"We cannot stem the tide. The cumulative force of discouraging circumstances stands as a bar sinister to every new fledged hope. I wish I had your sanguine disposition, Lotus, but five years of buffeting with the white caps of real life, destroy many of the sea-sand castles of our old high school days," said Clement St. John.
"I am five years older as well as yourself, you must remember, but my faith in the fickle future of which you speak so disparagingly, is as bright as it was when with our diplomas we marched home from commencement," replied the young man addressed as Lotus.
"Your life has been so different from mine," Clement continued; "you have not been ground between the upper and nether stone of men's constant faults and occasional virtues. You have lived so long in Washington, oscillating between the Pension Office and the Medical School, that you imagine the whole world to be peacefully swinging within your arc."
"I hope I am not quite so circumscribed," said Lotus, laughing. "You news-gatherers are too apt to conclude from a pessimistic contact with the dark side of life that those who do not readily accept your views are rainbow chasers."
"No, no; you judge me too harshly. The shell has not quite grown over me. I am still able to award credit where it is due. Contemplating myself from your standpoint, I feel like an antiquated mote between two hills, with only a patch of blue sky to canopy my narrow world. While I am free to admit, I can not see a heaven as resplendent as your telescope compasses, still a few brilliant twinklers linger to give the hoped for better day at least a melancholy welcome," replied Clement, earnestly.
"Give me your hand, comrade of my youth, you begin to talk like my St. Clement of old. We were to be knights in the real work of life, do you remember?" asked Lotus feelingly.
Clement St. John and Lotus Stone, for this was the name of the other disputant, had not met for nearly two years. As intimate as brothers for the most of their lives, they had lived next door neighbors from boyhood in the city of Minton. Graduating in the same class, Clement St. John had drifted into the newspaper office, his friend into a departmental clerkship in Washington. The two young men were remarkably unlike, in appearance, disposition and character. Afro-Americans both, they were as dissimilar as the Polish Jew and his brother of the same lineage in the streets of Cairo.
In complexion, Clement St. John was fair, in truth, too fair for an Afro-American, or any other American to the manor born. His skin, save here and there marked by an ugly freckle, was as free from pigment as an Albino's. His white face, with undoubted African features, was crowned with a shock of reddish-brown hair, stiff and bristly. A sickly mustache, of faded red, which the wearer, fearing it would lose its curl twisted nervously, gave to his angular features a decidedly unique expression. From beneath a scanty row of disarranged eyebrows, peeped a steel gray eye, which, under certain surroundings, shaded into a faded blue. His eyes possessed a daring twinkle at utter variance with the insipid color of his face. Large hands, which in reality were not mates; tall, narrow-shouldered and awkward, Clement St. John was young man with a clear head, stout heart and upright disposition.
Lotus Stone had that peculiar complexion seen in no land but our own, and among no other people but Afro-Americans. His complexion was a transparent brown, without the swarthiness which is noticeable in the other dark races of the world.
His color was the product of a century of miscegenation of the best blood of the Caucasian, Negro and Indian races. His features were regular. Black eyes, black mustache, heavy eyebrows within a line of meeting, made a face that one might dwell upon restfully, after contemplating for a time upon the singular looks of his companion.
His hair, which was closely cut, had a wiry tendency which proved that through a century of infiltration the Negro was still on top. He wore a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, made secure by a black silk cord. The latter appendage was indeed necessary, as the glasses, for want of sufficient bridge, sat awkwardly upon the saddle which nature had designed for spectacles of a different make. He was dressed in the fatigue uniform of the Knights of the Red Cross.
The two friends, after the greetings common to men who are renewing old and agreeable acquaintance, dropped into the subject always nearest the intelligent Afro-American heart, "the race outlook."
After the conversation, the conclusion of which is given, the two friends sat for some time looking into the restless water, frisking in joyous buoyancy in that August sunshine. Each occupied with his own thoughts, gazed out upon the lake, where outlined in the dim distance against the clear blue sky, two tireless lake steamers oscillated with arithmetic precision.
"What a perfect day!" said Lotus breaking the silence, "just breeze enough to ruffle the lake and break the monotony that contemplation of endless wave and sky produces."
"I have been watching those whale-backed lake boats with the black smoke streaming far out behind; they move, like Indians, single file. How patiently they seem to bear their burden from far off Superior," Clement replied.
"They move as stately as if conscious of good work almost completed. See," continued Lotus, "the flock of long-winged lake birds circling around the main mast, darting now and then toward the water, laving their breasts anew in nature's baptismal fount."
"A picture from which we must take fresh courage, my friend," said Clement, placing his big, awkward hand upon the shoulder of his companion.
"Our hilarious friends are not worrying over the outlook for the race," said Lotus, looking toward the quay, where a noisy multitude of laughing Afro-Americans awaited the arrival of the "Carrier Pigeon." On this boat they were to complete their journey.
Lotus Stone and Clement St. John were part of that grand number of Afro-Americans who engaged in a temporary exodus, by way of the lakes, to attend the reunion of the Knights Templars, at Mt. Clare during the summer of 188--. What a crowd of them hurrying to Mt. Clare. Many of them hope to set foot for the first time upon the region of the Queen. Where else on earth could be found so large a number of people so unlike in appearance, yet each claiming blood relation with the other. Every kind and condition of the better class of Afro-Americans were here represented. What a strange variety of human beings, what a panorama of the races of the world! In color, every nationality from Northern Europe, shading down through France, Italy, Portugal, across the Mediterranean into Egypt, Morroco, and then to Equatorial Africa. Perhaps not a man, woman or child of all these strangely dissimilar types would have hesitated a moment to answer to the name of "Negro." Old men and women who had come north in the days immediately preceding and after the war, with their grown sons and daughters, stop the pendulum of their busy lives and take advantage of the opportunity to sail across the lakes.
The picturesque knights, in their jaunty fatigue uniforms, lend martial splendor to the occasion. Here the beau and belle with many an honest glance, pass and re-pass each other as they gaily promenade up and down the quay. a notable feature of the assembly is the universal cheerfulness that characterizes it. A like number of no other race in our country, their equals financially, could approach these Afro-Americans in gallantry and orderly demeanor.
Many of them are from the far South, and for the first time taste the only hospitality that the North gives or the Afro-American wants: "Pay for what you get, and get what you pay for." Many of them for the first time sit unmolested in a restaurant or hotel.
Fine fellows these, who would pass for men in any country in the world, with possibly one exception. Here are men from almost every state in the Union; men who have held high places among their fellows, and filled those places with marked distinction.
The shrill scream of the "Carrier Pigeon" warns the happy excursionists that they must prepare to resume their journey. After much ado, the last of the crowd get aboard and the boat turns her bow away from land and the familiar hills of the best loved state fade from sight. Clement and Lotus, seated well toward the front, observed the crowd with growing interest. The merry laugh of happy contentment rang out over the lake.
The brass bands, good, bad and indifferent, mostly indifferent, succeeded each other with tireless regularity for the first few hours; but as the boat got further away from the shore and the waves increased in size, it was noticeable that the music grew more subdued, or rather more religious in character. As darkness came on, the wind raised and shifted. The lake became boisterous; the good ship lurched and trembled at every revolution of her wheels.
The moon, as it now and then swept into view, revealed an angry, threatening storm. Supper was eaten in silence. Each mouthful of sweetmeats was taken with a furtive glance at the clouds. Now and then beneath the hush which followed the roll of the steamer, a popping cork recorded the fact that some one of the fearful many, was determined, in one way or another, to keep up his spirits.
The storm spent its force in threatening; the moon again silvered the tossing waters and the cheerfulness increased as the roll of the waves subsided.
So the night passed until just as day crept slowly up from the surrounding hills the lights and steeples of Mt. Clare, the beautiful, came into view.