X: High Walk and the Ladies
I now burned to put many questions to the rest of the company. If, through my foolish and outreaching slyness with the girl behind the counter, the door of my comprehension had been shut, Juno had now opened it sufficiently wide for a number of facts to come crowding in, so to speak, abreast. Indeed, their simultaneous arrival was not a little confusing, as if several visitors had burst in upon me and at once begun speaking loudly, each shouting a separate and important matter which demanded my intelligent consideration. John Mayrant worked in the custom house, and Kings Port frowned upon this; not merely Kings Port in general--which counted little with the boy, if indeed he noticed general opinion at all--but the boy's particular Kings Port, his severe old aunts, and his cousins, and the pretty girl at the Exchange, and the men he played cards with, all these frowned upon it, too; yet even this condemnation one could disregard if some lofty personal principle, some pledge to one's own sacred honor, were at stake--but here was no such thing: John Mayrant hated the position himself. The salary? No, the salary would count for nothing in the face of such a prejudice as I had seen glitter from his eye! A strong, clever youth of twenty-three, with the world before him, and no one to support--stop! Hortense Rieppe! There was the lofty personal principle, the sacred pledge to honor; he was engaged presently to endow her with all his worldly goods; and to perform this faithfully a bridegroom must not, no matter how little he liked "taking orders from a negro," fling away his worldly goods some few days before he was to pronounce his bridegroom's vow. So here, at Mrs. Trevise's dinner-table, I caught for one moment, to the full, a vision of the unhappy boy's plight; he was sticking to a task which he loathed that he might support a wife whom he no longer desired. Such, as he saw it, was his duty; and nobody, not even a soul of his kin or his kind, gave him a word or a thought of understanding, gave him anything except the cold shoulder. Yes; from one soul he had got a sign--from aged Daddy Ben, at the churchyard gate; and amid my jostling surmises and conclusions, that quaint speech of the old negro, that little act of fidelity and affection from the heart of a black man, took on a strange pathos in its isolation amid the general harshness of his white superiors. Over this it was that I was pausing when, all in a second, perplexity again ruled my meditations. Juno had said that the engagement was broken. Well, if that were the case--But was it likely to be the case? Juno's agreeable habit, a habit grown familiar to all of us in the house, was to sprinkle about, along with her vitriol, liberal quantities of the by-product of inaccuracy. Mingled with her latest illustrations, she had poured out for us one good dose of falsehood, the antidote for which it had been my happy office to administer on the spot. If John Mayrant wasn't in bed from the wounds of combat, as she had given us to suppose, perhaps Hortense Rieppe hadn't released him from his plighted troth, as Juno had also announced; and distinct relief filled me when I reasoned this out. I leave others to reason out why it was relief, and why a dull disappointment had come over me at the news that the match was off. This, for me, should have been good news, when you consider that I had been so lately telling myself such a marriage must not be, that I must myself, somehow (since no one else would), step in and arrest the calamity; and it seems odd that I should have felt this blankness and regret upon learning that the parties had happily settled it for themselves, and hence my difficult and delicate assistance was never to be needed by them.
Did any one else now sitting at our table know of Miss Rieppe's reported act? What particulars concerning John's fight had been given by Juno before my entrance