Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave; it is merely a loose misapplication of the word. Consider the flea!—incomparably the bravest of all the creatures of God, if ignorance of fear were courage. Whether you are asleep or awake he will attack you, caring nothing for the fact that in bulk and strength you are to him as are the massed armies of the earth to a sucking child; he lives both day and night and all days and nights in the very lap of peril and the immediate presence of death, and yet is no more afraid than is the man who walks the streets of a city that was threatened by an earthquake ten centuries before. When we speak of Clive, Nelson, and Putnam as men who “didn’t know what fear was,” we ought always to add the flea—and put him at the head of the procession.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
If Judge Driscoll was the recognized first citizen of Dawson’s Landing, Pembroke Howard was easily its recognized second citizen. He was called “the great lawyer”—an earned title. He and Driscoll were of the same age—a year or two past sixty.
Although Driscoll was a freethinker and Howard a strong and determined Presbyterian, their warm intimacy suffered no impairment in consequence. They were men whose opinions were their own property and not subject to revision and amendment, suggestion or criticism, by anybody, even their friends.
The day’s fishing finished, they came floating downstream in their skiff, talking national politics and other high matters, and presently met a skiff coming up from town, with a man in it who said:
“I reckon you know one of the new twins gave your nephew a kicking last night, Judge?”
“Gave him a kicking.”
The old judge’s lips paled, and his eyes began to flame. He choked with anger for a moment, then he got out what he was trying to say:
“Well—well—go on! Give me the details!”
The man did it. At the finish the judge was silent a minute, turning over in his mind the shameful picture of Tom’s flight over the footlights; then he said, as if musing aloud,
“H’m—I don’t understand it. I was asleep at home. He didn’t wake me. Thought he was competent to manage his affair without my help, I reckon.” His face lit up with pride and pleasure at that thought, and he said with a cheery complacency, “I like that—it’s the true old blood—hey, Pembroke?”
Howard smiled an iron smile, and nodded his head approvingly. Then the news-bringer spoke again.
“But Tom beat the twin on the trial.”
The judge looked at the man wonderingly, and said:
“The trial? What trial?”
“Why, Tom had him up before Judge Robinson for assault and battery.”
The old man shrank suddenly together like one who has received a death stroke. Howard sprang for him as he sank forward in a swoon, and took him in his arms, and bedded him on his back in the boat. He sprinkled water in his face, and said to the startled visitor:
“Go, now—don’t let him come to and find you here. You see what an effect your heedless speech has had; you ought to have been more considerate than to blurt out such a cruel piece of slander as that.”
“I’m right down sorry I did it now, Mr. Howard, and I wouldn’t have done it if I had thought; but it ain’t slander; it’s perfectly true, just as I told him.”
He rowed away. Presently the old judge came out of his faint and looked up piteously into the sympathetic face that was bent over him.
“Say it ain’t true, Pembroke; tell me it ain’t true!” he said in a weak voice.
There was nothing weak in the deep organ tones that responded:
“You know it’s a lie as well as I do, old friend. He is of the best blood of the Old Dominion.”
“God bless you for saying it!” said the old gentleman, fervently. “Ah, Pembroke, it was such a blow!”
Howard stayed by his friend, and saw him home, and entered the house with him. It was dark, and past supper-time, but the judge was not thinking of supper; he was eager to hear the slander refuted from headquarters, and as eager to have Howard hear it, too. Tom was sent for, and he came immediately. He was bruised and lame, and was not a happy-looking object. His uncle made him sit down, and said:
“We have been hearing about your adventure, Tom, with a handsome lie added for embellishment. Now pulverize that lie to dust! What measures have you taken? How does the thing stand?”
Tom answered guilelessly: “It don’t stand at all; it’s all over. I had him up in court and beat him. Pudd’nhead Wilson defended him—first case he ever had, and lost it. The judge fined the miserable hound five dollars for the assault.”
Howard and the judge sprang to their feet with the opening sentence—why, neither knew; then they stood gazing vacantly at each other. Howard stood a moment, then sat mournfully down without saying anything. The judge’s wrath began to kindle, and he burst out:
“You cur! You scum! You vermin! Do you mean to tell me that blood of my race has suffered a blow and crawled to a court of law about it? Answer me!”
Tom’s head drooped, and he answered with an eloquent silence. His uncle stared at him with a mixed expression of amazement and shame and incredulity that was sorrowful to see. At last he said:
“Which of the twins was it?”
“You have challenged him?”
“N—no,” hesitated Tom, turning pale.
“You will challenge him tonight. Howard will carry it.”
Tom began to turn sick, and to show it. He turned his hat round and round in his hand, his uncle glowering blacker and blacker upon him as the heavy seconds drifted by; then at last he began to stammer, and said piteously:
“Oh, please, don’t ask me to do it, uncle! He is a murderous devil—I never could—I—I’m afraid of him!”
Old Driscoll’s mouth opened and closed three times before he could get it to perform its office; then he stormed out:
“A coward in my family! A Driscoll a coward! Oh, what have I done to deserve this infamy!” He tottered to his secretary in the corner, repeated that lament again and again in heartbreaking tones, and got out of a drawer a paper, which he slowly tore to bits, scattering the bits absently in his track as he walked up and down the room, still grieving and lamenting. At last he said:
“There it is, shreds and fragments once more—my will. Once more you have forced me to disinherit you, you base son of a most noble father! Leave my sight! Go—before I spit on you!”
The young man did not tarry. Then the judge turned to Howard:
“You will be my second, old friend?”
“There is pen and paper. Draft the cartel, and lose no time.”
“The Count shall have it in his hands in fifteen minutes,” said Howard.
Tom was very heavyhearted. His appetite was gone with his property and his self-respect. He went out the back way and wandered down the obscure lane grieving, and wondering if any course of future conduct, however discreet and carefully perfected and watched over, could win back his uncle’s favor and persuade him to reconstruct once more that generous will which had just gone to ruin before his eyes. He finally concluded that it could. He said to himself that he had accomplished this sort of triumph once already, and that what had been done once could be done again. He would set about it. He would bend every energy to the task, and he would score that triumph once more, cost what it might to his convenience, limit as it might his frivolous and liberty-loving life.
“To begin,” he says to himself, “I’ll square up with the proceeds of my raid, and then gambling has got to be stopped—and stopped short off. It’s the worst vice I’ve got—from my standpoint, anyway, because it’s the one he can most easily find out, through the impatience of my creditors. He thought it expensive to have to pay two hundred dollars to them for me once. Expensive—that! Why, it cost me the whole of his fortune—but, of course, he never thought of that; some people can’t think of any but their own side of a case. If he had known how deep I am in now, the will would have gone to pot without waiting for a duel to help. Three hundred dollars! It’s a pile! But he’ll never hear of it, I’m thankful to say. The minute I’ve cleared it off, I’m safe; and I’ll never touch a card again. Anyway, I won’t while he lives, I make oath to that. I’m entering on my last reform—I know it—yes, and I’ll win; but after that, if I ever slip again I’m gone.”