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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Bishop’s Vagabond

By Alice French (Octave Thanet) (1850–1934)

[Born in Andover, Mass., 1850. Died in Davenport, Iowa, 1934. Knitters in the Sun. By Octave Thanet. 1887.]

THE BISHOP, after deliberation, had decided to accompany Demming to Charleston. He excused his interest in the man so elaborately and plausibly that his daughter was reminded of Talboys.

Saturday morning all three—the Bishop, the vagabond, and Talboys—started for Charleston. Talboys, however, did not know that the Bishop was going. He bought Demming’s ticket, saw him safely to a seat, and went into the smoking-car. The Bishop was late, but the conductor, with true Southern good-nature, backed the train and took him aboard. He seated himself in front of Demming, and began to wipe his heated brow.

“Why do they want to have a fire in the stove this weather?” said he.

“Well,” said the cracker slyly, “you see we hain’t all been runnin’, an’ we’re kinder chilly!”

“Humph!” said the Bishop. After this there was silence. The train rolled along; through the pine woods, past small stations where rose-trees brightened trim white cottages, then into the swamp lands, where the moisture painted the bark of tall trees, and lay in shiny green patches among them. The Southern moss dripping from the giant branches shrouded them in a weird drapery, soft as mist. There was something dreary and painful, to a Northern eye, in the scene; the tall and shrouded trees, the stagnant pools of water gleaming among them, the vivid green patches of moss, the barren stretches of sand. The very beauty in it all seemed the unnatural glory of decay, repelling the beholder. Here and there were cabins. One could not look at them without wondering whether the inhabitants had the ague, or its South Carolina synonyme, the “break-bone fever.” At one, a bent old woman was washing. She lifted her head, and Demming waved his hat at her. Then he glanced at the Bishop, now busy with a paper, and chuckled over some recollection. He looked out again. There was a man running along the side of the road waving a red flag. He called out a few words, which the wind of the train tore to pieces. At the same instant, the whistle of the engine began a shrill outcry. “Sunthin’s bust, I reckon,” said Demming. And then, before he could see, or know, or understand, a tremendous crash drowned his senses, and in one awful moment blended shivering glass and surging roof and white faces like a horrible kaleidoscope.

The first thing he noticed, when he came to himself, was a thin ribbon of smoke. He watched it lazily, while it melted into the blue sky, and another ribbon took its place. But presently the pain in his leg aroused him. He perceived that the car was lying on one side, making the other side into a roof, and one open window was opposite his eyes. At the other end the car was hardly more than a mass of broken seats and crushed sides, but it was almost intact where he lay. He saw that the stove had charred the woodwork near it; hence the smoke, which escaped through a crack and floated above him. The few people in the car were climbing out of the windows as best they might. A pair of grimy arms reached down to Demming, and he heard the brakeman’s voice (he knew Jim Herndon, the brakeman, well) shouting profanely for the “next.”

“Whar’s the Bishop?” said Demming.

“Reckon he’s out,” answered Jim. “Mought as well come yo’self! H——! you’ve broke yo’ leg!”

“Pull away, jes the same. I don’ wanter stay yere an’ roast!”

The brakeman pulled him through the window. Demming shut his teeth hard; only the fear of death could have made him bear the agony every motion gave him.

The brakeman drew him to one side before he left him. Demming could see the wreck plainly. A freight train had been thrown from the track, and the passenger train had run into it while going at full speed. “The brakes wouldn’t work,” Demming heard Jim say. Now the sight was a sorry one—a heap of rubbish which had been a freight car; the passenger engine sprawling on one side, in the swamp, like a huge black beetle; and, near it, the two foremost cars of its train overturned and shattered. The people of both trains were gathered about the wreck, helplessly talking, as is the manner of people in an accident. They were, most of them, on the other side of the track. No one had been killed; but some were wounded, and were stretched in a ghastly row on car cushions. The few women and children in the train were collected about the wounded.

“Is the last man out?” shouted the conductor.

Jim answered, “Yes, all out—no, d—— it! I see a coat-tail down here.”

“Look at the fire!” screamed a woman. “Oh, God help him! The car’s afire!”

“He’s gone up, whoever he is,” muttered Jim. “They ain’t an axe nor nothin’ on board, an’ he’s wedged in fast. But come on, boys! I’ll drop in onct mo’!”

“You go with him,” another man said. “Here, you fellows, I can run fastest; I’ll go to the cabin for an axe. Some of you follow me for some water!”

Demming saw the speaker for an instant,—an erect little figure in a foppish gray suit, with a “cat’s eye” gleaming from his blue cravat. One instant he stood on the piece of timber upon which he had jumped; the next he had flung off his coat, and was speeding down the road like a hare.

“D—— ef ’tain’t the Cunnel,” said Demming.

“Come on!” shouted Talboys, never slackening his speed. “Hurry!”

The men went. Demming, weak with pain, was content to look across the gap between the trains and watch those left behind. The smoke was growing denser now, and tongues of flame shot out between the joints of wood. They said the man was at the other end. Happily, the wind blew the fire from him. Jim and two other men climbed in again. Demming could hear them swearing and shouting. He looked anxiously about, seeking a familiar figure which he could not find. He thought it the voice of his own fears, that cry from within the car. “Good God, it’s the Bishop!” But immediately Jim thrust his head out of the window, and called: “The Bishop’s in hyar! Under the cyar seats! He ain’t hurt, but we cyant move the infernal things ter get him out!”

“Oh, Lordy!” groaned the vagabond; “an’ I’m so broke up I cyant liff’ a han’ ter help him!”

In desperation, the men outside tried to batter down the car walls with a broken tree limb. Inside, they strained feverishly at the heavy timbers. Vain efforts all, at which the crackling flames, crawling always nearer, seemed to mock.

Demming could hear the talk, the pitying comments, the praise of the Bishop: “Such a good man!” “His poor daughter, the only child, and her mother dead!” “They were so fond of each other, poor thing, poor thing!” And a soft voice added, “Let us pray!”

“Prayin’,” muttered Demming, “jes like wimmen! Laws, they don’t know no better. How’ll I git ter him?”

He began to crawl to the car, dragging his shattered leg behind him, reckless of the throbs of pain it sent through his nerves. “Ef I kin ony stan’ it till I git ter him!” he moaned. “Burnin’ alive’s harder nor this.” He felt the hot smoke on his face; he heard the snapping and roaring of the fire; he saw the men about the car pull out Jim and his companions, and perceived that their faces were blackened.

“It’ll cotch me, suah’s death!” said Demming between his teeth. “Well, ’tain’t much mattah!” Mustering all his strength he pulled himself up to the car window below that from which Jim had just emerged. The crowd, occupied with the helpless rescuers, had not observed him before. They shouted at him as one man: “Get down, it’s too late!” “You’re crazy, you ——!” yelled Jim, with an oath.

“Never you min’,” Demming answered coolly. “I know what I’m ’bout, I reckon.”

He had taken his revolver from his breast, and was searching through his pockets. He soon pulled out what be sought, merely a piece of stout twine; and the crowd saw him, sitting astride the trucks, while he tied the string about the handle of the weapon. Then he leaned over the prison walls, and looked down upon the Bishop. Under the mass of wood and iron the Bishop lay, unhurt but securely imprisoned; yet he had never advanced to the chancel rails with a calmer face than that he lifted to his friend.

“Demming,” he cried, “you here! Go back, I implore you! You can’t save me.”

“I know thet, Bishop,” groaned the cracker. “I ain’t aimin’ ter. But I cyan’t let you roast in this yere d—— barbecue! Look a yere!” He lowered the revolver through the window. “Thar’s a pistil, an’ w’en th’ fire cotches onter you an’ yo’ gwine suah’s shootin’, then put it ter yo’ head an’ pull the trigger, an’ yo’ll be outen it all!”

The Bishop’s firm pale face grew paler as he answered, “Don’t tempt me, Demming! Whatever God sends I must bear. I can’t do it!” Demming paused. He looked steadily at the Bishop for a second; then he raised the revolver, with a little quiver of his mouth. “And go away, for God’s sake, my poor friend! Bear my love to my dear, dear daughter; tell her that she has always been a blessing and a joy to me. And remember what I have said to you, yourself. It will be worth dying for if you will do that; it will, indeed. It is only a short pain, and then heaven! Now go, Demming. God bless and keep you. Go!”

But Demming did not move. “Don’ you want ter say a prayer, Bishop?” he said in a coaxing tone,—“jes a little mite o’ one fur you an’ me? Ye don’ need ter min’ ’bout sayin’ ’t loud. I’ll unnerstan’ th’ intention, an’ feel jes so edified. I will, fur a fac.”

“Go, first, Demming. I am afraid for you!”

“I’m a-gwine, Bishop,” said Demming, in the same soft, coaxing tone. “Don’ min’ me. I’m all right.” He crouched down lower, so that the Bishop could not see him, and the group below saw him rest the muzzle of the pistol on the window-sill and take aim.

A gasp ran through the crowd,—that catching of the breath in which overtaxed feeling relieves itself. “He’s doin’ the las’ kindness he can to him,” said the brakeman to the conductor, “and by the Lord, he’s giv’ his own life to do it!”

The flames had pierced the roof, and streamed up to the sky. Through the sickening, dull roar they heard the Bishop’s voice again:

“Demming, are you gone?”

The cracker struck a loose piece of wood, and sent it clattering down. “Yes, Bishop, that wuz me. I’m safe on th’ groun’. Good-by, Bishop. I do feel ’bleeged ter you; an’, Bishop, them chickens wuz the fust time. They wuz, on my honah. Now, Bishop, shet yo’ eyes an’ pray, for it’s a-comin’!”

The Bishop prayed. They could not hear what he said, below. No one heard save the uncouth being who clung to the window, revolver in hand, steadily eying the creeping red death. But they knew that, out of sight, a man who had smiled on them, full of life and hope but an hour ago, was facing such torture as had tried the martyr’s courage, and facing it with as high a faith.

With one accord men and women bent their heads. Jim, the brakeman, alone remained standing, his form erect, his eyes fixed on the two iron lines that made an angle away in the horizon. “Come on!” he yelled, leaping wildly into the air. “Fo’ the Lord’s sake, hurry! D—— him, but he’s the bulliest runner!”

Then they all saw a man flying down the track, axe in hand. He ran up to the car side. He began to climb. A dozen hands caught him. “You’re a dead man if you get in there!” was the cry. “Don’t you see it’s all afire?”

“Try it from the outside, Colonel!” said the conductor.

“Don’t you see I haven’t time?” cried Talboys. “He’ll be dead before we can get to him. Stand back, my men, and, Jim, be ready to pull us both out!”

The steady tones and Talboys’s business-like air had an instantaneous effect. The crowd were willing enough to be led; they fell back, and Talboys dropped through the window. To those outside the whole car seemed in a blaze, and over them the smoke hung like a pall; but through the crackling and roaring and the crash of falling timber came the clear ring of axe-blows, and Talboys’s voice shouting: “I say, my man, don’t lose heart! We’re bound to get you out!”

“Lordy, he don’t know who ’tis,” said Demming. “Nobody could see through that thar smoke!”

All at once the uninjured side of the car gave way beneath the flames, falling in with an immense crash. The flame leaped into the air.

“They’re gone!” cried the conductor.

“No, they’re not!” yelled Demming. “He’s got him, safe an’ soun’!” And as he spoke, scorched and covered with dust, bleeding from a cut on his cheek but holding the Bishop in his arms, Talboys appeared at the window. Jim snatched the Bishop, the conductor helped out Talboys, and half a dozen hands laid hold of Demming. He heard the wild cheer that greeted them; he heard another cheer for the men with the water, just in sight; but he heard no more, for as they pulled him down a dozen fiery pincers seemed tearing at his leg, and he fainted dead away.

The Bishop’s daughter sat in her room, making a very pretty picture, with her white hands clasped on her knee and her soft eyes uplifted. She looked sad enough to please a pre-Raphaelite of sentiment. Yet her father, whom this morning she would have declared she loved better than any one in the world, had just been saved from a frightful death. She knew the story of his deliverance. At last she felt that most unexpected thrill of admiration for Talboys; but Talboys had vanished. He was gone, it was all ended, and she owned to herself that she was wretched. Her father was with Demming and the doctors. The poor vagabond must hobble through life on one leg, henceforward. “If he lived,” the doctor had said, making even his existence as a cripple problematic. Poor Demming, who had flung away his life to save her father from suffering,—a needless, useless sacrifice, as it proved, but touching Louise the more because of its very failure!

At this stage in her thoughts, she heard Sam, the waiter, knocking softly, outside. Her first question was about Demming. “The operation’s ovah, miss, an’ Mr. Demming he’s sinkin’,” answered Sam, giving the sick man a title he had never accorded him before, “an’ he axes if you’d be so kin’ ’s to step in an’ speak to him; he’s powerful anxious to see you.”

Silently Louise arose and followed the mulatto. They had carried Demming to the hotel: it was the nearest place, and the Bishop wished it. His wife had been sent for, and was with him. Her timid, tear-stained face was the first object that met Louise’s eye. She sat in a rocking-chair close to the bed, and, by sheer force of habit, was unconsciously rocking to and fro, while she brushed the tears from her eyes. Demming’s white face and tangle of iron-gray hair lay on the pillow near her.

He smiled feebly, seeing Louise. She did not know anything better to do than to take his hand, the tears brightening her soft eyes. “Laws,” said Demming, “don’ do thet. I ain’t wuth it. Look a yere, I got sun’thin’ ter say ter you. An’ you mustn’t min’, ’cause I mean well. You know ’bout—yes’day mahnin’. Mabbe you done what you done not knowin’ yo’ own min’,—laws, thet’s jes girls,—an’ I wants you ter know jes what kin’ o’ feller he is. You know he saved yo’ pa, but you don’ know, mabbe, thet he didn’t know ’twas the Bishop till he’d jump down in thet thar flamin’ pit o’ hell, as ’twere, an’ fished him out. He done it jes ’cause he’d thet pluck in him, an’—don’ you go fer ter chippin’ in, Cunnel. I’m a dyin’ man, an’ don’ you forget it! Thar he is, miss, hidin’ like behin’ the bed.”

Louise during this speech had grown red to the roots of her hair. She looked up into Talboys’s face. He had stepped forward. His usual composure had quite left him, so that he made a pitiful picture of embarrassment, not helped by crumpled linen and a borrowed coat a world too large for him. “It’s just a whim of his,” he whispered hurriedly; “he wanted me to stay. I didn’t know—I didn’t understand! For God’s sake, don’t suppose I meant to take such an advantage of the situation! I am going directly. I shall leave Aiken to-night.”

It was only the strain on her nerves, but Louise felt the oddest desire to laugh. The elegant Martin cut such a very droll figure as a hero. Then her eye fell on Demming’s eager face, and a sudden revulsion of feeling, a sudden keen realization of the tragedy that Martin had averted brought the tears back to her eyes. Her beautiful head dropped. “Why do you go—now?” said she.

“Hev you uns made it up, yet?” murmured Demming’s faint voice.

“Yes,” Talboys answered, “I think we have, and—I thank you, Demming.” The vagabond waved his hand with a feeble assumption of his familiar gesture. “Yo’ a square man, Cunnel. I allus set a heap by you, though I didn’t let on. An’ she’s a right peart young lady. I’m glad yo’ gwine ter be so happy. Laws, I kind o’ wish I wuz to see it, even on a wooden leg.” The woman at his side began to sob. “Thar, thar, Alwynda, don’ take on so; cyan’t be helped. You mus’ ’scuse her, gen’lemen; she so petted on me she jes cyan’t hole in!”

“Demming,” said the Bishop, “my poor friend, the time is short; is there anything you want me to do?” Demming’s dull eyes sparkled with a glimmer of the old humor.

“Well, Bishop, ef you don’ min’, I’d like you ter conduc’ the fun’al services. Reckon they’ll be a genuwine co’pse this yere time, fo’ suah. An’, Bishop, you’ll kind o’ look ayfter Alwynda; see she gets her coffee an’ terbacco all right. An’ I wants ter ’sure you all again thet them thar chickens wuz the fust an’ ony thing I evah laid han’s on t’want mine. Thet’s the solemn truf; ain’t it, Alwynda?”

The poor woman could only rock herself in the chair and sob: “Yes, ’tis. An’ he’s been a good husband to me. I’ve allus hed the bes’ uv everything! Oh, Lordy, ’pears’s like I cyan’t bear it, nohow!”

Louise put her hand gently on the thin shoulder, saying: “I will see that she never wants anything we can give, Demming; and we will try to comfort her.”

The cracker looked wistfully from her fresh, young face to the worn face below. “She wuz’s peart an’ purty’s you, miss, w’en I fust struck up with ’er,” said he slowly. “Our little gal wuz her very image. Alwynda,” in a singularly soft, almost diffident tone, “don’ take on so; mabbe I’m gwine fer ter see ’er again. ’Twon’t do no harm ter think so, onyhow,” he added, with a glance at Talboys, as though sure there of comprehension.

Then the Bishop spoke, solemnly, though with sympathy, urging the dying man, whose worldly affairs were settled, to repent of his sins and prepare for eternity. “Shall I pray for you, Demming?” he said in conclusion.

“Jes as you please, Bishop,” answered Demming, and he tried to wave his hand. “I ain’t noways partickler. I reckon God A’mighty knows I’d be th’ same ole Demming ef I could get up, an’ I don’ mean ter make no purtences. But mabbe it’ll cheer up th’ ole ’ooman a bit. So you begin, an’ I’ll bring in an amen whenever it’s wanted!”

So speaking, Demming closed his eyes wearily, and the Bishop knelt by the bedside. Talboys and Louise left them thus. After a while, the wife. stretched forth her toil-worn hand and took her husband’s. She thought she was aware of a weak pressure. But when the prayer ended there came no amen. Demming was gone where prayer may only faintly follow; nor could the Bishop ever decide how far his vagabond had joined in his petitions. Such doubts, however, did not prevent his cherishing an assured hope that the man who died for him was safe, forever. The Bishop’s theology, like that of most of us, yielded, sometimes, to the demands of the occasion.