A Darling Of Misfortune by Alice Hegan Rice

A shabby but joyous citizen of the world at large was Mr. Phelan Harrihan, as, with a soul wholly in tune with the finite, he half sat and half reclined on a baggage-truck at Lebanon Junction. He wag relieving the tedium of his waiting moments by entertaining a critical if not fastidious audience of three.

Beside him, with head thrust under his ragged sleeve, sat a small and unlovely bull-terrier, who, at each fresh burst of laughter, lifted a pair of languishing eyes to the face of his master, and then manifested his surplus affection by ardently licking the buttons on the sleeve of the arm that encircled him.

It was a moot question whether Mr. Harrihan resembled his dog, or whether his dog resembled him. That there was a marked similarity admitted of no discussion. If Corp's nose had been encouraged and his lower jaw suppressed, if his intensely emotional nature had been under better control, and his sentimentality tempered with humor, the analogy would have been more complete. In taste, they were one. By birth, predilection, and instinct both were philosophers of the open, preferring an untrammeled life in Vagabondia to the collars and conventions of society. Both delighted in exquisite leisure, and spent it in pleased acquiescence with things as they are.

Some twenty-five years before, Phelan had opened his eyes upon a half-circle of blue sky, seen through the end of a canvas-covered wagon on a Western prairie, and having first conceived life to be a free-and-easy affair on a long, open road, he thereafter declined to consider it in any other light.

The only break in his nomadic existence was when a benevolent old gentleman found him, a friendless lad in a Nashville hospital, cursed him through a fever, and elected to educate him. Those were years of black captivity for Phelan, and after being crammed and coached for what seemed an interminable time, he was proudly entered at the University, where he promptly failed in every subject and was dropped at the mid-year term.

The old gentleman, fortunately, was spared all disappointment in regard to his irresponsible protégé, for he died before the catastrophe, leaving Phelan Harrihan a legacy of fifteen dollars a month and the memory of a kind, but misguided, old man who was not quite right in his head.

Being thus provided with a sum more than adequate to meet all his earthly needs, Phelan joyously abandoned the straight and narrow path of learning, and once more betook himself to the open road.

The call of blue skies and green fields, the excitement of each day's encounter, the dramatic possibilities of every passing incident, the opportunity for quick and intimate fellowship, and above all an inherited and chronic disinclination for work, made Phelan an easy victim to that malady called by the casual tourist "wanderlust," but known in Hoboland as "railroad fever."

Only once a year did he return to civilization, don a stiff collar, and recognize an institution. During his meteoric career at the University he had been made a member of the Alpha Delta fraternity, in recognition of his varied accomplishments. Not only could he sing and dance and tell a tale with the best, but he was also a mimic and a ventriloquist, gifts which had proven invaluable in crucial conflicts with the faculty, and had constituted him a hero in several escapades. Of such material is college history made, and the Alpha Delta, recognizing the distinction of possessing this unique member, refused to accept his resignation, but unanimously demanded his presence at each annual reunion.

On June second, for five consecutive years, the ends of the earth had yielded up Phelan Harrihan; by a miracle of grace he had arrived in Nashville, decently appareled, ready to respond to his toast, to bask for his brief hour in the full glare of the calcium, then to depart again into oblivion.

It was now the first day of June and as Phelan concluded his tale, which was in fact an undress rehearsal of what he intended to tell on the morrow, he looked forward with modest satisfaction to the triumph that was sure to be his. For the hundredth time he made certain that the small brown purse, so unused to its present obesity, was safe and sound in his inside pocket.

During the pause that followed his recital, his audience grew restive.

"Go on, do it again," urged the ragged boy who sold the sandwiches, "show us how Forty Fathom Dan looked when he thought he was sinking.

"I don't dare trifle with me features," said Phelan solemnly. "How much are those sandwiches. One for five, is it? Two for fifteen, I suppose. Well, here's one for me, and one for Corp, and keep the change, kid. Ain't that the train coming?"

"It's the up train," said the station-master, rising reluctantly; "it meets yours here. I've got to be hustling."

Phelan, left without an audience, strolled up and down the platform, closely followed by Corporal Harrihan.

As the train slowed up at the little Junction, there was manifestly some commotion on board. Standing in the doorway of the rear car a small, white-faced woman argued excitedly with the conductor.

"I didn't have no ticket, I tell you!" she was saying as the train came to a stop. "I 'lowed I'd pay my way, but I lost my pocket-book. I lost it somewheres on the train here, I don't know where it is!"

"I've seen your kind before," said the conductor wearily; "what did you get on for when you didn't have anything to pay your fare with?"

"I tell you I lost my pocket-book after I got on!" she said doggedly; "I ain't going to get off, you daren't put me off!"

Phelan, who had sauntered up, grew sympathetic. He, too, had experienced the annoyance of being pressed for his fare when it was inconvenient to produce it.

"Go ahead," demanded the conductor firmly, "I don't want to push you off, but if you don't step down and out right away, I'll have it to do."

The woman's expression changed from defiance to terror. She clung to the brake with both hands and looked at him fearfully.

"No, no, don't touch me!" she cried. "Don't make me get off! I've got to get to Cincinnati. My man's there. He's been hurt in the foundry. He's—maybe he's dying now."

"I can't help that, maybe it's so and maybe it ain't. You never had any money when you got on this train and you know it. Go on, step off!"

"But I did!" she cried wildly; "I did. Oh, God! don't put me off."

The train began to move, and the conductor seized the woman's arms from behind and forced her forward. A moment more and she would be pushed off the lowest step. She turned beseeching eyes on the little group of spectators, and as she did so Phelan Harrihan sprang forward and with his hand on the railing, ran along with the slow-moving train.

With a deft movement he bent forward and apparently snatched something from the folds of her skirt.

"Get on to your luck now," he said with an encouraging smile that played havoc with the position of his features; "if here ain't your pocket-book all the time!"

The hysterical woman looked from the unfamiliar little brown purse in her hand, to the snub-nosed, grimy face of the young man running along the track, then she caught her breath.

"Why,—" she cried unsteadily, "yes—yes, it's my purse."

Phelan loosened his hold on the railing and had only time to scramble breathlessly up the bank before the down train, the train for Nashville which was to have been his, whizzed past.

He watched it regretfully as it slowed up at the station, then almost immediately pulled out again for the south, carrying his hopes with it.

"Corporal," said Phelan, to the dog, who had looked upon the whole episode as a physical-culture exercise indulged in for his special benefit, "a noble act of charity is never to be regretted, but wasn't I the original gun, not to wait for the change?"

His lack of business method seemed to weigh upon him, and he continued to apologize to Corporal:

"It was so sudden, you know, Corp. Couldn't see a lady ditched, when I had a bit of stuffed leather in my pocket. And two hundred miles to Nashville! Well I'll—be—jammed!"

He searched in his trousers pockets and found a dime in one and a hole in the other. It was an old trick of his to hide a piece of money in time of prosperity, and then discover it in the blackness of adversity.

He held the dime out ruefully: "That's punk and plaster for supper, but we'll have to depend on a hand-out for breakfast. And, Corp," he added apologetically, "you know I told you we was going to ride regular like gentlemen? Well, I've been compelled to change my plans. We are going to turf it twelve miles down to the watering tank, and sit out a couple of dances till the midnight freight comes along. If a side door Pullman ain't convenient, I'll have to go on the bumpers, then what'll become of you, Mr. Corporal Harrihan?"

The coming ordeal cast no shadow over Corporal. He was declaring his passionate devotion, by wild tense springs at Phelan's face, seeking in vain to overcome the cruel limitation of a physiognomy that made kissing well-nigh impossible.

Phelan picked up his small bundle and started down the track with the easy, regular swing of one who has long since gaged the distance of railroad ties. But his step lacked its usual buoyancy, and he forgot to whistle, Mr. Harrihan was undergoing the novel experience of being worried. Of course he would get to Nashville,—if the train went, he could go,—but the prospect of arriving without decent clothes and with no money to pay for a lodging, did not in the least appeal to him. He thought with regret of his well-laid plans: an early arrival, a Turkish bath, the purchase of a new outfit, instalment at a good hotel, then—presentation at the fraternity headquarters of Mr. Phelan Harrihan, Gentleman for a Night. He could picture it all, the dramatic effect of his entrance, the yell of welcome, the buzz of questions, and the evasive, curiosity-enkindling answers which he meant to give. Then the banquet, with its innumerable courses of well-served food, the speeches and toasts, and the personal ovation that always followed Mr. Harrihan's unique contribution.

Oh! he couldn't miss it! Providence would interfere in his behalf, he knew it would, it always did. "Give me my luck, and keep your lucre!" was a saying of Phelan's, quoted by brother hoboes from Maine to the Gulf.

All the long afternoon he tramped the ties, with Corporal at his heels. As dusk came on the clouds that had been doing picket duty, joined the regiment on the horizon which slowly wheeled and charged across the sky. Phelan scanned the heavens with an experienced weather eye, then began to look for a possible shelter from the coming shower. On either side, the fields stretched away in undulating lines, with no sign of a habitation in sight. A dejected old scarecrow, and a tumble-down shed in the distance were the only objects that presented themselves.

Turning up his coat-collar Phelan made a dash for the shed, but the shower overtook him half-way. It was not one of your gentle little summer showers, that patter on the shingles waking echoes underneath; it was a large and instantaneous breakage in the celestial plumbing that let gallons of water down Phelan's back, filling his pockets, hat brim, and shoes and sending a dashing cascade down Corporal's oblique profile.

"Float on your back, Corp, and pull for the shore!" laughed Phelan as he landed with a spring under the dilapidated shed. "Cheer up, old pard; you look as if all your past misdeeds had come before you in your drowning hour."

Corporal, shivering and unhappy, crept under cover, and dumbly demanded of Phelan what he intended to do about it.

"Light a blaze, sure," said Phelan, "and linger here in the air of the tropics till the midnight freight comes along."

Scraping together the old wood and débris in the rear of the shed, and extricating with some difficulty a small tin match-box from his saturated clothes, he knelt before the pile and used all of his persuasive powers to induce it to ignite.

At the first feeble blaze Corporal's spirits rose so promptly that he had to be restrained.

"Easy there! Corp," cautioned Phelan. "A fire's like a woman, you can't be sure of it too soon. And, dog alive, stop wagging your tail, don't you see it makes a draft?"

The fire capriciously would, then it wouldn't. A tiny flame played tantalizingly along the top of a stick only to go sullenly out when it reached the end. Match after match was sacrificed to the cause, but at last, down deep under the surface, there was a steady, reassuring, cheerful crackle that made Phelan sit back on his heels, and remark complacently:

"They most generally come around, in the end!"

In five minutes the fire was burning bright, Corporal was dreaming of meaty bones in far fence corners, and Phelan, less free from the incumbrances of civilization, was divesting himself of his rain-soaked garments.

From one of the innumerable pockets of his old cutaway coat he took a comb and brush and clothes-brush, and carefully deposited them before the fire. Then from around his neck he removed a small leather case, hung by a string and holding a razor. His treasured toilet articles thus being cared for, he turned his attention to the contents of his dripping bundle. A suit of underwear and a battered old copy of Eli Perkins were ruefully examined, and spread out to dry.

The fire, while it lasted, was doing admirable service, but the wood supply was limited, and Phelan saw that he must take immediate advantage of the heat. How to dry the underwear which he wore was the question which puzzled him, and he wrestled with it for several moments before an inspiration came.

"I'll borrow some duds from the scarecrow!" he said half aloud, and went forth immediately to execute his idea.

The rain had ceased, but the fields were still afloat, and Phelan waded ankle deep through the slush grass, to where the scarecrow raised his threatening arms against the twilight sky.

"Beggars and borrowers shouldn't be choosers," said Phelan, as he divested the figure of its ragged trousers and coat, "but I have a strong feeling in my mind that these habiliments ain't going to become me. Who's your tailor, friend?"

The scarecrow, reduced now to an old straw hat and a necktie, maintained a dignified and oppressive silence.

"Well, he ain't on to the latest cut," continued Phelan, wringing the water out of the coat. "But maybe these here is your pajamas? Don't tell me I disturbed you after you'd retired for the night? Very well then, aurevoy."

With the clothes under his arm he made his way back to the shed, and divesting himself of his own raiment he got into his borrowed property.

By this time the fire had died down, and the place was in semi-darkness. Phelan threw on a handful of sticks and, as the blaze flared up, he caught his first clear sight of his newly acquired clothes. They were ragged and weather-stained, and circled about with broad, unmistakable stripes.

"Well, I'll be spiked!" said Phelan, vastly amused. "I wouldn't 'a' thought it of a nice, friendly scarecrow like that! Buncoed me, didn't he? Well, feathers don't always make the jail-bird. Wonder what poor devil wore 'em last? Peeled out of 'em in this very shed, like as not. Well, they'll serve my purpose all right, all right."

He took off his shoes, placed them under his head for a pillow, lit a short cob pipe, threw on fresh wood, and prepared to wait for his clothes to dry.

Meanwhile the question of the banquet revolved itself continually in his mind. This time to-morrow night, the preparations would be in full swing. Instead of being hungry, half naked, and chilled, he might be in a luxurious club-house dallying with caviar, stuffed olives, and Benedictine. All that lay between him and bliss were two hundred miles of railroad ties and a decent suit of clothes!

"Wake up, Corp; for the love of Mike be sociable!" cried Phelan when the situation became too gloomy to contemplate. "Ain't that like a dog now? Hold your tongue when I'm longing for a word of kindly sympathy an' encouragement, and barking your fool head off once we get on the freight. Much good it'll be doing us to get to Nashville in this fix, but we'll take our blessings as they come, Corp, and just trust to luck that somebody will forget to turn 'em off. I know when I get to the banquet there'll be one other man absent. That's Bell of Terre Haute. Him and me is always in the same boat, he gets ten thousand a year and ain't got the nerve to spend it, and I get fifteen a month, and ain't got the nerve to keep it! Poor old Bell."

Corporal, roused from his slumbers, sniffed inquiringly at the many garments spread about the fire, yawned, turned around several times in dog fashion, then curled up beside Phelan, signifying by his bored expression that he hadn't the slightest interest in the matter under discussion.

Gradually the darkness closed in, and the fire died to embers. It would be four hours before the night freight slowed up at the water tank, and Phelan, tired from his long tramp, and drowsy from the heat and the vapor rising from the drying clothes, shifted the shoe-buttons from under his left ear, and drifted into dreamland.

How long he slept undisturbed, only the scarecrow outside knew. He was dimly aware, in his dreams, of subdued sounds and, by and by, the sounds formed themselves into whispered words and, still half asleep, he listened.

"I thought we'd find him along here. This is the road they always take," a low voice was saying; "you and Sam stand here, John and me'll tackle him from this side. He'll put up a stiff fight, you bet."

Phelan opened his eyes, and tried to remember where he was.

"Gosh! look at that bulldog!" came another whisper, and at the same moment Corporal jumped to his feet, growling angrily.

As he did so, four men sprang through the opening of the shed, and seized Phelan by the arms and legs.

"Look out there," cried one excitedly; "don't let him escape; here's the handcuffs."

"But here," cried Phelan, "what's up; what you doing to me?"

By this time Corporal, thoroughly roused, made a vicious lunge at the nearest man. The next minute there was a sharp report of a pistol, and the bull-terrier went yelping and limping out into the night.

"You coward!" cried Phelan, struggling to rise, "if you killed that dog—"

"Get those shackles on his legs," shouted one of the men. "Is the wagon ready, Sam? Take his legs there, I've got his head. Leave the truck here, we've got to drive like sand to catch that train!"

After being dragged to the road and thrown into a spring wagon, Phelan found himself lying on his back, jolting over a rough country road, his three vigilant captors sitting beside him with pistols in hand.

Any effort on his part to explain or seek information was promptly and emphatically discouraged. But in time he gathered, from the bits let fall by his captors, that he was an escaped convict, of a most desperate character, for whom a reward was offered, and that he had been at large twenty-four hours.

In vain did he struggle for a hearing. Only once did he get a response to his oft-repeated plea of innocence. It was when he told how he had come by the clothes he had on. For once Phelan got a laugh when he did not relish it.

"Got 'em off a scarecrow, did you?" said the man at his head, when the fun had subsided; "say, I want to be 'round when you tell that to the Superintendent of the Penitentiary—I ain't heard him laugh in ten years!"

So, in the face of such unbelief, Phelan lapsed into silence and gloom. What became of him concerned him less, at the moment, than the fate of Corporal, and the thought of the faithful little beast wounded and perhaps dying out there in the fields, made him sick at heart.

Just as they came in sight of the lights of the station, the whistle of the freight was heard down the track and the horses were beaten to a gallop.

Phelan was hurried from the wagon into an empty box car, with his full guard in attendance. As the train pulled out he heard a little whimper beside him and there, panting for breath after his long run, and with one ear hanging limp and bloody, cowered Corporal. Phelan's hands were not at his disposal, but even if they had been it is doubtful if he would have denied Corp the joy for once of kissing him.

Through the rest of the night the heavy cars rumbled over the rails, and the men took turn about sleeping and guarding the prisoner. Only once did Phelan venture another question:

"Say, you sports, you don't mind telling me where you are taking me, do you?"

"Listen at his gaff!" said one. "He'll know all right when he gets to Nashville."

Phelan sent such a radiant smile into the darkness that it threatened to reveal itself. Then he slipped his encircled wrists about Corporal's body and giving him a squeeze whispered:

"It's better'n the bumpers, Corp."

At the Penitentiary next day there was consternation and dismay when instead of the desperate criminal, who two days before had scaled the walls and dropped to freedom, an innocent little Irishman was presented, whose only offense apparently was in having donned, temporarily, the garb of crime.

As the investigation proceeded, Phelan found it expedient, to become excessively indignant. That an American citizen, strolling harmlessly through the fields of a summer evening, and being caught in a shower, should attempt to dry his clothes in an unused shed, and find himself attacked and bound, and hurried away without his belongings to a distant city, was an inconceivable outrage. If a shadow of doubt remained as to his identity, a score of prominent gentlemen in the city would be able to identify him. He named them, and added that he was totally unable to hazard a guess as to what form their resentment of his treatment would assume.

The authorities looked grave. Could Mr. Harrihan remember just what articles he had left behind? Mr. Harrihan could. A suit of clothes, a pair of shoes, a hat, a toilet set, and a small sum of money; "the loss of which," added Phelan with a fine air of indifference, "are as nothing compared to the indignity offered to my person."

Would the gentleman be satisfied if the cost of these articles, together with the railroad fare back to Lebanon Junction be paid him? The gentleman, after an injured pause, announced that he would.

And thus it was that Mr. Phelan Harrihan, in immaculate raiment, presented himself at the Sixth Annual Reunion of the Alpha Delta fraternity and, with a complacent smile encircling a ten-cent cigar, won fresh laurels by recounting, with many adornments, the adventures of the previous night.