The Shadows of Life

While occupied in the agreeable manner I have described, our little group was joined by a gentleman whom the lady welcomed as if he were a brother or dear friend—and not too heartily, I thought, for his person and manner were engaging in the extreme, and such as to attract and hold the attention of any one. Of commanding presence, and full of the glow and fire of life, his years sat so lightly upon him that he seemed only to have reached manhood, though he was in reality quite thirty years of age. Calling him to take a place by her side, he responded with pleasure, his high and noble features lighting up in response to her salutation and those of her children with so much animation and kindness that I was at once captivated by him, as in the case of Mr. Lincoln. When he was seated Mrs. Singleton spoke up, without preface of any kind, as was her way:
“Oh, Jefferson, I have had the queerest adventure! Something like a play at the theater, only a hundred times more exciting.”
“Indeed,” he answered, encouragingly.
“A play wherein a little tigerish lawyer sought to carry off a child. Without avail, though, for he was beaten off finally by a melancholy knight who appeared suddenly on the scene, to the great joy of those who were looking on,” the lady concluded, with rising voice.
“I am sure it must have been interesting,” he answered. “Pray tell me about it.”
“Yes, it was interesting, and something more than that. I was shopping, you must know, while the boat waited at Quincy, and in the most accidental way ran across the trial. The quaintest thing it was, too, that any one ever heard of. It was before a little justice, in the back part of his store, and all about the possession of this young gentleman,” she went on, laying her hand on mine, “who was being fought over by his Uncle Job, a fair-spoken young man, on one side, and a little dragon of a lawyer, who moved about like a hawk hovering over a brood of chickens. Oh, you should have seen him!”
“He was put to rout, though, finally, as you say?” the gentleman responded, smilingly.
“Yes; and in the end the good fairy carried off the child in triumph, as it does in the story-book.”
“It must have been a sight worth seeing,” he answered.
“Indeed it was. When the trial was going on you could have cried out with pain and rage, but not have laughed to save your life, it was so pitiable. It was grand, too; and what made it so was the presence of the sublime man who pleaded for the child—did he come on with you, Gilbert, the lawyer, I mean, who defended you?” the good lady stopped abruptly to inquire.
“Yes, madam.”
“Well, Jefferson, you must hunt him up, for to know such a man is an inheritance in itself, he has such gentleness and wisdom; and oh, the pathos and mournful sweetness of his speech! His knowledge of mankind, and of children most, I would never have believed any one could possess—and he so young, too”; and the lady stopped as if to conjure up anew the tall figure and melancholy face of Mr. Lincoln. “When he pleaded for his little friend, such sweetness of soul and honesty of heart shone in his face and lighted up his eyes that I know I shall never see the like of it again. Oh, you must know him, Jefferson, indeed you must!”
“I am sure it will be a pleasure, after what you have said,” he replied. “But what is the name of the gentleman? Surely such a man must be well known.”
“No, I think not, for he is only a young lawyer making his way. I inquired his name in the store as I came out, and they told me it was Abraham Lincoln. Is that it, Gilbert?” she asked, turning to me.
“Yes, madam; and except for him I should have been lost, I know,” I answered, remembering the desperate strait I was in when he came forward to plead my cause.
“That you would; but his benignity of manner and ingenuous truthfulness of speech no one could resist. His voice, Jefferson, was filled with such sweet melancholy that I could not listen without my eyes filling with tears. Oh, I could be enthusiastic in his praise if such a thing were possible to me,” the good lady concluded, with a sigh.
At this reference, the gentleman’s eyes wavered for a moment and filled with mirth, but respecting her kind heart and the intuition women have of men, he answered, soberly enough:
“I know Mr. Lincoln, or did at one time, for he was with General Gaines in Black Hawk’s war, and commanded a company of Illinois troops.”
“Indeed!” Mrs. Singleton responded.
“Yes; and he was much commended, I remember, for his tact and courage.”
“I can well believe it; but you were yourself in that war, Jefferson?”
“Yes.”
“Your dear wife, I remember, never tired of telling of the years of peril you passed among the Indians in this far-off country. Surely, such wisdom and courage in a mere lad would have made a great name had you stayed in the army.”
“It is very kind of you to say so, but I was only one of many who risked their lives similarly in the uprisings and ambuscades of the Indians.”
“Yet you have always been friendly inclined toward them?”
“Yes, their cause has always appealed to me; nor was the danger ever sufficient to efface it from my heart.”
“Their wars have been so cruel, though, Jefferson.”
“They fight in the way they have been taught,” he answered, gravely, “and for their homes, as white men do and will. Their love of country is not less than that of our race, and greater, maybe, for they live in its very bosom. Everything they treasure is threatened by the inroad of the whites, and has been from the beginning, the waves rolling on and over them like a cruel sea from which they cannot escape. They have sought to check or stay them, but only here and there have they been successful, and then only for a moment. Their fate is pathetic, and such, it seems to me, as to make men cry out. Brave and lost souls, they are like little children, made old and savage by the subtlety of the whites and our disregard of plighted faith.”
“Why did you quit the service, Jefferson? Surely it was a great loss to our country,” she went on, as was her way, without stopping to give him time to reply; “and how does it happen that you come back here? Some speculation, I suppose, for I hear the country is full of opportunities of that kind.”
“No, madam; I am on my way to Dubuque to adjust the claim of a poor man who is kept out of his rights, partly by reason of my action while in the service,” he answered, simply.
“Pray tell me about it,” Mrs. Singleton asked.
“There is little to tell. When I was in the service the government sent me to Dubuque with troops to remove the miners who had established claims there in advance of an understanding with the Indians, and who, up to that time, had obstinately refused to move.”
“Did you succeed?” Mrs. Singleton interrupted.
“Yes; partly by show of force and partly by persuasion, they were in the end prevailed upon to withdraw, but only on my pledging my word of honor that I would see to it finally that every man was reinstated in his claim.”
“Has not this been done?”
“Yes, except in the case of one man, and it is to aid in reinstating him that I am now on my way to Dubuque.”
“Have you come all the way from your home in Mississippi to do this?” Mrs. Singleton asked, half incredulously, and yet with a note of admiration and believing in her voice.
“Yes; there was no other way,” he answered simply.
“Oh, happy the cause, whatever it may be, that such men serve!” she answered, glancing at him with the pride women ever feel in the honor of men. “Surely, something great must be in store for one so brave and just and truly honorable.”
“I have no thought of greatness, dear madam, but live on my plantation, busied with its small affairs, and the sad thoughts that fill my mind of her I lost,” he answered, his face clouding.
For a time nothing further was said, but after a while, looking up, he continued, curiosity and interest showing in his face: “How does it happen, Mrs. Singleton, if I may ask, that I find you and all your belongings in this far-off land? What was it that tore you up by the roots, to transplant you to this savage country? Surely, you had no thought of leaving Mississippi when I saw you last.”
“In that you are mistaken, Jefferson, for we have always looked forward to such a thing, but not to speak of it, except among ourselves. It dates back, indeed, to a time long before John and I were married,” the lady answered; and here, at mention of her husband, her face suddenly became overcast, as one awakened from some pleasant dream to find a world full of worry and unhappiness.
“I do not understand, but perhaps you do not care to speak of it,” he answered, as if puzzled by her manner and disturbed look.
“No there is nothing to hide. Our leaving grew out of an intolerable dislike of the surroundings of my home life that I had when a girl. I need not tell you what it was. Perhaps I was not justified, but when John asked me to marry him I refused unless he would come North. How could he, though? He had his father’s plantation and the care of its slaves; and so he pleaded with me, but though I loved him, I would not yield. Thus weeks and months passed, he urging and I refusing, always with tears. Finally my mother, who knew of my reasons and how firmly I could cling to them, thought of a way out of our trouble. It was this: We were to marry and continue on, but if we had children, so she planned, we were, before any of them came of age, to leave the South and come North. To this we agreed, and gladly, for we loved each other devotedly, as we have to this day and will to the end.” Here stopping, her face clouded again, as if some dire thought obtruded itself upon her to disturb her happiness and peace of mind.
“How strange; and yet I do not know that I should say that,” he answered, after a while, “for others have done the same before and will probably to the end”; and ceasing to speak, his face showed in its lowering depths a trace of fear as of a vision of some far-off time when a nation should look upon slavery with her eyes and stand firm as she had stood. “Are you satisfied you have acted for the best?” he went on presently. “Your daughters will find the new life far different from the old, I fear.”
At this reference Mrs. Singleton turned to her children, but they had long since gone to some other part of the boat. Facing her companion again, her eyes filled with tears, which she sought in vain to restrain; and seeing this and her deep agitation, I made as if I would go, but looking at me, she invited me to remain. Whether it was she felt the need of so soft a creature as I, or for some other reason, I know not, but plainly she asked me by her look to stay, and so believing, I sat still.
“I am not disturbed by that, Jefferson,” she went on. “Their new life will give them self-reliance and strength. The hardships, I care nothing for. Besides, we were prepared to meet and lessen these, but it is in this that all my expectations have gone astray,” the good lady concluded, sobs choking her utterance.
“In what way, madam, may I ask, if I do not obtrude myself upon you?” he asked, with the affection a son might show.
“Oh, can I tell you, or ought I to! Yet every one will know it soon. Yes, I must and will, and oh, Jefferson, I beseech you, for the love our families have borne each other for a hundred years, save my husband! save him from himself!” Saying which, she arose and threw herself on her knees before him, tears streaming in torrents down her sad face.
“My God, madam, rise, I beg of you!” he answered, lifting her up. “What danger menaces him? You know I would risk my life to save you or your family! I have not seen Mr. Singleton since I came aboard. What is the matter, and how can I serve him or you?” he concluded, his voice agitated so as to be hardly distinguishable.
“John has always been a devoted husband, and in everything regardful of me and our children, until the last few days. Now he is no longer himself,” she answered, striving to control her emotion. “He has changed in everything. A demon has possession of him, follows him, tempts him, lures him on and on—in the morning, in the afternoon, in the night, never leaving him. Oh, my poor John! He has scarce spoken a word to me since we started. Save him, Jefferson, save him from the wretch who is ruining him body and soul! Surely men ought not to stand by and see such things. Oh, my poor husband! my poor children!” the lady concluded, burying her tear-stained face in her hands.
“Pray be calm, madam, I beseech you, and tell me what is the matter, and how I can aid you.”
“It is all on account of our neighbor, Colonel Burke, whom you know, and who, under the guise of being a planter and a gentleman, lives only to rob those he can tempt or deceive.
“Yes, I know him. All he has he has acquired by gambling and trickery; but I thought he had left our country.”
“He did, but only to return, and knowing John had everything we have in the world about him, found excuse to travel on the same boat with us, and from the first has lured him on to play. John, poor man, losing each day, yet hoping to regain his losses, has kept on till now our fortune is all but swallowed up, if indeed it is not wholly gone. Oh, save him, I beseech you, Jefferson, for the honor of men and the happiness of my poor children.” Saying which, Mrs. Singleton pressed her hands to her face in agony of shame and grief.
“What you have told me, dear madam, surprises and distresses me beyond anything I can say; but rest assured, if it is possible to save your husband and break the man who has entrapped him it shall be done,” he answered, rising to his feet. Then taking Mrs. Singleton’s hand, he bowed over it with such courtesy and gentle tenderness that his manner, I thought, was in all things like that which characterized and set apart Mr. Lincoln from other men.
6When he had taken his departure, which he did without delay, overcome with emotion I put my arms about the dear lady, as if I might thus comfort and shield her. Some grain of sense, however, returning to me presently, I kissed her as I would my mother or Constance, and bidding her good night set out to find Uncle Job. Coming across that amiable gentleman in another part of the boat, I asked him to go with me, and this he did, but with some surprise, because of my abruptness of speech and the scant ceremony I showed. Taking hold of his hand, I led him to the upper deck, where we found ourselves alone, save for Mr. Lincoln, who was walking back and forth in deep thought. Seeing us, he came forward, and after a few words we all sat down on a bench that stood near by. Then, without delay or any kind of preface, I told them of the kindness Mrs. Singleton had shown me, and the deep trouble she was in and the cause of it, not leaving out a thing. My story, I must believe, lost nothing in the telling, for they gave me rapt attention, and when I had finished I sprang up, crying out, without giving them time to speak:
“You will help her, Uncle Job, I know; and please come with me now, and I’ll take you to the gentleman who’s promised to save her husband.”
At this, and without a word being said, they arose and followed me. When we reached the great saloon the gentleman I sought stood apart, watching two men at play. Glancing in their direction, I saw Mr. Singleton, and of this I was sure, for such anguish I never saw in man’s face before. His companion, on the contrary, nowise disturbed, sat back at his ease, and with an air of being bored; but this was his mask, as it is of all men in similar cases. Going up to the gentleman I sought, I plucked his arm, and upon his turning about, said:
“This is my Uncle Job, and this is Mr. Lincoln, about whom Mrs. Singleton spoke. Uncle Job’ll be glad to help you save her husband, I know.”
“I am glad to meet you, gentlemen,” he responded, politely, greatly taken back it was apparent by what I said.
“I had not thought of calling any one to my assistance,” he went on, after a moment’s pause, “nor do I know that anything can be done, but it is kind of you to make the offer, and I thank you with all my heart.”
“I am glad to place myself at your disposal, as my nephew says, if I can be of service to you in any way,” Uncle Job responded.
“Thank you,” the other replied. Then turning, he extended his hand to Mr. Lincoln, saying: “I feel it a happiness and an honor to know you, Mr. Lincoln. My good friend, Mrs. Singleton, who heard you plead for our young friend here, is so filled with admiration at what she esteems your greatness of soul that she cannot find words to express her thoughts. Let me make myself known to you, however. My name is Jefferson Davis, and as you may perhaps remember, Mr. Lincoln, I served with you in the Black Hawk war.”
“I remember your service in that war very well, and before and after,” Mr. Lincoln answered, grasping Mr. Davis’s hand. “It is the common property of our state, I may say, and for it you have the love and gratitude of our people, whom you so faithfully served. I am glad indeed of the opportunity to meet you again, and to be able to express some part of the obligation we are under for your services.” Here, stopping, Mr. Lincoln by some chance looked down at me, and seeing the distressed look in my face, went on: “Now, if you will excuse me, let us take up the matter about which Gilbert has told us, not idly, but with a desire to aid the lady who has enlisted his sympathy. If Mr. Throckmorton or I can serve you in any way, Mr. Davis, please command us.”
“Surely, sir, this lady’s distress appeals to us as strongly as if we saw her being robbed by footpads on the open highway,” Uncle Job spoke up with great energy; “and I wish to place myself at your service, Mr. Davis, to throw the scoundrel overboard or horsewhip him, it doesn’t matter which.”
“Thank you, gentlemen. Our common manhood is concerned in the matter, however distasteful it is. I hope we may be able to hit upon some means of saving Singleton and the fortune that is the mainstay of his wife and children, for they will be helpless without it. This place is too public, however, to discuss such a matter, and if you will come to my room we can talk it over there more freely.”
Mr. Lincoln and Uncle Job assenting, they went away, leaving me alone. When they were gone, I turned again to the players, but after watching them for a while, feeling tired, sought my bed, where I was soon lost in the dreamless sleep of youth.