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A Grain of Gold

by Will Allen Dromgoole

Everybody said he would go to the bad; everybody expected it of him. Whether it was the fulfilment of the promise, “As thy faith so be it,” or whether he felt any conscientious obligation resting upon him not to disappoint public expectation, nobody knows. Nobody was surprised, however, when news went over the town that Jim Royal was going to the penitentiary.

Going to “the pen” at sixteen years of age. Nobody thought of that. Moreover, the old Tennessee prison contains scores of boys under sixteen, for that matter; and if they do not work satisfactorily, the lessees of the prison have made no complaint of them; therefore, they do work satisfactorily; for the lessees are not likely to pay the State for the privilege of feeding worthless hands. But as for vagabond Jim, if anybody thought of him at all, it was something after this wise:

“Safe place. Keep him out of mischief. Protect other people’s boys. Bad influence, Jim’s. Town’s scourge. Bad mother before him. Questionable father. Made to work.”

Now there were two considerations in this category, concerning which the public opinion was exactly correct. More so, indeed, than public opinion is usually known to be. Namely: Jim would “be made to work.” No doubt about that. There were straps for the obstreperous, the water-pump for the sullen, the pool for the belligerent, the lash for the lazy, and for the rebellious—the shotgun.

Oh, yes; Jim would be made to work. The town was quite right about that.

The other consideration, although not altogether so important, was a trifle more interesting. Jim’s “questionable father”!

It was his mother’s fault that public interest (?) was not gratified. And it never forgave the poor outcast for leaving the world with that seal of secrecy still unbroken. The heart broke, but not the seal. They cast her off utterly when, poor girl-mother, she stubbornly refused to reveal the name of her betrayer. To them there was nothing heroic in the answer, “Because my life is ruined, shall I ruin his?”

So they treasured it against her in her grave, and against her son after her, in his grave too, that living, loathsome sepulchre, the State prison.

But they had surmised a good deal regarding Jim’s paternal parentage. They searched for resemblances, birthmarks, peculiarities of feature, owning that nature always set her brand upon the bastard, and that the features, as well as the iniquities of the father, are always visited upon the illegitimate. If this be the case, Jim must have come of some strange blood. And yet, knowing him and his history, some might have traced the poor mother in the boy, although of that mother he knew very little. He had been told—oh, yes, he had been told—that she was found in a garret one December morning with a vagabond baby nursing at her dead breast. And old Nancy Piatt, the only one who ever seemed to dislike talking to the lad about it, had told him that she was “a pretty corpse, as pretty as the grave ever held,” and that the dead lips wore a smile, those dead lips that never would, and never could, give up their pitiful secret. Poor lips; death had granted that which life denied them—a smile. Stubbornness, the town gossips called the woman’s silence. In other circumstances it would have answered to the higher term of fidelity, or, perhaps, heroism. Jim was very like his mother, old Nancy said, despite Dame Nature’s habit of branding. Surely Nancy ought to be authority, for when the boy was left, at two months old, on the town, old Nancy Piatt, a drunken old crone, who washed the clothes of the rich all the week, and drank her earnings Saturday evenings, was the only one who offered to “take the cub” whom the authorities were ready to give away.

A sorry chance had Jim, although he never realized that. At ten he could drink as much liquor as Nancy herself, and outswear the ablest lawyer in the town. At twelve he could pick a lock better than a blacksmith, and was known as one of the most cunning sneak thieves in the place. At fourteen he beat a little boy of eight unmercifully. (Did anybody expect old Nancy to tell him that was the crown crime of cowardice?)

Then someone suspected Nancy of a crime. One of those nameless crimes concerning which the law is very jealous, not considering the slander prevented, the “good name preserved,” and the disgrace averted. All in high circles, and all set in the scale against a useless little baby,—a wicked little illegitimate baby, that is so heartless as to be born, and thereby bring a world of trouble upon wealthy and respectable people.

That old Nancy—for handsome considerations—had made away with the selfish baby, Jim knew as well as anybody. And when he was offered quite as handsome a sum to tell all he knew about it, his reply was to plant his fist in the eye of the man who had made the offer. Not that he cared for the cause the babe’s coming had disgraced. He only meant to stand by old Nance, and not all the money in the county’s coffers could have forced his lips to speak that which would hurt her. He was afterward arrested and brought before the magistrate, together with Nance, and swore, not by the calendared saints,—he hadn’t made their acquaintance,—but by “George,” by “Gum,” by “Gosh,” and even by God himself that he knew nothing at all about the matter. They knew he was lying, but there was no way to prove it, as he attempted no dodge. He was merely ignorant. Nance hadn’t asked him to do this; she knew he would do it if necessary. She had not attempted to win his love, his confidence, or his gratitude. Perhaps she believed, in her blind way, that these things are born, not won, like respect, and honor, and admiration. He was fifteen when this happened. At sixteen Nance died from the effects of a blow from a policeman’s club while trying to arrest her. Two weeks later the policeman died from the effects of a blow from Jim’s club while trying to protect old Nance. Two months later the prison door closed on Jim, and the town took breath again in a long, relieved sigh of “Safe at last!” As if vagabond Jim’s salvation had lain a weight for sixteen years upon their consciences.

It was certainly the face of a hardened creature that followed the sheriff to the railroad station that June morning. June, sweet, old love-laden, rose-burdened June. Of all the year to give up one’s freedom in June. And how many years before he would breathe the free, rose-haunted air of another June. Twenty. Why, the twentieth century would be dawning before he would be free again. Would his face be any the less hard at the expiration of his term? The penitentiary isn’t a hotbed of virtue, and Jim wasn’t wax. Nobody wasted any hopes on him,—except the lessees, who, finding him able-bodied, young, and healthy, sent him to the Branch prison to dig coal.

There an old gray-bearded warden offered a plea for his youth, and a protest against the associations of the Branch, and was promptly reminded that the Tennessee State prison was not a reformatory institute, but that it had been leased as a financial speculation, which was expected to yield at least ten per cent. on the money invested by the lessees.

So Jim went to the coal mines in the mountains, leaving his life, his poor, puny sixteen years of dust and degradation, behind him. If there was anything of brightness, any softening memory, any tender touch of the human—dream touches are they to the castaway—which Jim carried with him, it was the memory of old Nance, drunken, filthy, murderous old Nance, and the face of the gray-bearded warden who had lifted his voice in his behalf.

It was noon of a day in June, early in the eighties, that Jim trudged across the coal-sprinkled ridge upon which rose the great gray, weather-beaten, rat-infested fence, which was dignified by the name of stockade. To go out of life into a dungeon like that, and at noon of a day in June. That Jim made no sign was accredited to his hardness of heart. That, having registered and heard an official sneer at the name, Jim Royal, and having passed through the hands of the barber, and being duly entered at last among the State’s hired help, and dropped down on his ill-smelling bunk, a rat came and gnawed his ear, and the vermin crawled unmolested over him, and still he gave no sign, was set down to the account of his laziness.

“He won’t be vicious,” the warden said, “he is too lazy,” and he thought yearningly of the raw-hide lash hanging in the office. That the stupor might be the result of weariness had never once suggested itself. If it had, why still there was the lash. The lessees’ ten per cent. must be gotten out of that herd in the stockade, even if it should be necessary to beat it out.

But when, the next morning, Jim fell into his place as brisk as any, the warden began to waver between the lash and the pool. If he did not need the one, he was fairly seen to require the other. All of them needed some one, may be two, of the prison’s medicines, and the warden made a special point of spying out the diseases of new arrivals, and applying the remedy as soon as possible. It told them, more plainly than words, precisely the manner of treatment they were to expect in case of any appearance of any of the several moral diseases with which all convicts, young, old, rich, or poor, were supposed to be afflicted.

Therefore, the warden “had his eye on Jim.” And when the gang started from the stockade across the black, coal-dusted mountains, to the blacker mine beneath, he called to the new arrival, draining the last of some sloppy coffee from a dingy tin cup at the greasy, board table of the shed room that served for dining-room, and laundry, during the week, and for chapel on Sundays.

“Come here, sir; what’s your name, sir? At least what one did you leave on the book out there?”

“The only one I’ve got,” said Jim. “The clerk down there made it to spell Royal.”

“Royal.” A sneer curled the lips of the official. “Here Black”—to the guard,—“add this royal renegade to your company. Here, you fellow, fall into line here, and be quick about it.”

To Jim, accustomed from the day his dead mother’s nipple had been taken from his toothless gums to having his own free will, the surly command came like a threat. He hesitated.

“Will you come, you bit of carrion, or shall I fetch you?”

Jim stood like a young lion at bay. His hands unconsciously drew up into fists; one foot moved forward; the prisoners stood in wondering groups, some recalling the day, five, ten, fifteen, aye, even fifty years before, when they, too, had thought of defence. They, too, had stood at bay. But they had learned the folly of it, and they knew Jim would learn too; but still they half hoped he would get in that one blow before the lesson began.

Such fists! such strength! And he came on like a young tiger, his eyes ablaze, his nostrils quivering, his arm poised, his full chest expanding, perfectly aware the officer was feeling for the pistol at his belt, when, quick and noiseless, a small hand, white and delicate as a woman’s, reached out and drew the clenched fist down; a soft voice, softened by despair, said: “It isn’t any use; they’ll down you at last, and you only make it harder.”

It was all done so quickly, the guards around had not had time “to draw,” else the rebellious one had received the reward of rebellion.

The warden replaced his pistol, with a curse upon it for not obeying his effort to draw it. The young convict had ceased hostilities, and stood submissive by the side of his unknown friend. He had not once glanced at him, but something in his voice had controlled and subdued his passion.

“Away with him,” cried the officer. “To the pump, and afterward to the pool. Get the straps ready there. We’ll show our royal friend who is master here.”

Again came an idea of resistance, but the same small hand was laid upon his arm.

“My friend, it isn’t any use. I tried it all. Go on and be punished. It is part of life here. You receive it whether merited or not.”

They dragged him off, strapped him, hand and foot, and writhing, foaming, like the untamed wild beast that he was, they thrust him under the great prison pump.

“That will cool his royal blood,” laughed a guard, as the fearful force of the cold current beating upon his shaven head knocked him senseless.

Drenched and beaten, utterly exhausted, he lay like a limp rag, until three men had spent their strength upon the pump. Then to the pool they dragged him, and “ducked” him three times into the dark, stagnant water. Then back to the warden who asked if he “thought he had enough.”

“Not enough to make me take your jaw,” was the foolish answer.

“The lash,” said the warden, and the miserable, half-drowned creature was taken away to be beaten “into subjection.”

The guard overlooked the punishment. A stout, burly convict was required to perform it. He would have refused, being in like strait, only that he knew the uselessness. He had been there a long time, forty years, and according to his sentence would be there for fifty more. He had picked up a little scripture at the prison Sunday school, so that when he lifted the whip above the back they had made bare for it, he whispered, by way of apology:—

“And one Simon, a Cyrenian, him they compelled to bear the cross.”

But Jim didn’t understand even if he had heard. All he heard was that low, patient voice calling him “friend.”

In the afternoon he was sent down to the mines, subdued, but not conquered. Every evil passion of his nature had been aroused, and would never slumber again.

After that first day’s experience he seemed indeed a wild beast. He fought among the prisoners, rebelled against the rules of the prison, would have nothing to do with any but the worst of the men, shirked his work until he had to be strapped and beaten, in short, made a record that had never been surpassed by any previous man on the prison record.

Yet, when there was danger of any kind, he was the first there. One morning there was an explosion in the mine, and more than a score of prisoners were in danger of being suffocated before help could reach them. Indeed everybody was afraid to venture in that black hole from which the hot, sulphurous gases were pouring. Everybody but Jim. Even the warden had to admit Jim’s courage. “He aint afraid of the devil,” he declared, when he saw the boy jump into an empty coal car, call to the mule to “git up,” and disappear in the gas and smoke with the empty cars rumbling behind him. It was a long time before he came out, but he brought ten insensible convicts in his first haul. The lessees recommended him for that, and promised to make it good sometime if he kept on at that rate.

Another time there was a fire. The rumbling old rat-hole was threatened with destruction, and with it three hundred and seventy-five of the State’s charges. The men glared like beasts through the cracks of the tottering stockade. Liberty, it would come surely in some form. The fire was confined for a time to the wing where the hospital was. But when it mounted in a great blood-dappled sheet of flame to the top of an old rotten tower above the main building, where the prisoners were huddled, it became evident that all must go unless the old tower could be torn away. Up the uneven, rickety wall went Jim, nimble as a squirrel. Crack! crack! fell the dead boards, then with a clang and clamor, down rolled the old bell from its perch, carrying with it the last of the burning tower.

Jim climbed down as sullen as ever. He didn’t care to save the old shanty, or to win any praise from anybody. He was simply not afraid, and his courage would not permit him to do other than what he did.

Nobody cared for him specially, although the soft-voiced man with the small, womanish hands spoke to him often, and always kindly. Jim never forgot that he had called him friend. The memory of it stayed with him, like the kiss of a first love that lingers long after love is dead. Most of the men were afraid of him, so fierce was his temper, and so easily aroused. Even the warden had learned that he could not tame him. The strap, the lash, the pool, the pump, had been applied times without number. The warden was still “looking around” for the time to apply the last resource, the shotgun. It was pretty sure to come, for the boy was entirely “unscrupulous.”

Summer set in again. Again June came, and tried to bloom even on the coal-tracked mountain about the mine. Somewhere up back among the pine and shadows the wild roses were blooming, and the grapes. Their odors came down to the men as they tramped across the hot, bare, coal-strewn way between the stockade and the mines.

With the coming of June came a number of strangers to the mountain. They always came in the warm season, but they quartered themselves over in the town, beyond the stockade, and the stench, and filth, and crime found there.

Only one, a young man, a minister who had been expelled from the church in the city where he had preached, found his way to the prison. He went out one Sunday afternoon, and asked permission to preach to the convicts. It was freely granted. Such wild heresy! Such odd, eccentric ideas! Such flights of oratory! Such fiery brands tossed into the old tabernacles of religious belief! Such blows upon the old batteries of narrowness and impossibility! They had never heard anything like it. Had he preached thus anywhere else he would have been promptly silenced. But a lot of convicts was not an audience likely to be injured by the too free circulating of the doctrine he advocated. What if he should convince them that eternal punishment was a myth, and an insult flung in the face of the Creator? A slur upon His justice, and a lie to His divine goodness? What if he snapped his finger at a lake of brimstone and of eternal fire? And his wild ravings about an inconsistent Being, accepted as the head of all wisdom, and tenderness,—and mercy, and at the same time as the perfection of all cruelty and injustice, in that He creates only to destroy,—what if the seed scattered should take root? What if those old sin-blackened souls should comfort themselves with the new doctrine, the idea that no good can be lost? God cannot be God and destroy any good thing. It is wicked, it is devilish to kill that which is good. God cannot be wicked and be the good God, the kind All-Father, at the same time. Nor has He created any so vile as to be without some one virtue. In the dust of the evil He has not failed to drop one grain of gold to glisten, and to make glad the dull waste of life. The grain is there, planted by God’s hand, in every soul. It was in their souls, poor, old, sin-covered, forsaken souls, toiling up to the light through those begrimed walls among the filth, and dust, and mould. Not one of them but was God’s work, and bore His grain of gold. None would be lost, not one. What matter if the prison registrar’s table of deaths did record so many, Found dead! Drowned! Killed! Shot! Blank! Blank! Blank! Meaning they disappeared, nobody knows how or when.

It was a strange, sweet hope to them, that came in that wild sermon of a bishop-silenced young heretic. They thought about it a good deal, and began, some of them whose terms were to expire with life, to dig down into the rust and mire with the spade of conscience for the hidden grain.

The minister was at the stockade often, cheering, sympathizing, and always comforting the convicts with the certainty of eternal love, and the folly of eternal punishment. One day he stumbled upon a man who was being strapped and prepared for punishment at the pump. His face was sullen, and there were splotches of blood on his clothes, and he limped when he attempted to walk. Still there was something in the old, young face, that neither cruelty nor threats could kill. They might turn on the icy water, and exhaust themselves with lashing him, but that stoic determination would not yield. They might murder him, but from his fixed, dead eyes, it would glare at them, that same heroic, immovable something that had shone in the staring eyes of his dead mother.

No visitors were allowed in that part of the prison, so the minister held back until, fearing the limp figure under the pump would be beaten to death by the cruel pour of water upon his head, he stepped forward to interfere.

“In God’s name, I beg you stop,” he cried, his hand uplifted, his eyes full of tears. “Your punishment is beastly. What has the fellow done? Is someone murdered?”

“Someone ought to be,” sullenly replied the man at the pump-handle. “And someone might be if this sneaking rascal was the only hope of preventing it.”

There had been a plot among the convicts to batter down the shaky old stockade, and break for freedom. They had secured a gun and some ammunition, where, no one could tell, and the plot had well-nigh succeeded. The guard on the wall had been killed, three men had escaped, and the prison bloodhounds were lying in the kennel with their throats cut.

Already the governor of the State had telegraphed freedom to the convicts not in the scheme who would give the names of those engaged in it. Even the leader’s name; for that freedom was offered, pardon unconditional.

Something let fall discovered to the warden that Jim, while not in, was familiar with the whole history of the insurrection. The offer of freedom had no further effect upon him than a careless refusal to comply with the terms set forth. But when force was suggested, he set his lips in that old way that belonged to his mother, and said nothing. Three days they gave him to “knock under.” But the only change noticeable during that time was a more decided sullenness, a look in the cold, gray eyes that meant death rather than yielding.

Once the soft-voiced young man who had put out his hand in his defence the day of his arrival at the stockade, and had afterward called him “friend,” the only time he had ever heard the word addressed to himself, once he came over where Jim sat cleaning the warden’s boots, and motioned him.

Jim shook his head, and went on blacking the big boots. But when the young convict drew nearer, and tried to take his hand, he drew back, and struck at him viciously with the blacking brush.

“Git out, will you! And don’t come a-fooling with this brush, lest you want your d—n head broke.”

He had seen a guard spying upon them at a half open door in the rear of the young convict. At Jim’s outburst of temper the guard entered.

“Come away from him, Solly,” he said, “the surly beast is as like as not to knock your brains out.”

The convict turned to obey, but the glance he got of Jim’s face carried a full explanation. The temper was affected to keep down suspicion. After that came the punishment at the pump, the merciless beating, and then, all things proving unavailing, he was put in the dungeon to have the “truth starved out of him.”

After three days he was brought out, faint, pale, ready to die at every step, but with that same immovable something shining in his eyes, and his lips still set in the old way that he had of his mother.

His hands were manacled, and an iron chain clanked about his feet as he dragged them wearily one after the other. For three days he had tasted no food, except a rat that he had caught in the dungeon. He ate it raw, like a dog, and searched eagerly for another. Just as he had found it, and skinned it with the help of his teeth, the guard peered through the grating, and seeing what he was doing, entered, and put handcuffs upon him, after first removing the raw flesh to a point where he could see, but not touch it. And there it lay, torturing him while he starved. And there it lay until it became carrion, and tortured him again. And then they had dragged him out again, out under the blue sky, where the trees—the old sweet-smelling pines—were waving their purple plumes upon the distant mountains, and the wild grape filled the air with perfume, and the wild roses were pink as childhood’s sweet, young dreams, and over all was bended the blue heaven. And heaven spread before him, heaven; behind him lay hell, fifteen years of it less one. And they gave him choice again betwixt the two. They even crammed a bit of moral in the offer. “It was right,” they said, “to tell on those who had broken the prison regulations, mere justice to the lessees.” Right! too late to talk to him of right. He glanced once at the pines, going farther away, whiffed at the pleasant odor of the grape blooms, waved his hand to the roses, in farewell, perhaps, lifted his face to the blue heaven—he had never looked heavenward before in all his wretched years,—then, wearing that same old look of his mother’s, he turned, without a word, and re-entered the prison.

Back to the pump, the lash, and at last to the dungeon.

But he no longer dreaded it. It was the Sabbath, and the shackles had been removed, but he was too weary to notice the rat that came out and sat peering at him, nibbling at his wet prison clothes, and his feet and hands. Even the carrion did not disturb any more. The scent of the wild grape blooms was still in his nostrils. And when the day wore on, and the two o’clock bell sounded, calling the men to Sunday school, he started up with a cry of “Here.” He had thought the bell a voice at the dungeon door, and fancied that it said, “friend!”

He dropped back, with a smile on his lips. Could old Nance have peeped in at that moment she would have pronounced him very like his mother with that smile, and that stanch old heroism shining in his wide, dead eyes.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Down in the office the registrar entered upon the death list:

“James Royal—Natural death.”

Natural? then God help the unnatural.

“The worst one ever fell into our hands,” the warden told the minster as he came out of the chapel with the soft-voiced friend of the dead man’s. “Not a spark of good in him, parson. Jim Royal knocks your theory all to pieces.”

But the friend had been telling the minister a story. And as he passed out at the rattling stockade gate, he, too, glanced up at the blue sky. His doubts were gone, if there had been any, his faith was planted in God’s eternal goodness.

“Can such die?” he mused, “such faithfulness, such magnificent courage, such glorious fidelity? Is it possible that such can pass away into eternal torment?”

The soft wind touched his cheek and bore heavenward the prayer he breathed:—

“Forbid it, Almighty God.”