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Dinner In A State Prison by Margaret Hosmer

An invitation to take dinner with a friend in the State's prison was something new and exciting to a quiet little body like me, and I re-read Ruth Denham's kindly-worded note to that effect, and thought how odd it was that we should meet again in this way after ten years' separation and all the changes that had intervened in both our lives. We had parted last on the night of our grand closing-school party, after having been friends and fellow-pupils for five years. She was then fifteen, and the prettiest, brightest and cleverest girl at Lynnhope. I was younger, and felt distinguished by her friendship, and heart-broken at the idea of losing her, for she was going abroad with her family, while I remained to complete my studies at the institute.

I had plenty of letters the first year, but then her father died, and with him went his reputed fortune. A painful change occurred in the position of the Welfords in consequence, and Ruth became a teacher, as I heard, until she met and married a young man from the West, whither she returned with him immediately after the ceremony. She had written to me once after becoming Ruth Denham, and her letter was kind and cordial as her old self, but the correspondence thus renewed soon ceased. I was also an orphan, but a close attendant at the couch of my invalid aunt; and Ruth's new strange life was too crowded with pressing duties to permit her to write regularly to her girlhood's companion, whom she had not seen for years. My aunt had now recovered so far as to indulge a taste for travel. We were on our way by the great railroad to the Pacific coast, and we stopped at the small capital of one of the newest States to discover that Ruth Denham was a resident there, the wife of the lieutenant-governor, who was consequently the warden of the State prison. The note I held in my hand was in answer to one I had despatched to her an hour before by the hands of a Chinaman from the hotel, and it was as glad and affectionate as I could wish:

"My husband is quite ill with sciatica, which completely lames him, as well as causing him intense pain. I am his only attendant, or I would fly to you at once, my dearest Jenny. I am so sorry you leave by the midnight train for San Francisco to-morrow, but must be content to see you as much of the day as you can spare us, and hope for a longer visit on your return. We dine at four: may I not send the carriage for you as early as two o'clock?

"Your loving friend,

"RUTH DENHAM."

I had my aunt's permission to leave her, and was ready at the appointed hour to find the carriage there to the minute; and a very comfortable, easy conveyance it proved over one of the worst roads I ever traveled on.

The prison was about a mile from the outskirts of the straggling town, which boasted two or three fine State buildings, in strong contrast with its scattering and mostly mean and shambling dwellings. Some hot springs had been discovered near the site, and over them had been erected a wooden hotel and baths of the simplest order of architecture and on the barest possible plan of ornament or comfort. Just beyond this edifice was the prison, situated at the rise of one hill and under the shadow of another and more considerable one. It was built of a softish, light-colored stone dug from a neighboring quarry, as the driver told me, and looking even at a cursory glance too destructible and crumbling to secure such desperate and determined inmates.

"They used to keep 'em in a sort o' wooden shed," said my driver, alluding to the prisoners, "until they got this shebang fixed up. Pretty smart lot of chaps they were, for they built it themselves mostly, and made good time on it, too."

It was surrounded by a high wooden fence, within which a stone wall of the same material as the building was in course of construction.

"If it wasn't Sunday," said my companion as we drove through the guarded gate, "you could see 'em at work, for they're putting up their defences, and doing it first-rate, too."

I had only time for a glance at the inside of the enclosure. We were already at the principal entrance, which was a wide door opening into a hall, with a staircase leading up to the second floor. On the right hand was a strongly-grated iron door opening into the main corridor between the cells: the other side seemed to be devoted to offices and quarters for the guards. I saw knots of men about, but only the two at the entrance appeared to be armed, and they had that lounging, easy air, that belongs to security and the absence of thought. It was in every respect opposite to my preconceived idea of a penitentiary, and all recollection of its first design fled when I saw Ruth's cheery face, bright and handsome as ever, beaming on me from the first landing, and felt her warm, firm arms clasping me in an embrace of affectionate welcome. It was my friend's home, and nothing else, from that moment, and a very pretty, daintily-ordered home it was. She had five rooms on the second floor, with a kitchen below: this was her parlor in front, a bright, well-furnished room, tastefully ornamented with pictures, some of which I recognized as her own paintings in our school-days; and here was her dining-room to the left, with a small guest-chamber that she hoped I would occupy when I returned. The other rooms on the west of the parlor were hers and Nellie's—Oh, I had not seen Nellie, her five-year-old, nor her dear husband, who was so much better to-day, though he could not rise without difficulty; and would I therefore come and see him?

As Ruth gave me thus a passing glance at her household arrangements, I saw through the open door of an apartment back of the dining-room a light shower of plaster fall to the ground, marking the oilcloth that covered the floor, and for one instant sending out into the hall a puff of whitish dust.

"Oh, that is one of the effects of our terribly dry climate," said Ruth, following my glance and noticing the dust: "every little while portions of our walls crumble and fall in like that. There is no doubt a sad litter in Mr. Foster the clerk's room, where that shower occurred: he has gone to the city for the day, however, and it can be cleared before his return. Here is my husband, Jenny."

In a recess by the parlor window, on a lounge, Mr. Denham was trying to disguise the necessity for keeping his tortured limb extended by an appearance of smiling ease. He was a handsome, frank-faced man, with a firm, fearless eye and a gentle, kindly mouth, and I could readily understand my friend's look of sweet content when I saw him and her child Nellie, who was hanging over her papa with the fond protecting air of a precocious nurse. I sat down quickly beside them to prevent my host's attempting to rise, and the hour that elapsed before dinner flew by in interesting conversation.

"I am so sorry I had to go for a little while," said Ruth, returning to announce that meal, "but my good Wang-Ho is sick to-day, and I had to help him a little."

"Where is Lester, Ruth?" asked her husband.

"Oh, he is kind and helpful as ever, but he does not understand making dessert, you know, Edward."

"That's true, and Miss Jane will excuse you, I am sure, for she and I have been reviewing the principal features of pioneer-life, and she professes herself rather in love with it than otherwise."

"It is all so fresh and enjoyable, despite its discomforts and inconveniences," I said; "and need I quote a stronger argument in its favor than yourself, my dear Ruth? You seem perfectly happy, and I really cannot see why you should not be so."

She had her golden-haired little girl in one arm, and she laid the other hand caressingly on her husband's shoulder, "There is none: I am happy," she said in a low, earnest tone; and then added laughingly, "or I shall be as soon as Edward gets well of sciatica and Wang-Ho recovers from his chills."

Mr. Denham begged us to go before him, and his wife led the way to the dining-room.

"Poor fellow!" she whispered, "he suffers horribly when he moves, and I tried to persuade him to have his dinner sent into the parlor, but in honor of your presence he will come, and he doesn't want us to see him wince and writhe under the effort."

Just as we entered the dining-room a young man came in by another door, carrying a tray with dishes. I had seen plenty of Chinamen, but this was not one, nor could I reconcile his appearance with the position of a servant. He was tall, well-made, and his face, though unnaturally pale, was decidedly good-looking. He wore a pair of coarse gray pantaloons with a remarkable stripe down one leg, but had on a beautifully clean and fine, white shirt fastened at the throat with a diamond button. The weather was warm, and he was without coat or vest, and had a sash of red knitted silk, such as Mexicans wear, round his middle.

Ruth took the dishes from him and placed them on the table. "Please tell Wang-Ho about the coffee, Lester," she said as he retired.

"Is that man a servant, Ruth?" I asked in an astonished whisper.

"No," she replied in the same low tone: "he is a murderer condemned for life."

Mr. Denham hobbled in and slid down upon a seat. I appreciated his gallant attention, but it was painful to see the effort it cost: besides, much as I had seen, and familiar as I was becoming with pioneer life, to be waited on at dinner by a young and handsome murderer condemned to prison for life was a sensation new and startling, and I was full of curiosity as to the nature of his crime and the peculiar administration of the Western penal code that made house-servants of convicts. Seeing my perturbation, Ruth evidently intended to relieve it by the explanatory remark of "He is a 'trusty,' Jenny dear," but really threw no light whatever on the subject.

It was a very nice dinner, served tastefully and with a home comfort about everything connected with the table that seemed most unlike a prison. Mr. Denham's intelligence and cheerfulness added to the delusion that I was enjoying the hospitalities of a cultivated Eastern home. He and his wife had kept themselves thoroughly familiar with all topics of general interest through the medium of periodicals, and had much to ask about the actual progress of improvements they had read of and the changes occurring among dear and familiar Eastern scenes.

Lester came in again with the empty tray, and quietly gathered the plates from the table preparatory to placing dessert. I wanted to look at him—indeed, a fascination I could not resist drew my eyes to his face like a magnet—yet, somehow, I dared not keep them there: the consciousness of meeting his glance, and feeling that I should then be ashamed of my curiosity, made them drop uneasily every time he turned; and once when I found his gaze rest on me an instant, I felt myself color violently under the quiet look of his steel-gray eyes.

One thing was very observable in the little group: the child Nellie was intensely fond of the man, and he himself seemed to entertain and constantly endeavor to express an exalted admiration for Mr. Denham. While the latter was speaking Lester's animated looks followed every word and gesture: he anticipated his unexpressed wishes, and watched to save him the trouble of moving or asking for anything.

"No, no, Nellie, stay and finish your dinner: Lester is not quite ready for you yet." Her mother said this in reference to the child's eagerness to follow the trusty attendant from the room, and her neglect of her meal in consequence. "Nellie is in the habit of carrying up the sugar and cream for the coffee, and she thinks Lester cannot possibly get on if she does not assist," said Ruth in smiling explanation as Nellie hastened after him.

The next instant there was the mingled sound of a heavy fall or succession of falls outside, and one quick, stifled scream from the child.

"The dumb-waiter, quick! It has broken from its weights and scalded Nell with the hot coffee," cried Ruth, making a spring toward the door by which Lester had gone out.

Her husband, forgetting his lameness, was instantly at her side, but some force held the door against them both, and abandoning it after the first effort, the father turned hurriedly to the one leading into the hall. I sat nearest that, and in the excitement I had moved quickly aside, so that when it was flung violently open the moment before my host the governor of the prison reached it, I was thrust back against the wall, from which place, half dead with fright, I saw the hall crowded with convicts, the foremost of whom held a pistol directly toward Mr. Denham's head.

It snapped with a sharp report, and when the smoke cleared I found Mr. Denham had dodged the fire and was closed in a scuffle with the villain for the weapon. A dozen more seemed to spring on him from the threshold; I heard his wife's cry of agony; and then the door at the other side burst in, and Lester, with his gray eyes gleaming like a flame, bounded over the body of a bloody convict that fell from his grasp as he broke into the room. Quick as thought he caught up one of the heavy chairs in his hands, and bringing it down with desperate force on the heads of the governor's assailants, felled one, while the other staggered back and dropped his pistol. Mr. Denham caught it like a flash, and fired it in the face of a wretch who was aiming at Lester's heart. The convicts fell back, and over their bodies the governor and his aid sprang into the crowded hall.

"The child! the child! O God! my little daughter!" It was Ruth's voice in tones of such anguish and terror as I never before heard uttered by human voice.

She was looking from the window into the yard below, and there she beheld Nellie lifted up as a shield against the guns of the guards by a party of the escaping convicts. The little creature was deadly white and perfectly silent: her great blue eyes were wide and frozen with fright, and her little hands were clasped in entreating agony and stretched toward her mother.

"Stand behind me and shoot them down, governor," cried Lester, dealing steady blows with the now broken chair, and trying to make his own body a shield for Mr. Denham. The governor continued to fire on the convicts, who were pouring in a steady stream down the stairs from out of the room where I had seen the shower of dust, and through the ceiling of which, as it was afterward, proved, they had cut a hole, and so escaped from the upper corridor of the prison.

I tried to hold Ruth in my arms, for in her frenzy to reach her child she had flung up the window and endeavored to drop from it at the risk of her life. "They will not dare to hurt her: God will protect her innocent life," was all I could say, when a random ball from below struck the window-frame, and, glancing off, stunned without wounding the wretched mother. She fell, jarred by the shock, and I drew her as well as I could behind the door, on the other side of which lay the two bleeding prisoners who had tried to take her husband's life.

Groans, shouts, curses, yells and pistol-shots sounded in the hall and on the stairs; only the back of the chair remained in Lester's grasp, but heaps of men felled by its weight and crushed by their struggling fellows had tumbled down and been kicked over the broken balustrade to the hall below.

The guards had rallied from their surprise, and sparing the escaped for the sake of the precious shield they bore, turned their fire upon the escaping, cutting them off until the whole corridor below was blocked with wounded, dead and dying. One more man appeared at the clerk's door: he was a powerful fellow with a horse-pistol and a stone-hammer. Lester had staggered back from a flying iron bar aimed at his head by a villain he struck at without reaching, and who had bounded down the stairs to receive his death from the guard's musket at the door. The prisoner with the horse-pistol saw his advantage, and, cursing the governor in blasphemous rage, aimed at him as he fled. Recovering himself, Lester struck for his arm, but not soon enough to stop the fire: the charge reached its object, but not his heart, as it was meant to do. It glanced aside, and Mr. Denham's pistol dropped: his right arm fell maimed at his side; but the field was clear, and Lester, catching the fallen pistol, went down the stairs over the bodies in a series of flying leaps.

"Where's my wife?" exclaimed Mr. Denham, turning round dizzily and trying to steady his head with his uninjured hand. "Tell her I've gone for Nellie;" and he made an effort to rush after Lester, but, reaching the top of the stairs, dropped suddenly upon a convict's body stretched there by his own pistol. Then I saw by the reddish hole in his trousers just below the knee that he had been wounded before, though he did not know it, and was now streaming with blood.

"Where's Nell? where's Edward?" asked Ruth, sitting up with a ghastly face, and looking at me in a bewildered stare.

"All right, all safe, tell the lady," cried a clear, exulting voice from below: "here's sweet little Miss Nellie, without a scratch on her."

It was Lester's shout from the yard, and it rang through all the building.

"Do you hear, Ruth? do you hear?" I screamed, beside myself with joy and thankfulness. "He has saved your husband a dozen times, that hero, and now he brings back your child to you. Oh, what a noble fellow! how I envy him his feelings!"

He was in the room by this time with Nellie in his arms: he heard me and gave me just one look. I never saw him again, but I never shall forget it, for it revealed the long agony of a blighted life that moment struggling into hope again through expiation. He did not wait for Ruth's broken cry of gratitude, but was gone as soon as the child was in her arms.

"Come, boys," I heard him cry cheerily outside, "lend a hand to help the governor to his room: he's got a scratch or two, and the doctor's coming to dress them. He will be all right again before we can get things set straight round here."

Governor Denham's wounds were not so slight as Lester hoped, but they were not dangerous, and when, to prevent my aunt's alarm for my safety (for the news of "the break" spread rapidly through the town), I parted from my friends before nightfall and rode back to the hotel as I had come, I left three of the most excitedly grateful and happy people behind me I had ever seen.

"I suppose it is no use to urge it further, Ruth darling," said her husband as we parted, "but I really wish you would go to San Francisco with our friend and let Nellie have a chance to forget the shock she has endured. You need the change too, if you would ever think of yourself."

"It is because I do think of myself that I prefer to remain where I am happiest," said Ruth decidedly. "As for Nell, she is a pioneer child, and will soon be as merry and fearless as ever. But, Jenny dear, we owe you an apology for the novel dinner-party we have given you. When you come back it will seem like a frightful dream, and not a reality, we shall all be so quiet and orderly again." As we stood alone in the hall, from which every sign of the late terrible conflict had been removed save the bloodstains that had sunk into the stone beyond the power of a hasty washing to obliterate, Ruth said in a low whispering tone that was full of pent-up feeling, "I told you that Lester was a murderer condemned for life, Jenny, but there were extenuating circumstances in connection with his crime. That is not his name we call him by: I do not even know his real one, but I am convinced that he belongs to educated and reputable people, and that he suffers the keenest remorse for the wild life that led him so terribly astray. He became desperately attached to a Spanish girl, who was married as a child to a brutal fellow who deserted her, and she thought him dead. She and Lester were to be married, I believe, when the missing husband reappeared and tormented them both. The girl he treated shockingly, and it was in a fit of rage at his abuse of her that Lester killed him; but appearances were all against the deed, and he was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced for life. Edward is kind and discriminating, and he pitied him. Lester told his story freely, and my husband gained his lasting gratitude by taking care of the wretched girl and paying her passage in a vessel bound for her native town in Mexico. The only favor we could show him here was to separate him from the wretches in the common prison by making him a 'trusty' or prison-servant. He understood our motive in doing so, and was very thankful and most reliable. What we owe him to-day you know: he makes light of it, protesting that he only picked up Nell from the gulch where the escaped convicts had dropped her on their way to the hills; but he cannot lessen the debt: it is too great to be calculated even."

The subsequent report proved that twenty-eight prisoners had conspired to effect the break, and by secreting the tools they wrought with in their sleeves passed in on Saturday from the wall-building to cut an entrance through the ceiling of their own corridor into the loft above Mr. Foster's room, through which they dropped while the family were at dinner, choosing that hour so as to produce a surprise and secure the child, who always went below with Lester to help carry up the coffee. Of the whole number, five were killed outright and six wounded: twelve escaped uninjured, but were nearly all afterward retaken; and five repented their share in the movement or lacked courage to carry it out, and so remained in the prison. The most interesting item of the whole came to me at San Francisco in my friend's letter. It said: "We are looking forward with great delight to your visit, and planning every pleasure our sterile life can yield to make it enjoyable. But you will not see Lester: he is gone. His pardon, full and entire in view of his courage and fidelity, and the manly stand he took against the murderous plotters, came on Monday last, and at nightfall he left the prison to go by the stage to meet the midnight train. 'To Mexico!' were his last words to us. Heaven bless him, and grant him wisdom and courage to retrieve the past and open a fair bright future!"