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It was raining as I got off the train in Nashville, Tennessee — a slow, gray rain. I was tired so I went straight to my hotel.
A big, heavy man was walking up and down in the hotel lobby. Something about the way he moved made me think of a hungry dog looking for a bone. He had a big, fat, red face and a sleepy expression in his eyes. He introduced himself as Wentworth Caswell — Major Wentworth Caswell — from «a fine southern family». Caswell pulled me into the hotel’s barroom and yelled for a waiter. We ordered drinks. While we drank, he talked continually about himself, his family, his wife and her family. He said his wife was rich. He showed me a handful of silver coins that he pulled from his coat pocket.
By this time, I had decided that I wanted no more of him. I said good night.
I went up to my room and looked out the window. It was ten o’clock but the town was silent. «A nice quiet place,» I said to myself as I got ready for bed. Just an ordinary, sleepy southern town.»
I was born in the south myself. But I live in New York now. I write for a large magazine. My boss had asked me to go to Nashville. The magazine had received some stories and poems from a writer in Nashville, named Azalea Adair. The editor liked her work very much. The publisher asked me to get her to sign an agreement to write only for his magazine.
I left the hotel at nine o’clock the next morning to find Miss Adair. It was still raining. As soon as I stepped outside I met Uncle Caesar. He was a big, old black man with fuzzy gray hair.
Uncle Caesar was wearing the strangest coat I had ever seen. It must have been a military officer’s coat. It was very long and when it was new it had been gray. But now rain, sun and age had made it a rainbow of colors. Only one of the buttons was left. It was yellow and as big as a fifty cent coin.
Uncle Caesar stood near a horse and carriage. He opened the carriage door and said softly, «Step right in, sir. I’ll take you anywhere in the city.»
«I want to go to eight-sixty-one Jasmine Street,» I said, and I started to climb into the carriage. But the old man stopped me. «Why do you want to go there, sir?»
«What business is it of yours?» I said angrily. Uncle Caesar relaxed and smiled. «Nothing, sir. But it’s a lonely part of town. Just step in and I’ll take you there right away.»
Eight-sixty-one Jasmine Street had been a fine house once, but now it was old and dying. I got out of the carriage.
«That will be two dollars, sir,» Uncle Caesar said. I gave him two one-dollar bills. As I handed them to him, I noticed that one had been torn in half and fixed with a piece of blue paper. Also, the upper right hand corner was missing.
Azalea Adair herself opened the door when I knocked. She was about fifty years old. Her white hair was pulled back from her small, tired face. She wore a pale yellow dress. It was old, but very clean.
Azalea Adair led me into her living room. A damaged table, three chairs and an old red sofa were in the center of the floor.
Azalea Adair and I sat down at the table and began to talk. I told her about the magazine’s offer and she told me about herself. She was from an old southern family. Her father had been a judge.
Azalea Adair told me she had never traveled or even attended school. Her parents taught her at home with private teachers. We finished our meeting. I promised to return with the agreement the next day, and rose to leave.
At that moment, someone knocked at the back door. Azalea Adair whispered a soft apology and went to answer the caller. She came back a minute later with bright eyes and pink cheeks. She looked ten years younger. «You must have a cup of tea before you go,» she said. She shook a little bell on the table, and a small black girl about twelve years old ran into the room.
Azalea Aair opened a tiny old purse and took out a dollar bill. It had been fixed with a piece of blue paper and the upper right hand corner was missing. It was the dollar I had given to Uncle Caesar. «Go to Mister Baker’s store, Impy,» she said, «and get me twenty-five cents’ worth of tea and ten cents’ worth of sugar cakes. And please hurry.»
The child ran out of the room. We heard the back door close. Then the girl screamed. Her cry mixed with a man’s angry voice. Azalea Adair stood up. Her face showed no emotion as she left the room. I heard the man’s rough voice and her gentle one. Then a door slammed and she came back into the room.
«I am sorry, but I won’t be able to offer you any tea after all,» she said. «It seems that Mister Baker has no more tea. Perhaps he will find some for our visit tomorrow.»
We said good-bye. I went back to my hotel.
Just before dinner, Major Wentworth Caswell found me. It was impossible to avoid him. He insisted on buying me a drink and pulled two one-dollar bills from his pocket. Again I saw a torn dollar fixed with blue paper, with a corner missing. It was the one I gave Uncle Caesar. How strange, I thought. I wondered how Caswell got it.
Uncle Caesar was waiting outside the hotel the next afternoon. He took me to Miss Adair’s house and agreed to wait there until we had finished our business.
Azalea Adair did not look well. I explained the agreement to her. She signed it. Then, as she started to rise from the table, Azalea Adair fainted and fell to the floor. I picked her up and carried her to the old red sofa. I ran to the door and yelled to Uncle Caesar for help. He ran down the street. Five minutes later, he was back with a doctor.
The doctor examined Miss Adair and turned to the old black driver. «Uncle Caesar,» he said, «run to my house and ask my wife for some milk and some eggs. Hurry!»
Then the doctor turned to me. «She does not get enough to eat,» he said. «She has many friends who want to help her, but she is proud. Misses Caswell will accept help only from that old black man. He was once her family’s slave.»
«Misses Caswell.» I said in surprise. «I thought she was Azalea Adair.»
«She was,» the doctor answered, «until she married Wentworth Caswell twenty years ago. But he’s a hopeless drunk who takes even the small amount of money that Uncle Caesar gives her.»
After the doctor left I heard Caesar’s voice in the other room. «Did he take all the money I gave you yesterday, Miss Azalea?» «Yes, Caesar,» I heard her answer softly. «He took both dollars.»
I went into the room and gave Azalea Adair fifty dollars. I told her it was from the magazine. Then Uncle Caesar drove me back to the hotel.
A few hours later, I went out for a walk before dinner. A crowd of people were talking excitedly in front of a store. I pushed my way into the store. Major Caswell was lying on the floor. He was dead.
Someone had found his body on the street. He had been killed in a fight. In fact, his hands were still closed into tight fists. But as I stood near his body, Caswell’s right hand opened. Something fell from it and rolled near my feet. I put my foot on it, then picked it up and put it in my pocket.
People said they believed a thief had killed him. They said Caswell had been showing everyone that he had fifty dollars. But when he was found, he had no money on him.
I left Nashville the next morning. As the train crossed a river I took out of my pocket the object that had dropped from Caswell’s dead hand. I threw it into the river below.
It was a button. A yellow button… the one from Uncle Caesar’s coat.