Ellis Takes a Trick

Late one afternoon a handsome trap, drawn by two spirited bays, drove up to Carteret’s gate. Three places were taken by Mrs. Carteret, Clara, and the major, leaving the fourth seat vacant.

“I’ve asked Ellis to drive out with us,” said the major, as he took the lines from the colored man who had the trap in charge. “We’ll go by the office and pick him up.”

Clara frowned, but perceiving Mrs. Carteret’s eye fixed upon her, restrained any further expression of annoyance.

The major’s liking for Ellis had increased within the year. The young man was not only a good journalist, but possessed sufficient cleverness and tact to make him excellent company. The major was fond of argument, but extremely tenacious of his own opinions. Ellis handled the foils of discussion with just the requisite skill to draw out the major, permitting himself to be vanquished, not too easily, but, as it were, inevitably, by the major’s incontrovertible arguments.

Olivia had long suspected Ellis of feeling a more than friendly interest in Clara. Herself partial to Tom, she had more than once thought it hardly fair to Delamere, or even to Clara, who was young and impressionable, to have another young man constantly about the house. True, there had seemed to be no great danger, for Ellis had neither the family nor the means to make him a suitable match for the major’s sister; nor had Clara made any secret of her dislike for Ellis, or of her resentment for his supposed depreciation of Delamere. Mrs. Carteret was inclined to a more just and reasonable view of Ellis’s conduct in this matter, but nevertheless did not deem it wise to undeceive Clara. Dislike was a stout barrier, which remorse might have broken down. The major, absorbed in schemes of empire and dreams of his child’s future, had not become cognizant of the affair. His wife, out of friendship for Tom, had refrained from mentioning it; while the major, with a delicate regard for Clara’s feelings, had said nothing at home in regard to his interview with her lover.

At the Chronicle office Ellis took the front seat beside the major. After leaving the city pavements, they bowled along merrily over an excellent toll-road, built of oyster shells from the neighboring sound, stopping at intervals to pay toll to the gatekeepers, most of whom were white women with tallow complexions and snuff-stained lips⁠—the traditional “poor-white.” For part of the way the road was bordered with a growth of scrub oak and pine, interspersed with stretches of cleared land, white with the opening cotton or yellow with ripening corn. To the right, along the distant riverbank, were visible here and there groups of turpentine pines, though most of this growth had for some years been exhausted. Twenty years before, Wellington had been the world’s greatest shipping port for naval stores. But as the turpentine industry had moved southward, leaving a trail of devastated forests in its rear, the city had fallen to a poor fifth or sixth place in this trade, relying now almost entirely upon cotton for its export business.

Occasionally our party passed a person, or a group of persons⁠—mostly negroes approximating the pure type, for those of lighter color grew noticeably scarcer as the town was left behind. Now and then one of these would salute the party respectfully, while others glanced at them indifferently or turned away. There would have seemed, to a stranger, a lack, of spontaneous friendliness between the people of these two races, as though each felt that it had no part or lot in the other’s life. At one point the carriage drew near a party of colored folks who were laughing and jesting among themselves with great glee. Paying no attention to the white people, they continued to laugh and shout boisterously as the carriage swept by.

Major Carteret’s countenance wore an angry look.

“The negroes around this town are becoming absolutely insufferable,” he averred. “They are sadly in need of a lesson in manners.”

Half an hour later they neared another group, who were also making merry. As the carriage approached, they became mute and silent as the grave until the major’s party had passed.

“The negroes are a sullen race,” remarked the major thoughtfully. “They will learn their lesson in a rude school, and perhaps much sooner than they dream. By the way,” he added, turning to the ladies, “what was the arrangement with Tom? Was he to come out this evening?”

“He came out early in the afternoon,” replied Clara, “to go a-fishing. He is to join us at the hotel.”

After an hour’s drive they reached the hotel, in front of which stretched the beach, white and inviting, along the shallow sound. Mrs. Carteret and Clara found seats on the veranda. Having turned the trap over to a hostler, the major joined a group of gentlemen, among whom was General Belmont, and was soon deep in the discussion of the standing problem of how best to keep the negroes down.

Ellis remained by the ladies. Clara seemed restless and ill at ease. Half an hour elapsed and Delamere had not appeared.

“I wonder where Tom is,” said Mrs. Carteret.

“I guess he hasn’t come in yet from fishing,” said Clara. “I wish he would come. It’s lonesome here. Mr. Ellis, would you mind looking about the hotel and seeing if there’s anyone here that we know?”

For Ellis the party was already one too large. He had accepted this invitation eagerly, hoping to make friends with Clara during the evening. He had never been able to learn definitely the reason of her coldness, but had dated it from his meeting with old Mrs. Ochiltree, with which he felt it was obscurely connected. He had noticed Delamere’s scowling look, too, at their last meeting. Clara’s injustice, whatever its cause, he felt keenly. To Delamere’s scowl he had paid little attention⁠—he despised Tom so much that, but for his engagement to Clara, he would have held his opinions in utter contempt.

He had even wished that Clara might make some charge against him⁠—he would have preferred that to her attitude of studied indifference, the only redeeming feature about which was that it was studied, showing that she, at least, had him in mind. The next best thing, he reasoned, to having a woman love you, is to have her dislike you violently⁠—the main point is that you should be kept in mind, and made the subject of strong emotions. He thought of the story of Hall Caine’s, where the woman, after years of persecution at the hands of an unwelcome suitor, is on the point of yielding, out of sheer irresistible admiration for the man’s strength and persistency, when the lover, unaware of his victory and despairing of success, seizes her in his arms and, springing into the sea, finds a watery grave for both. The analogy of this case with his own was, of course, not strong. He did not anticipate any tragedy in their relations; but he was glad to be thought of upon almost any terms. He would not have done a mean thing to make her think of him; but if she did so because of a misconception, which he was given no opportunity to clear up, while at the same time his conscience absolved him from evil and gave him the compensating glow of martyrdom, it was at least better than nothing.

He would, of course, have preferred to be upon a different footing. It had been a pleasure to have her speak to him during the drive⁠—they had exchanged a few trivial remarks in the general conversation. It was a greater pleasure to have her ask a favor of him⁠—a pleasure which, in this instance, was partly offset when he interpreted her request to mean that he was to look for Tom Delamere. He accepted the situation gracefully, however, and left the ladies alone.

Knowing Delamere’s habits, he first went directly to the barroom⁠—the atmosphere would be congenial, even if he were not drinking. Delamere was not there. Stepping next into the office, he asked the clerk if young Mr. Delamere had been at the hotel.

“Yes, sir,” returned the man at the desk, “he was here at luncheon, and then went out fishing in a boat with several other gentlemen. I think they came back about three o’clock. I’ll find out for you.”

He rang the bell, to which a colored boy responded.

“Front,” said the clerk, “see if young Mr. Delamere’s upstairs. Look in 255 or 256, and let me know at once.”

The bellboy returned in a moment.

“Yas, suh,” he reported, with a suppressed grin, “he’s in 256, suh. De do’ was open, an’ I seed ’im from de hall, suh.”

“I wish you’d go up and tell him,” said Ellis, “that⁠—What are you grinning about?” he asked suddenly, noticing the waiter’s expression.

“Nothin’, suh, nothin’ at all, suh,” responded the negro, lapsing into the stolidity of a wooden Indian. “What shall I tell Mr. Delamere, suh?”

“Tell him,” resumed Ellis, still watching the boy suspiciously⁠—“no, I’ll tell him myself.”

He ascended the broad stair to the second floor. There was an upper balcony and a parlor, with a piano for the musically inclined. To reach these one had to pass along the hall upon which the room mentioned by the bellboy opened. Ellis was quite familiar with the hotel. He could imagine circumstances under which he would not care to speak to Delamere; he would merely pass through the hall and glance into the room casually, as anyone else might do, and see what the darky downstairs might have meant by his impudence.

It required but a moment to reach the room. The door was not wide open, but far enough ajar for him to see what was going on within.

Two young men, members of the fast set at the Clarendon Club, were playing cards at a small table, near which stood another, decorated with an array of empty bottles and glasses. Sprawling on a lounge, with flushed face and disheveled hair, his collar unfastened, his vest buttoned awry, lay Tom Delamere, breathing stertorously, in what seemed a drunken sleep. Lest there should be any doubt of the cause of his condition, the fingers of his right hand had remained clasped mechanically around the neck of a bottle which lay across his bosom.

Ellis turned away in disgust, and went slowly back to the ladies.

“There seems to be no one here yet,” he reported. “We came a little early for the evening crowd. The clerk says Tom Delamere was here to luncheon, but he hasn’t seen him for several hours.”

“He’s not a very gallant cavalier,” said Mrs. Carteret severely. “He ought to have been waiting for us.”

Clara was clearly disappointed, and made no effort to conceal her displeasure, leaving Ellis in doubt as to whether or not he were its object. Perhaps she suspected him of not having made a very thorough search. Her next remark might have borne such a construction.

“Sister Olivia,” she said pettishly, “let’s go up to the parlor. I can play the piano anyway, if there’s no one to talk to.”

“I find it very comfortable here, Clara,” replied her sister placidly. “Mr. Ellis will go with you. You’ll probably find someone in the parlor, or they’ll come when you begin to play.”

Clara’s expression was not cordial, but she rose as if to go. Ellis was in a quandary. If she went through the hall, the chances were at least even that she would see Delamere. He did not care a rap for Delamere⁠—if he chose to make a public exhibition of himself, it was his own affair; but to see him would surely spoil Miss Pemberton’s evening, and, in her frame of mind, might lead to the suspicion that Ellis had prearranged the exposure. Even if she should not harbor this unjust thought, she would not love the witness of her discomfiture. We had rather not meet the persons who have seen, even though they never mention, the skeletons in our closets. Delamere had disposed of himself for the evening. Ellis would have a fairer field with Delamere out of sight and unaccounted for, than with Delamere in evidence in his present condition.

“Wouldn’t you rather take a stroll on the beach, Miss Clara?” he asked, in the hope of creating a diversion.

“No, I’m going to the parlor. You needn’t come, Mr. Ellis, if you’d rather go down to the beach. I can quite as well go alone.”

“I’d rather go with you,” he said meekly.

They were moving toward the door opening into the hall, from which the broad staircase ascended. Ellis, whose thoughts did not always respond quickly to a sudden emergency, was puzzling his brain as to how he should save her from any risk of seeing Delamere. Through the side door leading from the hall into the office, he saw the bellboy to whom he had spoken seated on the bench provided for the servants.

“Won’t you wait for me just a moment, Miss Clara, while I step into the office? I’ll be with you in an instant.”

Clara hesitated.

“Oh, certainly,” she replied nonchalantly.

Ellis went direct to the bellboy. “Sit right where you are,” he said, “and don’t move a hair. What is the lady in the hall doing?”

“She’s got her back tu’ned this way, suh. I ’spec’ she’s lookin’ at the picture on the opposite wall, suh.”

“All right,” whispered Ellis, pressing a coin into the servant’s hand. “I’m going up to the parlor with the lady. You go up ahead of us, and keep in front of us along the hall. Don’t dare to look back. I shall keep on talking to the lady, so that you can tell by my voice where we are. When you get to room 256, go in and shut the door behind you: pretend that you were called⁠—ask the gentlemen what they want⁠—tell any kind of a lie you like⁠—but keep the door shut until you’re sure we’ve got by. Do you hear?”

“Yes, suh,” replied the negro intelligently.

The plan worked without a hitch. Ellis talked steadily, about the hotel, the furnishings, all sorts of irrelevant subjects, to which Miss Pemberton paid little attention. She was angry with Delamere, and took no pains to conceal her feelings. The bellboy entered room 256 just before they reached the door. Ellis had heard loud talking as they approached, and as they were passing there was a crash of broken glass, as though some object had been thrown at the door.

“What is the matter there?” exclaimed Clara, quickening her footsteps and instinctively drawing closer to Ellis.

“Someone dropped a glass, I presume,” replied Ellis calmly.

Miss Pemberton glanced at him suspiciously. She was in a decidedly perverse mood. Seating herself at the piano, she played brilliantly for a quarter of an hour. Quite a number of couples strolled up to the parlor, but Delamere was not among them.

“Oh dear!” exclaimed Miss Pemberton, as she let her fingers fall upon the keys with a discordant crash, after the last note, “I don’t see why we came out here tonight. Let’s go back downstairs.”

Ellis felt despondent. He had done his utmost to serve and to please Miss Pemberton, but was not likely, he foresaw, to derive much benefit from his opportunity. Delamere was evidently as much or more in her thoughts by reason of his absence than if he had been present. If the door should have been opened, and she should see him from the hall upon their return, Ellis could not help it. He took the side next to the door, however, meaning to hurry past the room so that she might not recognize Delamere.

Fortunately the door was closed and all quiet within the room. On the stairway they met the bellboy, rubbing his head with one hand and holding a bottle of seltzer upon a tray in the other. The boy was well enough trained to give no sign of recognition, though Ellis guessed the destination of the bottle.

Ellis hardly knew whether to feel pleased or disappointed at the success of his manoeuvres. He had spared Miss Pemberton some mortification, but he had saved Tom Delamere from merited exposure. Clara ought to know the truth, for her own sake.

On the beach, a few rods away, fires were burning, around which several merry groups had gathered. The smoke went mostly to one side, but a slight whiff came now and then to where Mrs. Carteret sat awaiting them.

“They’re roasting oysters,” said Mrs. Carteret. “I wish you’d bring me some, Mr. Ellis.”

Ellis strolled down to the beach. A large iron plate, with a turned-up rim like a great baking-pan, supported by legs which held it off the ground, was set over a fire built upon the sand. This primitive oven was heaped with small oysters in the shell, taken from the neighboring sound, and hauled up to the hotel by a negro whose pony cart stood near by. A wet coffee-sack of burlaps was spread over the oysters, which, when steamed sufficiently, were opened by a colored man and served gratis to all who cared for them.

Ellis secured a couple of plates of oysters, which he brought to Mrs. Carteret and Clara; they were small, but finely flavored.

Meanwhile Delamere, who possessed a remarkable faculty of recuperation from the effects of drink, had waked from his sleep, and remembering his engagement, had exerted himself to overcome the ravages of the afternoon’s debauch. A dash of cold water braced him up somewhat. A bottle of seltzer and a big cup of strong coffee still further strengthened his nerves.

When Ellis returned to the veranda, after having taken away the plates, Delamere had joined the ladies and was explaining the cause of his absence.

He had been overcome by the heat, he said, while out fishing, and had been lying down ever since. Perhaps he ought to have sent for a doctor, but the fellows had looked after him. He hadn’t sent word to his friends because he hadn’t wished to spoil their evening.

“That was very considerate of you, Tom,” said Mrs. Carteret dryly, “but you ought to have let us know. We have been worrying about you very much. Clara has found the evening dreadfully dull.”

“Indeed, no, sister Olivia,” said the young lady cheerfully, “I’ve been having a lovely time. Mr. Ellis and I have been up in the parlor; I played the piano; and we’ve been eating oysters and having a most delightful time. Won’t you take me down there to the beach, Mr. Ellis? I want to see the fires. Come on.”

“Can’t I go?” asked Tom jealously.

“No, indeed, you mustn’t stir a foot! You must not overtax yourself so soon; it might do you serious injury. Stay here with sister Olivia.”

She took Ellis’s arm with exaggerated cordiality. Delamere glared after them angrily. Ellis did not stop to question her motives, but took the goods the gods provided. With no very great apparent effort, Miss Pemberton became quite friendly, and they strolled along the beach, in sight of the hotel, for nearly half an hour. As they were coming up she asked him abruptly⁠—

Mr. Ellis, did you know Tom was in the hotel?”

Ellis was looking across the sound, at the lights of a distant steamer which was making her way toward the harbor.

“I wonder,” he said musingly, as though he had not heard her question, “if that is the Ocean Belle?”

“And was he really sick?” she demanded.

“She’s later than usual this trip,” continued Ellis, pursuing his thought. “She was due about five o’clock.”

Miss Pemberton, under cover of the darkness, smiled a fine smile, which foreboded ill for someone. When they joined the party on the piazza, the major had come up and was saying that it was time to go. He had been engaged in conversation, for most of the evening, with General Belmont and several other gentlemen.

“Here comes the general now. Let me see. There are five of us. The general has offered me a seat in his buggy, and Tom can go with you-all.”

The general came up and spoke to the ladies. Tom murmured his thanks; it would enable him to make up a part of the delightful evening he had missed.

When Mrs. Carteret had taken the rear seat, Clara promptly took the place beside her. Ellis and Delamere sat in front. When Delamere, who had offered to drive, took the reins, Ellis saw that his hands were shaking.

“Give me the lines,” he whispered. “Your nerves are unsteady and the road is not well lighted.”

Delamere prudently yielded the reins. He did not like Ellis’s tone, which seemed sneering rather than expressive of sympathy with one who had been suffering. He wondered if the beggar knew anything about his illness. Clara had been acting strangely. It would have been just like Ellis to have slandered him. The upstart had no business with Clara anyway. He would cheerfully have strangled Ellis, if he could have done so with safety to himself and no chance of discovery.

The drive homeward through the night was almost a silent journey. Mrs. Carteret was anxious about her baby. Clara did not speak, except now and then to Ellis with reference to some object in or near the road. Occasionally they passed a vehicle in the darkness, sometimes barely avoiding a collision. Far to the north the sky was lit up with the glow of a forest fire. The breeze from the Sound was deliciously cool. Soon the last tollgate was passed and the lights of the town appeared.

Ellis threw the lines to William, who was waiting, and hastened to help the ladies out.

“Good night, Mr. Ellis,” said Clara sweetly, as she gave Ellis her hand. “Thank you for a very pleasant evening. Come up and see us soon.”

She ran into the house without a word to Tom.