.
"The officer of the day thinks she has, yer Honor," put in the policeman, "but he can't swear to it. She looks like a hundred others, he says, scar and all; an' they change names so fast you get nothing from the records."
The Judge regarded the prisoner with amiability. The thermometer on the wall beside him registered ninety. It was asking too much of good-nature to require it to subvert itself in such heat.
"I suppose we will have to give you the
benefit of the doubt," he said. Then he turned to the officer.
"After all, it's the man who sold her the poison we want. I was kept here three hours yesterday by dope cases. I want it put a stop to."
He contracted his brows in a weak at tempt at sternness, and directed a steady gaze at Bess.
"Who sold you that dope?"
She met his eyes squarely.
"I don't t'ink I know um again," she said in a low, even tone. "I buy from um in de dark, las' night, an' he gone off right away."
"It's no use, Your Honor," put in the policeman. "They won't give each other away."
The judge fixed the culprit with a long scrutiny. Then he asked:
"Have you any money to pay a fine?"
"No, suh. Yuh'll jus' hab tuh gib' me my time."
A man entered the room.
"I beg your pardon, Your Honor," he said, "but there is a cripple outside in a goatcart who says he is prepared to pay the woman's fine."
"Eh; what's that?" exclaimed the judge. "Is it that black scoundrel, Porgy, the beggar?"
"That's him, Yer Honor," replied the man, with a grin.
"Why, the highwayman takes a dime from me every time I venture on King Charles Street. And here he has the audacity to come and offer to pay a fine."
"Don't tek he money, Boss."
The prisoner said the words steadily, then caught her lower lip with her strong, white teeth.
"Address the Court as 'Your Honor,' not 'Boss,'" ordered the judge.
"Yo' Honuh," amended the culprit.
For a long moment the Recorder sat, his brow contracted. Then he drew a large cool, linen handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his face.
"Go out and take ten dollars from the beggar," he told the policeman. "It's a small fine for the offence." Then turning to the woman, he said:
"I am going to lock you up for ten days, but any time you give the name of that dope peddler to the jailor you can leave. Do you understand?"
Bess had nothing to say in reply, and after a moment the policeman took her by the arm.
"This way to the wagon," he directed, and led her from the court room.
The street was a blaze of early morning sun, and the woman covered her eyes with her hand. The wagon stood, step to curb, and the officer hurried her across the narrow pavement and into the conveyance.
The bell clanged, and the heavy horse flung its weight against the collar.
Something impelled Bess to remove her hand and to look down.
Below the high side of the patrol, looking rather like a harbor tug beside an ocean liner, stood the goat-cart. For a moment she looked into Porgy's face. It told her nothing, except that he seemed suddenly to have grown older, and that the real Porgy, who had looked out at her from the eyes for a little while, had gone back into his secret places and closed the door.
The wagon lunged forward.
Then Porgy spoke.
"How long?" he called.
The incessant clamor of the gong commenced, and the hoofs beat their noisy tattoo upon the stones.
Bess raised both hands with fingers extended.
The wagon rounded a corner and disappeared.
The jail in which Bess was incarcerated was no better, and no worse, than many others of its period, and the score of negro women with whom she found herself could not be said to suffer acutely under their imprisonment. When life reaches a certain level of misery, it envelopes itself in a protective anesthesia which deadens the senses to extremes; and having no tasks to perform, the prisoners awaited the expiration of their brief sentences with sodden patience, or hastened the passage of time with song.
By day they were at liberty to exercise in the jail yard, a square of about half an acre surrounded by a high brick wall, containing not so much as a single blade of grass. Like a great basin, the yard caught and held the heat which poured from the August sun until it seemed to overflow the rim, and quiver, as though the immense vessel had been jarred from without. But the soaring walls gave always a narrow strip of shade to which the prisoners clung, moving around the sides as the day advanced, with the accuracy of the hand of a sundial.
Before nightfall the prisoners were herded into the steaming interior of the building, and Bess and the other women were locked in a steel cage, which resembled a large dog- pound and stood in the centre
of a high, square room, with a passageway around it. A peculiarly offensive moisture clung to the ceiling, and streamed in little rivulets down the walls. An almost unbreatheable stench clogged the atmosphere.
The jailers were not vindictive. They were not even unkind. Some of them evidenced a mild affection for their charges, and would pause to exchange greetings with them on their rounds. But it would have meant effort to better the living conditions, and effort on the part of a white warden in August was not to be considered. They locked them up, gave them a sufficiency of hominy and white pork to sustain life, allowed them to see their visitors, talk, and sing to their heart's content. If they were suffering from tuberculosis, or one of a hundred nameless and communicable diseases, when they entered, it was none of the County's affair. And if they left showing that ash-pallor so unmistakable in a negro, it was as lamentable as it was unavoidable. But when all was said and done, what must one expect if one added to the handicap of a dark skin the indiscretion of swallowing cocaine and indulging in a crap game?
Bess received but one visitor during her imprisonment. When the callers were ad-
mitted, on the day following her arrival, Maria loomed in the centre of the small, timid group. She went directly to Bess where she sat by the wall, with her eyes closed against the glare. The big negress wore an expression of solicitude, and her voice was low and surprisingly gentle as she said:
"Porgy ask me tuh bring yer dis blanket fuh lie on, an' dese fish an' bread. How yuh is feelin' now?" Then she bent over and placed a bundle in the prisoner's lap. Bess opened her eyes in surprise.
"I ain't been expectin' no fabors off none ob you folks," she replied. "How come yuh tuh care ef I lib er die, attuh dat row I mek?"
Maria lowered herself to a seat beside her.
"I lubs dat nigger, Porgy, lak he been my chile," she told her. "An' wut mo', I t'ink I know what done happen tuh yuh."
"Wut yuh know?"
"I been in my do' dat night; an' I seen dat skunk, Sportin' Life, sell yuh dat stuff. Ef I had er known den wut it wuz, I'd a been hyuh long side ob yuh now fuh murder."
After a moment, she asked: "Wut mek yuh don't tell de jailluh who done um, an' come on home?"
Bess remained silent for a moment; then
she raised her head and looked into the eyes of the older woman.
"I's a 'oman grown. Ef I tek dope, dat muh own business. Ef I ebber gits muh han' on dat nigger, I goin' fix um so he own mammy ain't know um! But I ain't goin' gib um 'way tuh de w'ite folks."
The hard lines about her mouth softened, and, in scarcely more than a whisper, she added:
"I gots tuh be decent 'bout somet'ing, 'less I couldn't go back an' look in Porgy face."
Maria got heavily to her feet. The other visitors were leaving, and she longed to be free of the high, brick walls. She dropped a hand on Bess's shoulder.
"Yuh do right, Sister. But ef dat yalluh nigger come tuh Catfish Row agin--leabe him fuh mc dat's all!" Then the big negress joined the departing group, and passed out through the small steel doorway that pierced the massive gate.
Bess sat for a long while without moving. The sun lifted over the high wall, and drove its white-hot tide into her lap, and upon her folded hands.
"Wut mek yuh ain't mobe intuh de shade?" a neighbor asked curiously.
Bess looked up and smiled.
"I jes' settin' hyuh t'inkin' 'bout muh
friend she said. "Yuh done hear urn call me 'Sister,' ain't yuh? Berry well den. Dat mean me and she is friend."
Bess lay upon the bed in Porgy's room and stared at the ceiling with hard, bright eyes. From time to time she would pluck at the sheet that covered her and utter hurried, indistinct sentences that bore not the slightest relation to existing circumstances. A week had passed since her release, and its seven interminable days had been spent in this fashion.
Porgy was out upon the day's rounds. Occasionally the door to the sick-room would open, and an awed, black face peer in. The mystery of delirium frightened and perplexed the negroes, and limited the manifestations of kindness and sympathy that they usually bestowed upon unfortunate friends. Even Maria was not proof against this dread, and the irrelevant observations that greeted her when she went in with the daily lunch sent her hurrying wide-eyed from the room.
Porgy returned early in the evening. His face was deeply marked, but the lines were those of anxiety, and his characteristic firm
ness of mouth and jaw was gone. He closed the door on the curious glances of his neighbors, and lifted himself to a seat upon the bed.
"How Bess now?" he asked softly.
She shifted her gaze from the ceiling to his face.
"Eighteen miles tuh Kittiwar!" she muttered. "Rattlesnake', palmettuh bush, an' such."
Her eyes were suddenly fearful, and she closed her hand tightly upon his.
Porgy cast a hurried glance over his shoulder. Then, reassured, stroked her brow, and comforted her in his deep, gentle voice.
"Yuh hyuh wid Porgy now; an' nuttin' can't hurt yuh. Soon de cool wedder comin' an' chill off dese febers. Ain't yuh 'member how dat cool win' come tuh town wid de smell ob pine tree; an' how de star is all polish up lak w'ite folks' silber ? Den ebbery body git well. Ain't yuh know ? Yuh jus' keep still, an' watch wut Porgy say.'"
She was silent after that, and closed her eyes. Presently, to his relief, he saw that she was sleeping. This was the moment for which he had been waiting. He went out, closing the door very gently, and joined a group of sympathisers in the court.
"Wut we goin' do now?" he asked. "A week gone, an' she ain't none better." Peter knocked out his clay pipe on a flagstone, with three staccato little raps, thus gaining the attention of the circle.
"Ef yuh wants tuh listen tuh me," he remarked weightily, "I adwise yer tuh sen' she tuh de w'ite folk' hospital."
His words were received with a surprise amounting to incredulity.
"Fuh Gawd sake, Daddy Peter !" an awed voice said at last. "Ain't yuh knows dey lets nigger die, so dey kin gib um tuh de student?"
But the old negro stood his ground.
De student ain't gits um 'til he done dead. Ain't dat so? Den he can't hurt um none. Ain't dat so, too? An' I gots dis tuh say. One ob my w'ite folks is er nuss tuh de hospital; and dat lady is er pure angel wid de sick nigger. Ef I sick tuhmorruh I goin' tuh she; an' wut she say is good wid me. I wants dis carcase tek care ob w'ile he is alibe. W'en he done dead, I ain't keer."
Yuh ain't keer whedder yuh is cut up an' scatter, 'stead of bein' bury in Gawd own grabe-yahd?" someone asked the iconoclast.
Under this direct attack, the old man weakened.
"Well, mebbe I ain't sayin' I jus' as fief,"
he compromised. "But I t'ink Gawd onduhstan' de succumstance, an' mek allowance." Serena Robbins broke the silence which followed.
"How come yuh ain't ax me fuh pray ober um?" she enquired in a slightly offended voice. "Mus' be yuh is done fergit how Gawd done answer we las' prayeh, and sen' dat goat tuh sabe yu' life, when starbation done stan' dey an' look yuh in de eye."
Porgy brightened at that, and turned eagerly from the dark horror of Peter's suggestion.
"Dat so, my Sister," he commenced; but her eyes were already closed, and her body was swaying from side to side, as she sat cross-legged on the flags. Presently she began to intone:
"Oh, Jedus, who done trouble de wateh in de sea ob Gallerie-"
"Amen!" came the chorus, led by Porgy.
"An' likewise who done cas' de Debbil out ob de afflicted, time an' time agin- "
"Oh, Jedus !"
"Wut mek yuh ain't lay yo' han' on dis sister' head?"
"Oh, my fadder!"
"An' sen' de Debbil out ob she, down er steep place intuh de sea, lak yuh use' tuh do, time an' time agin?"
"Time an' time agin !"
"Ain't dis po' cripple done lif' up out de dus' by we prayeh?"
"Da's de trut', Jedus."
"Eben so, lif' up he woman, an' mek she well, time an' time agin!"
"Time an' time ag'in! Allelujah!"
After the prayer the group scattered, each going silently away in the late dusk, until there remained only Porgy, who sat with bowed head, and Maria, massive and inscrutable, beside him.
When the last retreating footstep died away, the great negress bent her turbaned head over until it almost touched Porgy's face.
"Listen tuh me," she whispered. "Yuh wants dat 'oman cure up; ain't yuh?"
"Yuh knows I does." And, already suffering from the reaction from religious enthusiasm, his voice was flat and hopeless.
"Berry well den. De ribber boat leabe fum de wharf at sebben o'clock, tuhmorruh mo'nin'. Yuh knows dat deck-han' by de name Mingo?"
Porgy nodded assent, his eyes intent upon her face.
"Well; git on de wharf early, an' gib um two dollar. Tell um w'en de boat done git tuh Ediwander Islan' at eight tuhmorruh
night, tuh go right tuh Lody cabin, an' tell she tuh mek a conjer tuh cas' de debbil out Bess."
"Yuh t'ink dat cure she?" asked Porgy, with a glimmer of new hope in his eyes.
"I ain't t'ink. I knows," came in tones of absolute conviction. "Now, min'; an' do wut I say."
The big negress shuffed away to her room, leaving Porgy alone in the gloom.
The bent, solitary figure raised its eyes to the square of sky, with its bewildering profusion of stars, that fitted like a lid over the high rim of the court. There were no sounds except a weary land breeze that fingered the lichens on the south wall, and a whisper from the bay, as the tide lifted its row of shells and pebbles a notch further up the littered beach.
Now that all human companionship had been withdrawn, the watcher felt strangely alone, and smaller than the farthest star or most diminutive shell. Like a caged squirrel, his tired mind spun the rounds of his three alternatives: First, the white man's science, gaunt, clean, and mysterious, with the complete and awful magistracy which it assumed over the luckless bodies that fell into its possession. He knew that it returned some healed in body. He knew that
others had passed into its portals, and had been obliterated utterly. Then his second alternative: the white man's God, vague and abstract as the wind that moved among the lichens, with his Jesus, who could stir him suddenly to his most beautiful songs and make his heart expand until, for a moment, it embraced all mankind with compassionate love, but who passed, as the wind passes, leaving him cold and disillusioned. One of these he must choose, or else turn his face back to the old blurred trail that receded, down, down, down to the beginning of things: to the symbols one might hold, tangible and terrifying; to the presciences that shuddered like dawn at the back of the brain and told one what to do without the process of thought.
As though bent beneath a great physical weight, Porgy sat without moving, until the pattern on his glittering ceiling had changed and shifted. Then he lifted his face slowly, drew his sleeve across his moist forehead and entered his room.
Just before sunrise Porgy left his room and hitched up his goat. In the upper air over Catfish Row a single buzzard hung
poised. Slowly it careened to a current of air, and its belly and under-wings lit to a ruddy glory from the sun, which was still below the horizon. Porgy saw it and winced. But as he went about his task there was no indecision in his face. He harnessed the goat with steady hands, drove out of the court and to the pierhead.
He experienced no difficulty in finding his man. Mingo accepted the mission and the handful of pennies and nickels; and Porgy, having closed the bargain, returned at once to the court.
Maria was opening her shop as he entered, and paused with a shutter in her hands. She could scarcely believe her eyes. The beggar's face was bright, and he was humming a tune.
"Wut de news?" she asked. "Bess done git well?"
"Not jus' yit," he replied. "But I done had me a dream las' night; an' de dream say tuh sen' tuh de conjer 'oman; an' Bess goin' break she feber tuhnight."
"Da's right, my Brudder," Maria responded heartily. "Dat 'oman good as well now. You watch!"
All day, sitting by Archdale's office, Porgy hummed his tune, and counted off the hours of the steamboat's voyage. Now she would
be passing Kittiwar, and, in only a few hours more, she would be coming to rest for the night at Ediwander.
The counting off continued after he went to bed, and he was strangely undisturbed by Besss mutterings. Now the boat had arrived, he finally told himself. Maria had said that the cabin was near the landing Surely it would not take the woman long to brew the spell. His excitement increased to a mood of exaltation. He lay with his hand upon Bess's forehead, waiting.
Far away St. Christopher struck the hour. The mellow bells threw the quarter hours out like a handful of small gold coins to ring down upon the drowsy streets. Then, very deliberately, they dropped ten round, heavy notes into the silence.
This should be the moment. Porgy pressed his hand harder, and sweat broke out upon his brow. For a moment it seemed to him that life hung suspended.
"Porgy," said a weak, flat voice beside him. "Porgy, dat you dey, ain't it? Why you ain't talk tuh me?"
The cripple's answer was a sudden high laugh that broke to a sob. "T'ank, Gawd!" he said; and again, "T'ank, Gawd!"
On the evening following the day upon which Bess had taken her turn for the better, Maria was alone in her shop. The supper hour was over, and her patrons had departed. She was busy at her stove, and did not turn immediately when someone entered. When she finally looked over her shoulder, her customer had buried his face in his hands, and she failed to recognize him. Of one fact there could be little doubt: the man was drunk, for the close, little room was already heavy with the exhalations of vile corn whiskey.
She crossed the room, and touched the man on the shoulder. He lowered his hands and attempted to focus his eyes on her face.
"Oh, it's you, Mingo?" she said, and even then she did not grasp the significance of his presence in the city at that time.
"Gimme some supper," he growled; and, with an uncertain movement, drew some change from his pocket and spilled it in a small pile on the table.
Maria looked at the money. There was about half a dollar in all, but there were only two nickels, and the remainder was in pennies. It looked suspiciously like the currency in which Porgy paid his debts. Then, as she stood looking down at the little heap
of copper, the full import of the man's presence dawned upon her.
"Wut yuh doin' here now'?" she demanded of him in a tense whisper, "when de ribber boat ain't due back fuh annoder day?"
The question stirred her customer's consciousness to a faint gleam of life; but it did not vitalize it sufficiently for adroit prevarication.
"I miss de boat dis trip," he managed to articulate. "I take er drink wid er frien', and when I git tuh de wharf, de boat done gone."
Two powerful hands gripped his shoulders and flung him back against the wall. He opened his eyes wide and looked into a face of such cold ferocity that his loose lips emitted a sudden "Oh, Jedus!" and he became immediately sober, and very much afraid.
Then Maria poured into his ears words that had the heat and dead weight of molten lead.
"Now I goin' lock yuh up in dat closet till de ribber boat is back at de wharf," she concluded. "Den I goin' let yuh loose. But I all de time goin' be where I kin git my hand on yuh again. Ef yuh ebber tells Porgy, or any libbin' soul, dat yuh ain't de
liber dat message tuh Lody, I goin' tuh hab nigger blood on my soul w'en I stan at de jedgement. Now yuh gots dat straight in yuh head?"
Mingo nodded assent. He was beyond the power to speak.
The big negress jerked him suddenly to his feet, propelled him across the room and into the stygian recesses of the closet. Then she slammed the door, turned the immense iron key in the lock, and dropped it in her pocket.
"Well, dat's dat!" she remarked, as she wiped a moist, mystified face upon a corner of her apron. "Mus' hab been Jedus done um atter all." Then, as though to dismiss the matter, she added: "No, I be damn ef he did. He ain't gots it in um."