The Shadow of My Past
In the spring of 188— I took a notion to grow a beard. A week after I quit shaving it occurred to me I needed a vacation, and after a little thought as to where I should go I made up my mind to revisit the place where I was born and had passed my childhood. This was a small town in one of the back counties, distant a couple of hundred miles from the home of my maturer years.
My early life had not been a particularly bright one. My father was a man of average intelligence and considerable activity, but lacked the judgment to combine these most effectually, and remained always a poor man. My mother was a poor man's wife. I had three brothers and two sisters, of whom all but one brother died while children.
When I was about 17 our family met with one of those series of misfortunes which seem to mock at the doctrine of chances and the laws of life. My father, while out hunting one day, accidentally shot and killed himself. The sod on his grave had not taken root before my brother was poisoned by eating ice cream at a Sunday school picnic. While we were at his funeral our house took fire and burned to the ground. My mother, bereft of her husband and her home, was compelled to take in sewing for a living, and my support was provided for by binding me out to Josiah Gormully, a prosperous butcher, who kept a shop in our neighborhood. Gormully had a son Tom, about two years my senior, and a daughter about my own age. These young people, to impress upon me their own superiority, endeavored to make my life as miserable as possible. I endured this while my mother lived, but when she at last succumbed to her troubles and died of hemorrhage, the result of a cold contracted while going through the snow in thin shoes to deliver work, I found my lot much harder to bear. One day when Tom Gormully was more than usually insulting I proceeded to give him a sound thrashing. While he was the older, I was the stronger of the two. His sister Mary undertook to help him out, and I thrashed them both. Gormully was away from home at the time, buying cattle, and I did not look forward with much pleasure to his return. I therefore packed up my slender wardrobe in an oilcloth valise and between two days shook the dust of Greenville from my feet. Fifteen or twenty years had elapsed since then, and, having attained a fairly good position in life, I felt that I should like to revisit my birthplace and see how my old friends were getting along and whether they remembered me or not. I therefore packed my Gladstone bag and bought a ticket for Greenville.
As I reclined luxuriously in the parlor car, I began to speculate on what would take place at the end of the journey. I thought of my old master, the butcher, and imagined the cordial hand-clasp he would give me, and how he would laugh at the little "scrap" I had had with Tom and Mary before I ran away. I pictured Mary a plump and rosy matron, recalling with pleased surprise, in the handsome and well-dressed gentleman who stood before her, the lean and shabby apprentice whom she looked down upon so many years before. I thought of old Jim Prout, the village shoemaker, in whose shop, which was next to Gormully's, I had spent so many spare hours. I knew that Jim would be delighted to see the boy who listened so patiently to his fish stories, and whose hard lot he used to pity so much. There arose before my mind the image of Aunt Betsey Barker, who kept the little millinery shop of the village, and had often given me cake and apples and other good things, and who sympathized so deeply with my mother in her misfortunes. I thought I should be glad to shake hands with my old Sunday school teacher, Deacon Hardacre, of the Baptist Church, to which my parents belonged, and let him know that his work had not been without results. But the person I looked forward with most pleasure to meeting was Miss Celina Hawkins, a distant relative of my mother's and the only person in Greenville with whom I could claim any blood relationship. I had often run errands, chopped wood, drawn water, and worked in the garden for Miss Celina. Once when the roof of her house caught fire I had climbed up and put it out, at the imminent risk of my own physical integrity. I was sure that Miss Hawkins, if living, would be delighted to see me, and would recall with pleasure the little services I had rendered her.
During the trip to Greenville I looked several times into the pocket mirror I carried with me, to observe the progress of my beard, and before I reached my destination I began to shrink a little from appearing in my old home with such a face. My original idea had been that, Greenville being a country town, where men shaved but once a week, the condition of one's beard would be of no consequence. But the oftener I looked in the glass the more I realized that I did not look well; and I began to wonder if, after all, I would not create a better impression by appearing in Greenville at a later date, when my beard should have attained a more substantial growth. It occurred to me that I might solve the difficulty by stopping at Greenville under an assumed name, and in the character of a stranger visiting my old friends and endeavoring to find out what impressions they retained of me. Then I could go on down to a place where I knew there was good fishing, stay there a while and come back through Greenville in my true character. The longer I thought about this the more it struck me as a particularly brilliant idea. In order to make my interest in my own past explainable, I could let people imagine me a detective, and in that capacity I would look up my own record. It would give me, too, the opportunity of finding out the real sentiments of my old acquaintances, which they might not express with as much freedom if they knew me. The feasibility and advantages of this plan grew upon me to such an extent that I became impatient to finish by journey so as to put it into operation.
There were many changes in Greenville. I got off the train at the same little brick station house I had left there, but as I walked up the street to the hotel I noticed many new buildings, and missed some of the old ones. The modest wooden structure that had sheltered sojourning strangers when I was a boy had disappeared, and in its stead had been erected the somewhat pretentious brick building which a large sign designated, in gilt letters a foot long, as the Commercial Hotel. I registered as "J. Hawkins Keener, Chicago, Ill., was assigned to a good room, and after removing some of the traces of my journey, went down to supper.
At the table I fell into conversation with the man seated opposite me. I inferred from his familiarity with the waiters that he was no stranger. We exchanged some remarks about the weather, and then I asked him if he lived in town.
"Yes, sir," he answered, "my name is Gormully—editor of the 'Weekly Torchlight.' You're in tobacco, I presume—or are you in liquor?"
I don't know why he should have thought me in tobacco or liquor, unless on account of my beard. But I disclaimed both.
"No," I replied, "I'm not in the commercial line. In fact, I'm here on a rather delicate mission. I'm looking up the record of a man who once lived in this town; was brought up here, I believe. The name he went by in those days was Henry Skinner—Hank Skinner they called him."
"Hank Skinner!" he cried, "why, I know all about Hank Skinner. He was my father's bound boy 18 years ago. Looking up his record, eh? Well, sir, between you and me, he was a desperate character. He assaulted me—he was several years the older—and, though I resisted him manfully, he nearly killed me, and then in an excess of brutal rage, he attacked my sister with such ferocity that she was laid up for a month from nervous prostration. Father was away from home at the time, and Skinner had skipped out before he returned. Father advertised for him, and offered a reward for his capture, but we never got up with him. I supposed he was in the penitentiary long ago. Well, well! I will take you down to father's after supper, and the old man can tell you more about him."
This was a trifle discouraging. But then I could not have expected much from Tom Gormully, everything considered. I was curious to find out what the old man would say; so after supper I walked with my new acquaintance a couple of blocks to a fine, large, new house, which was pointed out as his father's new residence.
"Father," he said, introducing me to the portly and well-clad individual who came to meet us, "this is Mr. Keener, a gentleman from Chicago, who is looking up the record of Hank Skinner—our Hank, you know. Mr. Keener, my father, the Honorable Josiah Gormully, Mayor of Greenville."
"I welcome you to our city, Mr. Keener," said the Mayor. "We are as glad to see you as we were glad to get rid of Hank Skinner. A most dangerous character; I am personally able to tell you that, in my official capacity, I shall be happy to direct you to some of our older citizens who can give you more detailed information."
The Mayor then repeated in substance what his son had said and expressed his regret that he had not met Hank Skinner once more before he left town.
"I am quite willing, Mr. Keener," he added, "to appear as a witness on the trial, or to give my deposition."
I thanked him, and said I would communicate with him later upon the subject. As we were getting up to go out, a large, showily-dressed woman of about 30 came in.
"Good evening, Mary," said Tom Gormully, "Mr. Keener, my sister, Mary, Miss Gormully. Mary, you no doubt can recall some further details about that scoundrel Hank Skinner, whose record Mr. Keener is looking up."
Miss Gormully had given me a winning smile at first, which changed to a frown, accompanied by a shudder, when the name of Skinner was mentioned.
"It is a painful subject with me," she answered. "I can even now see his murderous look fixed on me, and feel the savage force of the deadly blows he aimed at me with his brutal fists. My poor nerves have never recovered fully from the effects of his fury. His name gives me nervous shudders. Has he murdered somebody else?"
I was slightly confused by the directness of the inquiry, but pulled myself together sufficiently to stammer that, my mission being a confidential one, I was not at liberty to state the nature of his offense.
"Oh, I see," said the Mayor, nodding sagaciously, "he might take the alarm, and get out of the way. Well, I wish you success in your search, and I'm sure you'll find him out to be just what you suspect."
The Mayor mentioned the names of several of my former acquaintances, and suggested that I call on them. I bade him and his interesting children good-night, found my way back to the hotel, smoked a cigar and then went to bed. My past record so far was not one to be proud of; but I reflected that the Gormullys could hardly be expected to hold me in grateful remembrance, and, therefore, their statements did not greatly interfere with my night's rest.
After breakfast next morning I started out to find Aunt Betsey Barker. The house she had formerly occupied as a millinery store was now used as a coal office, and in the window where the creations of Mrs. Barker's genius had been displayed, there was now a row of pine boxes containing samples of different sizes and qualities of coal. I inquired of the clerk behind the desk the whereabouts of the former tenant, and he said he did not know; that he had only been in the town a few weeks, but that there was an old shoemaker around the corner who used to know everybody, and I had better ask him.
I went around the corner and found the shoemaker, whom I recognized immediately, in spite of some changes wrought by time, as my old friend Jim Prout. He made room for me by brushing the waxed ends from a three-legged stool, and asked me to sit down, glancing meanwhile at my feet. But the glossy sheen of my patent leathers must have raised a doubt as to the object of my visit, and he looked at me inquiringly as I sat down cautiously upon the stool. I went immediately to the point.
"I'm from Chicago," I said; "I'm trying to find out something about the past life of a man by the name of Henry Skinner—Hank Skinner, they used to call him—who was brought up in this town. Did you know such a person?"
The old man laid down the last upon which he was half-soleing a shoe, took off his glasses, wiped them, put them on again, and planted his elbows on his knees.
"Skinner—Hank Skinner? I disremember any such name. Who did he work for?"
"I understand he once worked for the Mayor, Mr. Gormully."
"Lemme see," he said, reflectively. "There was a boy by the name of
"No, this boy's name was Hank—Hank Skinner. He worked for Gormully when he kept a butcher shop down on Jackson street."
"Oh, I reckon I remember the boy now—a tall, stoop-shouldered boy with red hair, and one cross eye."
"No," I said, "that isn't the boy. This boy was short and thick-set, and had black eyes and curly black hair."
"Lem'me see. Seems ter me there wuz sich a boy druv Gormully's butcher cart 'long right after the war. Do yer know anything 'bout his folks?"
"His father accidentally shot himself."
"Oh, yes. I remember the boy distinc'ly, now! He was a son of old Joe Skinner, a worthless kind o' cuss, that spent most of his time huntin' an' fishin' and hangin' roun' barrooms. I did hear it said that Hank shot his daddy, and then put out that report of his having shot hisself. There wuz some diffick'lty about provin' it, an' so there wuz nothin' done to bring it home to him. But it wuz more than likely so, fer it wa'n't long before he sot fire to his mammy's house, and ran away to 'scape the consequences. He wuz a desp'rit character, a bad egg, and it wuz good riddance for the town when he made hisself skeerce. And so you're looking up his record, air ye? What's he be'n doin' now?"
"I am not at liberty to state the exact nature of his offense at present," I replied, "but I am much obliged to you for the information. Perhaps you can tell me where I can find Mrs. Betsey Barker, an old lady who I am informed used to keep a millinery store around the corner?"
"Ole Miss Betsey Barker? Wal, I sh'd say I could. Aunt Betsey lives out by the fair grounds, the fu'st house on the left han' side after ye pass Eccles' mill pond. Just keep on down Gillespie street, an' ye can't miss it. I don't know whether ye can get anything sensible from ole Miss Betsey. She's gittin' on to'ds her secon' chil'hood, but now and then she hez a glimmerin' o' reason and can remember things tollable straight. Have ye got any terbacker with ye?"
I gave the old man a cigar and went to look up Miss Barker. I knew that she was at least 10 years younger than Jim, and I could not see how her memory could be any worse than his. When I left old Jim's shop I felt very much chagrined; but I comforted myself as I walked down the street with the reflection that the old man's memory was undoubtedly failing, and that I ought not to think any worse of myself because of what I had heard.
I pursued my way until I had crossed the bridge over the mill pond and reached the little cottage which I had been told sheltered Aunt Betsey Barker. A knock at the door brought out an old woman in whom I had no difficulty in recognizing Aunt Betsey herself, showing no great signs of wear for her added years. She was a little thinner, a little
I handed her my card, on which I had written my assumed name, and stated that I was trying to find out from some of the older citizens anything that they could remember about a boy that had been brought up in Greenville by the name of Harry[sic] Skinner, commonly called Hank.
"Laws! yes, I remember Hank Skinner perfickly well. His mother was a friend o' mine when I was a gal. But pore 'Mandy was unfortunate. Her husband wa'n't worth shucks. He got shot in a quarrel down at Bill Sykes' barroom, an' left 'Mandy a widder with two boys, one named Bill and the other Hank. Bill was a good boy, but Hank was the black sheep o' the flock. He pisoned his brother and ran away before they had to take 'im up for it. I believe he did work for Gormully the butcher, a little while, but was discharged for stealin'. Is he be'n forgin' a note or robbin' a bank .[sic]"
"I am not at liberty to state the exact nature of his offense at present, madame," I replierd[sic] mechanically, "but I am much obliged to you for your information."
This was appalling. My record was growing blacker and blacker. And yet, in spite of my chagrin, I was conscious of a strong craving to know the depth of depravity I had reached in the past. This feeling kept growing stronger and more complex. I had assumed the character of a detective purely as a joke, but by some subtle mental process I began to experience that zeal of pursuit which animates the sleuth-hounds of the law. The case was one that would have delighted a professional detective—it was such an easy one, would show up so well in a report—and it is not surprising that it should fascinate an amateur. From a purely personal point of view my task was not a pleasant one, but I did not for that reason shrink from it; for I am a man of singularly unprejudiced and impartial temper, and I had always made it my motto to do well whatever I undertook to do. I am free to admit, however, that underlying any acquired professional zeal or sense of duty, I cherished a lingering hope that my old Sunday school teacher, Deacon Hardacre, would remember some good thing of me, or that my distant relative, Miss Celina Hawkins, might have cherished some kindly thought of the orphan boy who had been driven away from home by cruelty and hardship. It was well I did not build upon this hope.
I learned upon inquiry that Deacon Hardacre had prospered with the growth of the town. I found him at his office, where he transacted a real estate and insurance business. He received me in a very business-like manner, which he dropped when I had broached the object of my visit.
"Hennery Skinner?" he said, in what I remembered as his Sunday school manner. "Oh, yes; I remember Hennery. I sincerely hope that he has not fallen victim to temptations which his temperament and inherited tendencies must have forced upon him. I have often felt sad to think of his future, for I realized that only a large outpouring of divine grace could save him from destruction. But, alas! I could never see any comforting signs in Hennery. He was neglectful of his lessons, and gave me more trouble than any boy in Sabbath school; and I have heard that he was a sore trial to his mother. My worst fears were realized when he committed a brutal assault on the children of his employer, Mr. Gormully, our present Mayor, and fled from the restraining influences of home and friends. I fear that he escaped to some great city, there to be drawn into the maelstrom of iniquity which drags down so many of our young men to disgrace and ruin."
I murmured a few words of acknowledgment, and, sick at heart, left the deacon's office. My last hope for the discovery of any redeeming trait in my character was in my old friend, Miss Celina. I found her sitting on the front porch of the same old house where she had lived when I was a child. The same old elm cast its shade over her. There was a difference, though; 20 years had left their mark on Miss Celina, while the elm did not seem a day older.
"No," she said, as I stepped upon the porch, "I haven't got any cold victuals to-day."
I explained that I was not a tramp, and she replied that she didn't want to buy anything. When I finally made her understand that I was not an agent, she excused herself by saying that her eyesight was not as good as it used to be. I then made the usual inquiry whether she could remember anything about Hank Skinner's boyhood.
"Hank Skinner? Yes, I recollec' Hank. I heard there was a detective in town lookin' him up. I reckon you must be the detective. Well, I can tell you this much—none o' the Skinners was ever worth the powder and shot it would take to kill 'em. My third cousin, Amanda Simpson, married Hank Skinner's father, and it was a sad day for her. He never amounted to anything, and his boys were jus' like him. This boy Hank used to come roun' my house and do odd jobs to get somethin' to eat, but I had to keep things locked up when he was roun' the house, or I might not 'a' found 'em when I looked for 'em again. As it was, I missed one o' my spoons that's never been accounted for, an' I'm positive he took it. This Hank had a fearful temper. He had to run away for somethin'—let me see, what was it? His brother—no, his brother p'isoned a man. Oh, I remember now—my memory ain't as good as it used to be, but I remember quite distinc'ly now—he killed his mother, and then set fire to the house and burnt up the corpse, for he was as cunnin' as he was wicked. And so he's suspected of killing somebody else, is he? Well, I always said he'd come to a bad end."
My last hope had fled. Miss Celina meandered on in a disconnected way, while I sat for a few minutes as one in a dream. Was this some hideous nightmare that oppressed me? I hardly knew how I got out of the house, or what I said to Miss Celina, but a little later I found myself sitting on the bridge over the mill pond where I had so often gone swimming and fishing in my boyhood. As I sat there I began to doubt myself, and to review my past. Had I really been so much worse than other boys as to forfeit the toleration extended toward the faults of youth? I could not believe that I had poisoned my brother, or shot my father, or burned up my mother; but might I not have been guilty of some of the minor offenses charged against me? Had I been laboring under a delusion in thinking myself at least as good as the average man? The suspense of doubt was terrible, and I arose determined to know the worst.
I spent the remainder of the day in finding out all I could in regard to myself. I did not hear any worse things than I had learned already, but I got the details of my various crimes; I leaned the motives which had prompted me to commit them. Not only was I made out the author of the misfortunes which had overwhelmed my own family, but the mysterious crimes occurring since I left were all ascribed to me. It was asserted that I was guilty of a bank robbery which had never been cleared up. All the unexplained fires were easily accounted for by my mania for incendiarism. The murder of two young women found dead by the roadside a few years before was laid at my door. The circumstances surrounding these crimes all pointed logically to me as their probable perpetrator.
These discoveries did not tend to resolve my doubts or restore my equanimity. I had read of people who possessed a double consciousness; who would leave their homes for weeks or months at a time, lead an entirely different life from their ordinary one, and then reappear in their homes with no recollection of what had happened in the meantime. Had I been the victim of some such mental phenomenon? I sat down and pieced together the fragments of my life, but could find no gaps of sufficient duration to have allowed me to commit half the crimes of which I was suspected. I was evidently the victim of some fatal misunderstanding.
It is needless to state that I left Greenville without making myself known to any of my former acquaintances. I went a-fishing, and in the course of the next two weeks my beard made such progress that I was able to return home and resume my place in society.
"Henry," said my wife to me one day, "there's something on your mind. You don't seem like yourself. You're not half as cheerful as you used to be. Have you told me everything that happened while you were away on your vacation?"
"Why certainly, my dear. I wasn't aware that I was less cheerful than usual?"
I made an effort to seem light hearted, but with poor success. The shadow of my past was over me. Of course I knew that the things said of me were not true, but if the question was ever raised what could I say in the face of the united public opinion of Greenville? Suppose that some echo of the past should come to my wife's ears, or reach the directors of the bank of which I was cashier? Suppose I should go into public life, and my political opponents should look up my record? The prospect was harrowing. I felt that steps must be taken to set my old acquaintances right.
The opportunity arose soon afterward. At the annual election of officers at our bank I was chosen vice president and manager. A few weeks later I received an appointment as one of the World's Fair Commissioners, and about the same time I was invited to address the Philomathean Society on a subject to which I had given much attention, and on which I had made quite a reputation in literary and scientific circles. These various events were duly chronicled and commented upon in the newspapers, of which I sent marked copies to Thomas Gormully, Esq., editor of the Greenville "Torchlight." The article announcing my appointment as a World's Fair Commissioner gave a short biography of myself, which I had personally furnished and prepared with an especial view to its reaching the eyes of the Greenville public; and it was so worded that my identity with the Hank Skinner who had formerly worked for the Mayor Gormully was fully established.
A few weeks after I had forwarded the last newspaper I received through the mail a marked copy of the Greenville "Torchlight" containing the following editorial.
A DISTINGUISHED FELLOW TOWNSMAN.
"The older citizens of Greenville especially, and some of the younger ones, as well, will be pleased to note the success which has attended the career of one of our former citizens, the Hon. Henry Clay Skinner. We are proud to number ourselves among the friends of Mr. Skinner's boyhood, and to remember that at one period of his life the same roof had sheltered both our heads. The career of Mr. Skinner, the principal events of which are set forth more fully in another column, is one that reflects credit upon our city, and should be an incentive to every ambitious young man among us, as well as a matter of public pride. The editor is one of a committee of prominent citizens who have united in requesting Mr. Skinner to deliver an address to the people of Greenville at an early date."
The next week I received the invitation referred to. I accepted, went to Greenville and delivered an address. I was met at the depot by a committee, who escorted me in a carriage to the hotel. The hall in which I spoke was filled to overflowing. The Mayor, attired in a suit of black broadcloth, with a glittering diamond in his shirt-front, introduced me in the following language, as reported in the next week's edition of the "Torchlight:"
"Ladies and Gentlemen—I have the honor of presenting to you this evening a young man whom some of you have known in other days; a gentleman who typifies in his career the genius of American institutions; who epitomizes in his life the growth and progress of our country. I remember him when but a child, the comfort of his widowed mother, upon whom misfortune had laid its hard hand. It was my privilege at one period of his life to give him shelter under my own roof, and I feel proud to-day of the share I have contributed to his prosperity. But our town was too small to hold him. His mind even then soared beyond the confines of our municipality, and sought in the outer world larger opportunities for development. He found them and made the best use of them. His career has been one of uninterrupted success, and while yet a young man he is the recipient of honors and rewards which most of us consider ourselves fortunate to obtain toward the close of life. I have the honor of introducing to you the Hon. Henry Clay Skinner, assistant secretary of the World's Fair Commission, who will now address you."
I spoke, and spoke well. My opening remarks were favorably received, and with each recurring sign of appreciation I waxed more eloquent, until I finally sat down amid a perfect storm of applause. For half an hour after the meeting closed I was surrounded by prominent citizens who came forward to shake my hand and claim old acquaintanceship. They all complimented my address and congratulated me on my success in life. Old Jim Prout, in his Sunday clothes, was one of the first to come forward. He shook my hand warmly and his face beamed with pleasure.
"Well, well," he said, "but I am glad to see ye, Hank. I always knowed you'd git along in the world. It was only the other night I was saying to my old woman: 'Liza,' says I, 'I'm goin' to hear Hank Skinner speak if I have to crawl on my han's and knees to git there.' I always knowed you'd git to be some big man in Wash'n'ton or New York, or Chicago, and it turned out to be jest as I expected."
I was going out of the hall with Tom Gormuly, when we passed by a seat near the door occupied by an old woman.
"You ain't going by without speaking to your old friends, be ye?" said a piping voice fom beneath the sun bonnet that shaded the old woman's face. I recognized it as the voice of Aunt Betsey Barker, who stood up and extended her hand.
"I'm too old to get up there on the platform," she said, "but I was determined to speak to ye if I had to be the last one goin' out. Your mother was my best friend, and I remember you when you was a boy, and what a help and comfort you was to yo'r mother, and what a good boy you was. Old Deacon Hardacre was out to my house the other day trying ter buy my lot, and we got to talkin' about how smart you used to be, and how you always knowed yo'r Sunday school lesson, and how we had often wondered what had become of ye. I told the deacon I'd always knowed you'd be sure to git along; and he said yes, a boy of yo'r talents and yo'r character couldn't be kep' down, and he allowed that you was one o' the Lord's chosen vessels. I don't see the deacon here to-night. He must be out o' town, for I know he'd be delighted to hear ye."
When I got back to the hotel I received a note from Miss Celina Hawkins, expressing regret that her rheumatism prevented her from coming to hear me speak, and the hope that I would not leave town without coming to see my old friend and cousin.
I left Greenville a new man. The shadow that had clouded my mind was lifted, and I felt that henceforth I could walk the earth without any fear of my past record. I have no complaint to make of my old friends. Some people might call them disingenuous, or inconsistent, but I suspect that their conduct could be more charitably explained. I do not think, however, that I shall ever travel again under an assumed name.