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A short story by Margaret Collier Graham

The Face Of The Poor

Title:     The Face Of The Poor
Author: Margaret Collier Graham [More Titles by Graham]

Mr. Anthony attached a memorandum to the letter he was reading, and put his hand on the bell.

"Confound them!" he said under his breath, "what do they think I'm made of!"

A negro opened the door, and came into the room with exaggerated decorum.

"Rufus, take this to Mr. Whitwell, and tell him to get the answer off at once. Is any one waiting?"

"Yes, suh, several. One man's been there some time. Says his name's Busson, suh."

"Send him in."

The man gave his head a tilt forward which seemed to close his eyes, turned pivotally about, and walked out of the room in his most luxurious manner. Rufus never imitated his employer, but he often regretted that his employer did not imitate him.

Mr. Anthony's face resumed its look of prosperous annoyance. The door opened, and a small, roughly dressed man came toward the desk.

"Well, here I am at last," he said in a tone of gentle apology; "I suppose you think it's about time."

The annoyance faded out of Mr. Anthony's face, and left it blank. The visitor put out a work-callous hand.

"I guess you don't remember me; my name's Burson. I was up once before, but you were busy. I hope you're well; you look hearty."

Mr. Anthony shook the proffered hand, and then shrank back, with the distrust of geniality which is one of the cruel hardships of wealth.

"I am well, thank you. What can I do for you, Mr. Burson?"

The little man sat down and wiped the back of his neck with his handkerchief. He was bearded almost to the eyes, and his bushy brows stood out in a thatch. As he bent his gaze upon Mr. Anthony it was like some gentle creature peering out of a brushy covert.

"I guess the question's what I can do for you, Mr. Anthony," he said, smiling wistfully on the millionaire; "I hain't done much this far, sure."

"Well?" Mr. Anthony's voice was dryly interrogative.

"When Edmonson told me he'd sold the mortgage to you, I thought certain I'd be able to keep up the interest, but I haven't made out to do even that; you've been kept out of your money a long time, and to tell the truth I don't see much chance for you to get it. I thought I'd come in and talk with you about it, and see what we could agree on."

Mr. Anthony leaned back rather wearily.

"I might foreclose," he said.

The visitor looked troubled. "Yes, you could foreclose, but that wouldn't fix it up. To tell the truth, Mr. Anthony, I don't feel right about it. I haven't kep' up the place as I'd ought; it's been running down for more'n a year. I don't believe it's worth the mortgage to-day."

Some of the weariness disappeared from Mr. Anthony's face. He laid his arms on the desk and leaned forward.

"You don't think it's worth the mortgage?" he asked.

"Not the mortgage and interest. You see there's over three hundred dollars interest due. I don't believe you could get more'n a thousand dollars cash for the place."

"There would be a deficiency judgment, then," said the millionaire.

"Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about. I supposed the law was arranged some way so you'd get your money. It's no more'n right. But it seems a kind of a pity for you and me to go to law. There ain't nothing between us. I had the money, and you the same as loaned it to me. It was money you'd saved up again old age, and you'd ought to have it. If I'd worked the place and kep' it up right, it would be worth more, though of course property's gone down a good deal. But mother and the girls got kind of discouraged and wanted me to go to peddlin' fruit, and of course you can't do more'n one thing at a time, and do it justice. Now if you had the place, I expect you could afford to keep it up, and I wouldn't wonder if you could sell it; but you'd have to put some ready money into it first, I'm afraid."

Mr. Anthony pushed a pencil up and down between his thumb and forefinger, and watched the process with an inscrutable face. His visitor went on:--

"I was thinking if we could agree on a price, I might deed it to you and give you a note for the balance of what I owe you. I'm getting on kind of slow, but I don't believe but what I could pay the note after a while."

Mr. Anthony kept his eyes on his lead pencil with a strange, whimsical smile.

"Edmonson owed me two thousand dollars," he said, "the mortgage really cost me that; at least it was all I got on the debt."

The visitor made a regretful sound with his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

"You don't say so! Well, that is too bad."

The thatch above the speaker's eyes stood out straight as he reflected.

"You're worse off than I thought," he went on slowly, "but it don't quite seem as if I ought to be held responsible for that. I had the thousand dollars, and used it, and I'd ought to pay it; but the other--it was a kind of a trade you made--I can't see--you don't think"--

Mr. Anthony broke into his hesitation with a short laugh.

"No, I don't think you're responsible for my blunders," he said soberly. "You say property has gone down a good deal," he went on, fixing his shrewd eyes on his listener. "A good many other things have gone down. If my money will buy more than it would when it was loaned, some people would say I shouldn't have so much of it. Perhaps I'm not entitled to more than the place will bring. What do you think about that?" There was a quizzical note in the rich man's voice.

Burson wiped the back of his neck with his handkerchief, dropped it into his hat, and shook the hat slowly and reflectively, keeping time with his head.

"If you'd kep' your money by you, allowin' that you loaned it to me,--because you the same as did,--if you'd kep' it by you or put it in the bank and let it lay idle, you'd 'a' had it. It wouldn't 'a' gone down any. You hadn't ought to lose anything, that I can see,--except of course for your mistake about Edmonson. That kind of hurts me about Edmonson. I wouldn't 'a' thought it of him. He always seemed a clever sort of fellow."

"Oh, Edmonson's all right," said Mr. Anthony; "he went into some things too heavily, and broke up. I guess he'll make it yet."

Burson looked relieved. "Then he'll straighten this up with you, after all," he said.

Mr. Anthony whistled noiselessly. "Well, hardly. He considers it straightened."

Burson turned his old hat slowly around between his knees.

"He's a fair-spoken man, Edmonson; I kind of think he'll square it up, after all," he said hopefully. "Anyway, it doesn't become me to throw stones till I've paid my own debts."

The hair that covered the speaker's mouth twitched a little in its effort to smile. He glanced at his companion expectantly.

"Could you come out and take a look at the place?" he asked.

Mr. Anthony slid down in his chair, and clasped his hands across his portliness.

"I believe I'll take your valuation, Burson," he answered slowly; "if I find there's nothing against the property but my mortgage, and you'll give me a deed and your note for the interest, or, say, two hundred and fifty dollars, we'll call it square. It will take a few days to look the matter up, a week, perhaps. Suppose you come in at the end of the week. Your wife will sign the deed?" he added interrogatively.

Burson had leaned forward to get up. At the question he raised his eyes with the look that Mr. Anthony remembered to have seen years ago in small creatures he had driven into corners.

"Mother didn't have to sign the mortgage," he said, halting a little before each word, "the lawyer said it wasn't necessary. I don't know if she'll"--

Mr. Anthony broke into his embarrassment. "Let me see." He put his hand on the bell.

"Ask Mr. Evert to send me the mortgage from Burson to Edmonson, assigned to me," he said when Rufus appeared.

The negro walked out of the room as if he were carrying the message on his head.

"Mother doesn't always see things just as I do," said Burson; "she was willing to sign the mortgage, though," he added, "only she didn't need to; she wanted me to get the money of Edmonson."

He put his hand into his pocket, and a light of discovery came into his face.

"Have a peach," he said convivially, laying an enormous Late Crawford on the corner of the desk. Mr. Anthony gave an uncomprehending glance at the gift. "Hain't you got a knife?" asked Burson, straightening himself and drawing a bone-handled implement from his pocket; "I keep the big blade for fruit," he said kindly, as he laid it on the desk.

Mr. Anthony inspected the proffered refreshment with a queer, uncertain smile; then he took the peach from the desk, drew the wastebasket between his knees, opened the big blade of the knife, and began to remove the red velvet skin. The juice ran down his wrists and threatened his immaculate cuffs. He fished a spotless handkerchief from his pocket with his pencil and mopped up the encroaching rivulets. His companion smiled upon him with amiable relish as the dripping sections disappeared.

"I errigated 'em more than usual this year, and it makes 'em kind of sloppy to eat," he apologized; "it doesn't help the flavor any, but most people buy for size. When you're out peddling and haven't time to cultivate, it's easy to turn on the water. It's about as bad as a milkman putting water in the milk, and I always feel mean about it. I tell mother errigating's a lazy man's way of farming, but she says water costs so much here she doesn't think it's cheating to sell it for peach-juice."

Rufus came into the room, and bore down upon the pair with deferential disdain. Mr. Anthony gave his fingers a parting wipe, and took the papers from the envelope.

"It's all right, Burson," he said after a little, "you needn't mind about your wife's signature. I'll risk it. Come back in about a week, say Thursday, Thursday at ten, if that suits you. I'll have my attorney look into it."

Burson got up and started out. Then he turned and stood still an instant.

"Of course, I mean to tell mother about the deed," he said; "I wouldn't want you to think"--

"Oh, certainly, certainly," acquiesced Mr. Anthony with an almost violent waiving of domestic confidence. "Good-afternoon, Mr. Burson." He whirled his revolving chair toward the desk with a distinct air of dismissal, and picked up the package of papers.

After the door closed he sat still for some time, looking thoughtfully at the mortgage; then he made a memorandum in ink, with his signature in full, and attached it to the document. Rufus opened the door.

"Mr. Darnell and two other gentlemen, suh."

The millionaire set his jaws. "Show them in, Rufus. Damn it," he said softly,--"damn it, why can't they be honest!"

* * * * *

"Do you mean to tell me, Erastus Burson, that you deeded him this place, and gave him your note for two hundred and fifty dollars you didn't owe him?"

"Why, no, mother; didn't I explain to you there'd be a deficiency judgment?"

"Well, I should say there was. But if anybody's lackin' judgment I'd say it was you, not him. The idea! Why he's as rich as cream, and you're as poor"--

"Well, his being rich and me being poor hasn't got anything to do with it, mother; we're just two men trying to be fair with each other, don't you see? You and the girls wouldn't want me to be close-fisted and overreachin', even if I am poor. I think we fixed it up just as near right as a wrong thing can be fixed. Of course I don't like to feel the way I do about Edmonson, but Mr. Anthony don't seem to lay up anything again him, and he's the one that has the right to. Edmonson treated him worse than anybody ever treated me. I don't know just how I'd feel toward a man if he'd treated me the way Edmonson treated Mr. Anthony."

Mrs. Burson laid the overalls she was mending across her knee in a suggestive attitude.

"I don't call it close-fisted or overreachin' to keep a roof over your family's head," she argued; "if the place isn't ours, I suppose we'll have to leave it."

"No; Mr. Anthony wants us to stay here, and take care of the place for the rent. I feel as if I'd ought to keep it up better, but if I'm to peddle fruit and try to pay off the note, I'll have to hustle. I want to do the square thing by him. He's certainly treated me white."

Mrs. Burson fitted a patch on the seat of the overalls, and flattened it down with rather unnecessarily vigorous slaps of her large hand.

"I wouldn't lose any sleep over Mr. Anthony; I guess he's able to take care of himself," she said, closing her lips suddenly as if to prevent the escape of less amicable sentiments.

"Well, he doesn't seem to be," urged her husband, "the way Edmonson's overreached him. My! but I'd hate to be in that fellow's shoes: doin' dirt to a man that a way!"

Mrs. Burson sighed audibly, and gave her husband a hopelessly uncomprehending look. "You do beat all, Erastus," she said wearily. "Here's your overalls. I guess you can be trusted with 'em. They're too much patched to give to Mr. Anthony."

Burson returned her look of uncomprehension. Fortunately the marital fog through which two pairs of eyes so often view each other is more likely to dull the outline of faults than of virtues. Mrs. Burson watched her husband not unfondly as he straddled into his overalls and left the room.

"A man doesn't have to be very sharp to get the better of Erastus," she said to herself, "but he has to be awful low down; and I s'pose there's plenty that is."

The winter came smilingly on, tantalizing the farmer with sunny indifference concerning drouth, and when he was quite despondent sending great purple clouds from the southeast to wash away his fears. By Christmas the early oranges were yellowing. There had been no frost, and Burson's old spring-wagon and unshapely but well-fed sorrel team made their daily round of the valley, and now and then he dropped into Mr. Anthony's office to make small payments on his note. Pitifully small they seemed to the mortgagee, who appeared nevertheless always glad to receive them, and gave orders to Rufus, much to that dignitary's disgust, that the fruit-vender should always be admitted. The handful of coin which he so cheerfully piled on the corner of the rich man's desk always remained there until his departure, when Mr. Anthony took an envelope from the safe, swept the payment into it without counting, and returned it to its compartment, making no indorsement on the note.

"I'd feel better satisfied if you'd drive out some time and take a look at things," said Burson to his creditor during one of these visits; "you'd ought to get out of the office now and then for your health."

"Maybe I will, Burson," replied the capitalist. "You're not away from home all the time?"

"Oh, no, but I s'pose Sunday's your day off; it's mine. Mother and the girls generally go to church, but I don't. I tell 'm I'll watch, and they can pray. I can't very well go," he added, making haste to counteract the possible shock from his irreverence; "there ain't but one seat in the fruit-wagon, and when the women folks get their togs on, three's about all that can ride. Come out any Sunday, and stay for dinner. We mostly have chicken."

The following Sunday Mr. Anthony drew up his daintily-stepping chestnut at the fruit-peddler's gate. Before he had descended from his shining road-wagon, his host ran down the walk, pulling on his shabby coat.

"Well, now, this is something like!" he exclaimed. "Got a hitching-strap? Just wait till I open the gate; I believe I'd better take your horse inside. There's a post by the kitchen door. My, ain't he a beauty!"

Burson led the roadster through the gate, and Mr. Anthony walked by his side. When the horse was tied, the two men went about the place, and Erastus showed his guest the poultry and fruit trees, commenting on the merits of Plymouth Rocks and White Leghorns as layers, and displaying modest pride in the condition of the orchard.

"I've kep' it up better this year. The rains come along more favorable and the weeds didn't get ahead of me the way they did last winter. Look out, there!" he cried, as Mr. Anthony laid his hand on the head of a Jersey calf that backed awkwardly from under his grasp. "Don't let her get a hold of your coat-tail; she chawed mine to a frazzle the other day; the girls pet her so much she has no manners."

When the tour of the little farm was finished the two men came back to the veranda, and Erastus drew a rocking-chair from the front room for his guest. It was hung with patchwork cushions of "crazy" design, but Mr. Anthony leaned his tired head against them in the sanest content.

"Now you just sit still a minute," Erastus said, "and I'm a-going to bring you something you hain't tasted for a long time."

He darted into the house, and returned with a pitcher and two glasses.

"Sweet cider!" he announced, with a triumphant smile. "I had a lot of apples in the fall, not big enough to peddle,--you know our apples ain't anything to brag of,--and I just rigged up a kind of hand-press in the back yard, and now and then I press out a pitcher of cider for Sunday. I never let it get the least bit hard; not that I don't like a little tang to it myself, but mother belongs to the W.C.T.U., and it'd worry her."

He darted into the house again, and emerged with a plate of brown twisted cakes.

"Mother usually makes cookies on Saturday, but I can't find anything but these doughnuts. Maybe they won't go bad with the cider."

He poured his guest a glass, and Mr. Anthony drank it, holding a doughnut in one hand, and partaking of it with evident relish.

"It's good, Burson," he said. "May I have another glass and another doughnut?"

His host's countenance fairly shone with delighted hospitality as he replenished the empty glass. There were crumbs on the floor when the visitor left, and flies buzzed about the empty plate and pitcher as Mrs. Burson and her daughters came up the steps.

"Mr. Anthony's been here," said Erastus cheerfully; "I'm awful sorry you missed him. We had some cider and doughnuts."

The three women stopped suddenly, and stared at the speaker.

"Why, Paw Burson!" ejaculated the elder daughter, "did you give Mr. Anthony doughnuts and cider out here on this porch?"

"Why, yes, Millie," apologized the father; "I looked for cookies, but I couldn't find any. He said he liked doughnuts, and he did seem to relish 'em; he eat several."

"That awful rich man! Why, Paw Burson!"

The young woman gave an awe-stricken glance about her, as if expecting to discover some lingering traces of wealth.

"Doughnuts!" she repeated helplessly.

"Why, Millie," faltered the father, mildly aggressive, "I don't see why being rich should take away a man's appetite; I'm sure I hope I'll never be too rich to like doughnuts and cider."

"Didn't you give him a napkin, paw?" queried the younger girl.

"No," said the father meekly, "he had his handkerchief. I coaxed him to stay to dinner, but he couldn't; and I asked him to drive out some day with his wife and daughter--he hasn't but one--they lost a little girl when she was seven"--

The man's voice quivered on the last word, and died away. Mrs. Burson went hurriedly into the house. She reappeared at the door in a few minutes without her bonnet.

"Erastus," she said gently, "will you split me a few sticks of kindling before you put away the team?"

* * * * *

Mrs. Burson was fitting a salad-green bodice on her elder daughter. That young woman's efforts to see her own spine, where her mother was distributing pins with solemn intentness, had dyed her face a somewhat unnatural red, but the hands that lay upon her downy arms were much whiter than those that hovered about her back. A dining-table, bearing the more permanent part of its outfit, was pushed into a corner of the room, and covered with a yellow mosquito-net, and from the kitchen came a sound of crockery accompanied by an occasional splash and a scraping of tin. Now and then the younger girl appeared in the doorway and gazed in a sort of worshipful ecstasy at her sister's splendor.

"Do you think you'll get it finished for the Fiesta, maw?" she asked, between deep breaths of admiration. Mrs. Burson nodded absently, exploring her bosom for another pin with her outspread palm.

Her husband came into the room, and seated himself on the edge of the rep lounge. His face had a strange pallor above the mask of his beard.

"You're home early, Erastus," she said; then she looked up. "Are you sick?" she asked with anxiety.

"Mr. Anthony is dead," Burson said huskily.

"Dead! Why, Erastus!"

Mrs. Burson held a pin suspended in the air and stared at her husband.

"Yes. He dropped dead in his chair. Or rather, he had some kind of a stroke, and never came to. It happened more than a week ago. I went in to-day, and Rufus told me."

Mrs. Burson returned the pin to her bosom, and motioned her daughter toward the bedroom door.

"Go and take it off, Millie," she said soberly. She was shamefacedly conscious of something different from the grief that stirred her husband, something more sordid and personal.

"It hurt me all over," Burson went on, "the way some of them talked in town. They looked queer at me when I said what I did about him. I don't understand it."

"I guess there's a good many things you don't understand, Erastus," ventured the wife quietly.

A carriage stopped at the gate, and a young woman alighted from it, and came up the walk. Erastus saw her first, and met her in the open doorway. She looked at him with eager intentness.

"Is this Mr. Burson?" she asked gently. "I am Mr. Anthony's daughter."

Mrs. Burson got up, holding the scraps of green silk in her apron, and offered the visitor a seat. Erastus held out his hand, and tried to speak. The two faced each other in tearful silence.

"I wanted to bring you this myself," the girl faltered, "because--because of what is written on the outside." She held a package of papers toward him. "I have heard him speak of you, I think. Any friend of my father must be a good man. We want to thank you, my mother and I"--

"To thank me?" Erastus questioned, "to thank me! You certainly don't know"--

"I know you were my father's friend," the girl interrupted; "I don't care about the rest. Possibly I couldn't understand it. I know very little about business, but I knew my father."

She got up, holding her head high in grief-stricken pride, and gave her hand to her host and hostess.

The younger Burson girl emerged from the kitchen, a dish-towel and a half-wiped plate clasped to her breast, and watched the visitor as she went down the path.

"Her silk waist doesn't begin to touch Millie's for style," she said pensively, "and her skirt doesn't even drag; but there's something about her."

"Yes," acquiesced Mrs. Burson, "there is something about her."

Erastus sat on the edge of the old rep lounge, looking absently at the papers.

"In the event of my death, to be delivered to my friend Erastus Burson," was written on the package.

His wife came and stood over him.

"I don't know just what it means, mother," he said, "there's a deed, and my note marked 'Paid,' and a lot of two-bit and four-bit pieces. I'll have to get somebody to explain it."

He sat quite still until the woman laid her large hand on his bowed head. Then he looked up, with moist, winking eyes.

"I don't feel right about it, mother," he said. "I wish now I'd 'a' dropped in oftener, and been more sociable. It's a strange thing to say, but I think sometimes he was lonesome; and I'm sure I don't know why, for a kinder, genialer man I never met."

[The end]
Margaret Collier Graham's short story: Face Of The Poor