The Portals of Hostibilla
Another Lenix Ballister Story
Archie P. McKishnie
Who Wrote “Willow, the Wisp," “Link Gaff um," Etc.
LENIX BALLISTER, huge feet tilted high, bald dome with its fringe of crinkly curls tilted low, reposed at ease in the plush-upholstered chair of Lem Smith, the barber. On the oak, brass-knobbed hat-tree, behind him, hung his best coat, a long “Prince Albert” which Lenix had acquired in a deal with a travelling camp-meeting evangelist.
Directly behind Lenix, seated with other colored gentlemen on the waitin’-bench, was Homer Hudson. Homer’s face was sullen, his blood-shot eyes brooding. Through his thick lips the gold tooth glimmered not at all. His attention was divided between watching Len’s shiny pate and scrutinizing a small pin—which might have been a lodge emblem—attached to the satin lapel of the coat hanging conspicuously before him.
Lenix squirmed his comfort as the well-working razor swished down through his soap-softened beard, and breathed audibly through his nose so as not to disturb the lather on his mouth. Every Saturday night, rain or shine, he treated himself to one of Lem’s shaves. Lem was not only a good barber, he was a good sport as well ; a human, trusting, friendly negro who looked upon the bright side of life, raked off the whiskers of allcomers and raked in their nickels.
Lenix had known Lem but a short time; consequently he had an account there.
The shave over, he stepped from the chair, tonguing his upper lip to which still clung damp effusions of spirits of bay rum. His face was smooth and shining; his soul was smooth as a summer sea. He smiled down the row of waiting customers, calling each by name with that easy tolerance which made him so popular amongthem. On Homer his eyes rested for just a moment with a look akin to fear; but only for a moment. That nigger was bad, but what chance has badness with brain coping against it? None whatsoever. Homer returned the look from beneath drawn brows, giving back the other’s effusive greeting of, “Howdy, Homer,” with a surly growl.
MINUTELY the yellow pugilist took in each and every detail of Len’s wardrobe as though he had an object in so doing. He sneered at the yellow tie and chuckled at the loud stripe of Len’s shirt sleeves. It was not until Lenix reached for the coat and drew it on, after carefully stroking the satin facing on the collar, that Homer drew himself into his shell again and sat brooding.
Len winked to the barber to chalk it down, lit a cheroot and with a “Well, so long, fellers,” stepped out into the iatt summer’s twilight.
No sooner had he reached the street corner than he felt a hand touch his shoulder. Turning, he looked into the sombre eyes of Homer Hudson.
“Len, whatall dat medal ’ting yo’ wearin’ on yo’ coat?” Hudson’s tones were almost friendly in spite of the chill, probing look in his eyes.
Lenix smiled and lifted the satin-lined lapel. “Yo means dis badge, Homer? Dat Three Masons’ badge.”
“Humph. What right yo’ all gotter wear it?”
“Why?” Lenix’s tones were half resentful. “Ease I’se one of dem Three Masons, dat’s why.”
“When yo’ jine up?”
Len leaned against a telephone pole and looked gravely down at the pugnacious and clearly vindictive “Look yo’ here, Homer,” he said dignity, “What yo’ tryin’ ter do? Gib highball?”
“I ain’t tryin ter do nuthin but out why yo’ am wearin’ dat Three Maso pin. • Doan’ know no highballs, don’t kno' narry sign, and what’s more, ain’t wantii ter. Furdermore, Len, dat ain’t Thre Masons’ badge, nohow.”
“How come it ain’t?” Len picked U the lapel again and strained his eyes o the badge. X
“Ease Three Mason badge is compas and square, same as Jedge McDool wear! I’se seen de Jedge’s badge ’nuff times te
“Dat’s so, Homer. Yo’ sure hab ’nul chances ter study de Jedge’s badge.” Th insinuation in the softly muttered word shot clean over Homer’s closely shave head, but he caught it on the rebound.
“I ain’t been befo’ de Jedge any mone yo’ yo’self have,” he flared. “Yo’ knows dat, Len. Only de Jedge he soak me whar he all let yo’ off wif warnin.’ Dat’s de law. Persecute de innocent, pat de guilty on shoulder; dat’s Jedge McDool ebery time.”
“Homer.” Honey was no sweeter than Len’s tones as he linked his long arm in the shorter one of Homer and led him down street. “Homer, come ’long wif me and let me whisper brotherly council in yore ear as we journey forarrd togedder. Homer braced his feet and muttered something beneath his breath. He stood stockstill, glowering up at Lenix. “I aint needin’ no brotherly advice from yo’ all, he grated. “Ebery time I done took advice from yo’, so fur, it cost me money. Whar yo’ purpose leadin’ me, Len?”
They wTere standing beneath the glow of an electric light now. The yellowwhite rays flashed upon the little badge in Len’s lapel. Homer’s eyes, ringed with white, glued upon it. Lenix, one eye twitching, one corner of his mouth turned up, watched him, his manner gravely sympathetic; and waited.
Finally Homer sighed dolefully. He pulled out a red handkerchief and mopped his brow. He reached up as though to touch that scintillating button of gjeaming metal, but drew his hand back with a shudder and crammed it deep in his trouser’s pocket. Lenix, leaning slightly forward, distinctly heard the crinkle of paper money in that pocket, as Homer’s hand gripped upon it.
“Len, tole me. Is dat really a Three Masons’ badge?” Homer’s tones were affable, almost pleading.
Len hesitated before answering. “Well now, Homer, it is and it isn’t,” he said at last. “Dis hyar pin done represent a sister lodge of Three Masons, a secreter society, in ebry way, dan Three Masons, and much exclusiver. Look yo’, Homer.”
Len had unscrewed the badge and now held it beneath the rays of the light. There was printing upon it in raised letters of brass. Homer’s th ick lips mumbled as he spelled out the words. “Use Excelsior Dyes.” “What all dat mean?” he asked suspiciously, rolling his eyes up at Lenix.
Lenix took the button from him and burnished it carefully on his coat sleeve. “Dat’s Latin,” he explained. “It means, ‘Pertect yor Brudder Celsior.’ ”
“And what am Celsiors?” Homer’s voice was eager now.
“Us all be Celsiors, Homer, all us members of de Celsior Society be Celsiors, me,
“Len, could I all jine up, d’ye tink. Lenix started, and his smiling face grew grave again. “Homer, it aint fer me nor any member of dis hyar protective and secret society ter say who all kin jine up. Nobudy knows who kin jine, nobudy, ’tall. Yo’ might be able to crawl in on yore belly fru de white piliers ob Hostibilla, an’ yo’ might not. Nobudy knows^ ' “What dat Hostibilla, Len? Ah don t like dat word. Seems I been in dar befo .
“No, yer aint. Yo’ was in hospital, time Jim White strop his razor on yore shoulder, but yo’ don’t ebber seen dis Hostibilla, and aint likely eber will, kase yore record’s agin’ yo’.”
Again Homer sighed. “I sure need sumñn like dat secret help yore brudder order, Len. Ef I could enter dat lodge I’d be mighty pleased ter. What I have ter do ter try?”
T ENIX drew Homer away from the •*-/ light and down street. “Homer, us Celsiors hab got ter keep orful keerful,” he said, as he glanced apprehensively over his shoulder. He had just caught a glimpse of a portly colored woman peering through the billiard room window, down street. Jane-Ann was evidently on the still hunt for him and it behooved him to exercise due caution. Accordingly, he pulled Homer down a dark side street. “Us hab got ter be very keerful,” he repeated. “Kase why? Well, kase ebery nigger in Chatville would wanter jine up, if dey gotter know what all dey coaid get away wif doin’, onst they became Celsiors.”
“Breakin’ de law, yo’ mean?” Homer’s voice was eager.
“In plain English, dat’s ’bout it.” Lenix nodded and smiled an enigmatical
Homer was thinking, conning over past events, remembering. He was recollecting how this same Lenix had by—as it seemed to him—-simply a twist of the tongue, won old Jedge McDool over to dismissing the case against him. On more than one occasion this had happened. He wondered at it then, the more so because he, himself, had never succeeded in winning an acquittal from the Judge. But now it was all plain. He glanced up at Lenix with a look of dawning admiration and respect in his eyes.
“Len, answer me. What I gotter do ter be one of dem Celsiors?”
Lenix put his finger on his lips and drew Homer over against the railing of the foot-bridge which they had just reached. Behind lay the town of blinking lights; before stretched the beech-hedged road which wound into the heart of the country. Lenix turned his eyes towards that shadowy road, now, and Homer’s alert ears heard him murmur something ending with : “I come ter ascend de twistin’ stairway ter de portals of Hostibilla.”
Homer’s hide started to wrinkle and the cold chills assailed his spine. “Len, fer Gawd sake stop chantin’ dat away. . It’s fair like a hunt. Tell me, what I gotter do ter jine up?”
Lenix made a secret sign towards the star sprinkled skies before he answered. “Firs’ yo’ gotter get someone ter vouch fer yo’.”
“What yo’ mean vouch?”
“Ter vouch fer yore good character. Can’t jine de Celsiors wif out clean record,
“An, how’s I goin’ ter get dat, Len? Len considered. “Well, dat all might be arranged,” he spoke finally. “I’m willin’ ter vouch fer yo’, Homer.”
Homer’s lips parted until the gold tooth shone in the star rays. “An’ den what, Len?” .
“Well den yo’ done pay ober yore nishation fee ter yore voucher.”
Homer’s face fell again. The old sullen look crept into his eyes. There was no smile on his lips as he asked. “How much am dat nishation fee, Len?”
HOMER was silent. He stood thinking. Finally from a vest pocket he took two cigars, examined them as minutely as the shadows would permit. Handed Len the more tattered of the two, and lit up.
“Dat seem a powerful big nishation fee,” he puffed, finally. *
“Dat’s only charter membership fee,” Len explained. “Regular fee am free hunerd dollars,”
“Loramighty.” Homer choked so that he nearly bit his frayed cigar through the middle. “An’ yo’ all tink I mought get in de lodge fer fo’ eighty-free, now?” he asked eagerly.
“Six eighty-free.” Len scratched a match and applied the flame to his busted cigar end. Homer stood, staring at him.
“Yo’ all said fo’ eight-free, jest minute ago, Len.”
“Dat’s so, Homer. But let me jes’ splain how come it’s more now. Ebery secret society hab a rule. Candidate kick at nishation fee, he blackballed from jinin’ fer dat fee. Ebery time he hesitate, add two dollars. Goin’ to hesitate some more, Homer?”
But Homer was already feeling deep in his pocket. His hand came forth grasping a bunch of loose bills. “Hyar yore six eight-free, Len,” he said excitedly, “Kin yo’ all get me froo and get me a badge by to-morrie, d’ye think?”
“Lor’, no.” Lenix was folding the bills carefully and chinking the eighty-three cents, lovingly. “Us aint all dat speedy, Homer. You all gotter hab patience. Can’t tell yit wheder I kin get yo’ froo at all, but I’se goin’ ter try kase nobody wanter spen’ six dollar and eighty-free cents fer nuffin.”
“What yo’ all mean, spen’ it fer nuffin?” Suspicion had gripped Homer again. He put a heavy hand on Lenix’s arm as though he would suspend that gentleman’s operation of placing the bills and silver in his pocket.
“Well, yo’ see, Homer, ef yo’ don’ pass, dat money am confiscate to de order. Dat is ter say,” noticing the candidate’s hands clench, “yo’ get? six dollar and eightyfree cents worf ob pertection, wheder yo’ pass er not. But I’se hopin’ yo’ll pass.”
“I get what, Len?”
“Six dollar and eighty-free cents worf ob pertection, wheder yo’ pass er not. But I’se hopin’ yo’ll pass.”
“You’se hopin’.” Homer sneered the words through his nose, and bit savagely on his cigar. “Look yo’, hyar, nigger,” he flared, “If I fail ter pass fru dem snowy piliers of dat Hostbiddle yo’ done speak 'bout a while ago, dar’s goin’ ter be one mighty hurt Celsior. I’m tellin’ yo’ all dat now. How come yo’ can’t take me wif yo’ and let me all jine up ter night?”
“Aint no nishation ter night; jes’ routine business.”
LENIX shuffled his feet and moved a step away from Homer. Negotiations having been effected to his liking, there was nothing more to be gained by tarrying longer with Homer. “I’ll take yore name inter lodge, vouch fer yo’ and yo’ll be ballited onter ter night, dough, Homer.” “An’ yo’ll be bullited inter, lemme tell o, ef I don’t pass runnin’.” Homer unched his shoulders and spat his cigar stub into the creek. Lenix hastened to pacify his feelings. “As I done tell yo’ afore, Homer, yo’ gets six eighty-free’s wuth ob pertection anyhow. 'Member dat.”
“I’se rememberin’ it all hunky, don’ allow yore feelin’s ter get strained on dat account. I’se ’memberin’ it. But lemme tell yo; six dollar and eighty-free cents worf ob pertection aint goin’ ter help me much nex’ Tuesday mornin’ when I face ole Jedge McDool on dat trump up hossrace pool charge. What I aim bein’ is a regular Celsior wif a badge same as dat one yore all wearin’, so’s I kin flash it in de Jedge’s eyes an gib him de high sign.
“Homer.” Len’s voice was soft as the angel’s who whispers solace, “Homer, I ’ciar ter goodness—but I shore fergot all ’bout dat police cou’t case. I hones’ did. Hów den, I tells yo’ what I do. In case I don’ get yo’ in as fully ’nitiated brudder Celsior, I gets yo’ pas’ de outer portals anyway ; an I’ll teach yo’ de work.”
“I don’ want nuthin’ ter do wif work.” Homer squirmed out of Len’s velvet grasp, and kicked the railing loose on the bridge.
“But I means teach yo’ yer obligation and give yo’ pass words. Show yo’ how to respond if de Jedge done try secret signs on yo’, see?”
“Oh, dat’s different. ’N’ yo’ all tink I kin get by wif it, Len?”
“Sure, Homer, nuffin’ easier. Yo’ jes trust ter me. Now den, I mus’ go and climb de twistin’ stairway ter de portals ob Hostibilla, an’ pay dis six eighty-free inter de treasury, I’ll get yo’ all balloted on an come back hyar in an hour an teach yo’ de work. If yore ’cepted, we kin hold special ’nitiation meeting’ Monday night, and Tuesday mornin’ yo’ face de Jedge his pledged brudder, a full-fledged Celsior.”
Homer wriggled his gladness. “Dat’s fine, Len.” The star rays glinted on his gold tooth as he smiled and gripped the hand held out to him.
“Fren’s now but brudders soon,” said Lenix, impressively. “Say, hole on a minute, hole on a minute.”
Len had suddenly been smitten by an idea. Homer stood, mouth half open, swayed betwixt new born hope and new born fear.
“Len, don’t yo’ all tell me dere’s goin’ ter be no hitch.”
Lenix was gazing skyward. He was muttering.
“Maybe it all kin be got obér ter night, Homer.”
“What all?” Homer shuddered and drew closer to the one of the secret order.
“Nitiation work, eberyting! I jest thought dat maybe, seein’s I’m Gran’ Master ob de lodge, I kin get yo’ fru ter night. Yo’ meet me hyar in an hour an I’ll let yo’ know if it kin be done. I’ll lead yo’ ’cross de portals, and yo’ gets yore firs' degree right away.”
“Well, I come along den.”
“No, Homer. Yo’ mus’ stay right hyar till I gets outer sight. Wouldn’t do fer yo’ to come les’ some member see yo’ all and tink yore spyin’ on de order.”
“An sposin’ dey do?” Homer whispered the question, and wiped his perspiring brow on a red handkerchief.
T ENIX glanced about him, then bending ^ whispered in Homer’s ear, “Dat mean yo’ll be buried alive, head firs’ in a hole nine feet deep, on de red sands ob de shore of fiery lake Hostibilla.” “Gordamity!” Homer stuttered in his fright, and shook so that Len gave him a bracing arm.
“Course if yo’ all wants ter take yore own chances—” Lenix disengaged himself and moved towards the blinking lights of the town, “yo’ kin come ‘long.” Homer’s knees were shaking. “I reckon I don’ want ter take no chances,” he shivered, “but I won’t stay here alone, nohow. I’ll take dis side street and meet yo’ hyar in an hour, Len.”
“Well,” Len paused to deliver this parting injunction, “don’t yo’ mix any wif de udder niggers up town till after I’se vouched and had de ballots rolled. Kase if' yo’ do, it’s goin’ ter cause jealousy ‘mongst dem all fer us showin’ yo’ favor. Yo’ best hike long ter Mariar’s restaurant and wait dar.”
“Dat’s jes’ what I’ll do, Len. Meet yo’ hyar in an hour.”
LENIX walked slowly and thoughtfully back along the road towards the blinking lights of the main street. Occasionally he lifted his long arms and made secret signs towards the stars. Once he turned twice about, slowly, hands raised and fingers spread wide. Homer, he knew, would be watching him and it behooved him to strengthen the impression he had already made on that perspiring and much-fearing candidate to Excelsiordom.
Once having turned the to the indifferently lighted main thoroughfare, however, Len’s attitude underwent a complete change. His shoulders slouched forward, his thin face relaxed from fixity into a crooked smile, his feet scraped the pavement with a rhythmetic I’se cornin’, I don’ care, I’se cornin’, don’ know where shuffle.
At Abe White’s pool-room, those feet came to an abrupt halt, and the long neck extended, as Len strove to ascertain if there was plain sailing inside. Apparently there was. He turned into the poolroom. In just exactly fifty minutes by the alarm clock on the cigar-counter, he had succeeded in making the six dollars and eighty-three cents, paid over as initiation fee by Homer, earn him two dollars and ten cents more. Thçn he put his cue in the rack, bought a five cent cigar and stepped out into the summer night.
He lit his cigar and stood thinking. By and by, he smiled and nodded his head. His right eye was twitching and the left corner of his mouth was slightly turned up. Casually, as though going nowhere in particular, he sauntered down street. Finally, he turned the corner of the street along which he and Homer had walked arm in arm an hour ago. Luck was with him. He had met not a single soul to whom he owed money, and he had avoided colliding with the searching Jane-Ann.
But he was not out of the woods yet; this he well knew.
Waiting for him, even now, down on that rustic bridge among the tree-shadows, was a menace with which he still must cope. If all went well—well and good, if not—
Len experienced a cold feeling in his nerve-centre, a clammy finger running along his spine at memory of some of the exploits he himself had seen this same fist-and-foot fighter, Homer, perform— a veritable whirlwind of legs and arms against which no two colored men of Chatville were able to stand. “A bad, bad nigger who could lick his weight in wildcats, and knew it.” That was how those who were familiar with his fighting exploits, described Homer. And Lenix had dared for the second time, to play with that nigger.
“Jes like strokin’ a lion’s nose,” shivered Len, as he threw a hugh sigh to the stars. “He’s all liable ter wake up any time and strike out wif his paw.”
DESPITE his trepidation he approached the bridge with half halt-' ing, half floating strides resembling those of a sleep-walker, and twice did the burly Homer hoarsely whisper his name before Len condescended to descend from the enveloping mists of Hostibilla, to answer him.
“It am all right, Homer. We all kin put de work on ter night. Am yo’ ready fer ter be coached?”
“What yo’ mean coached; ter ride de goat?” Suspicion flashed in Homer’s tones, “Käse I tell yo’ right now, Len, I don’ ride no goat.”
“Don’t need ride none. I mean am yo’ ready to become a Celsior, to do and to dare and pertect yore brudder, ter hang his persecutors and cut his enemies deep? Ef so, I’ll gib yo’ de firs’ work an’ teach yo’ yore obligation.”
“Well, I reckon yo’ kin begin.” Homer sighed and squared his shoulders. He hated to have to go through with it, but he remembered his case in court on Tuesday. Judge McDool couldn’t very well soak a brother Excelsior very hard.
“All right den, Homer. Fust off, yo’ must gib me two dollars more ter bribe de goddess dat pertects de ladder ter let yo’ ascend ter de portals.”
Homer opened his mouth to protest but, remembering the lesson which had cost him two dollars earlier in the evening, he refrained from voicing his feeling and, reluctantly enough, peeled a two spot .from the generous roll he took from his pocket and handed it to Lenix.
“All right. Now, Homer, dis hyar money will be burnt and de ashes sprinkled on de portals ob Hostibilla. Ef I was ter give it back ter yo’ now, yo’ would altars have a liant settin’ on yore footsteps. Consequently dis hyar two dollars am always burnt and de ashes sprinkled on de portals ob Hostibilla.”
“I doan’ want dat two dollars, nohow, Len. Go on, what nex’?”
“Now den, yo’ repeat afar’ me, ‘I is dead an’ in my coffin.’ ”
“What dat?” Homer shivered and drew closer to Lenix. “What dat mean, Len?”
“Nebber min’ what it mean. Repeat it after me. ‘I is dead an’ in my coffin.’ ” “But I aint dead and I aint in no coffin!” Homer’s voice was husky.
Len sighed and let his eyes rest on the candidate. The look said, “I must have patience.”
“Homer, don’ yo’ see it's all make believe. It’s yore obligation, yo’ see; yore oaf. Yore all takin’ de furs’ degree, yo’ know. Yo’ is carried in, sposed to be dead, and wearing’ nuffin’ but a shroud. Yo’ is put in a real coffin, and us all sing a dirge ’bove yo’ and walk roun’ in a circle. Den de lights go off an’ yo’ set up in yore shroud and say. ‘I is dead an’ in my coffin am my spirit done crouch outside de portals of Hostibilla.’ Den we all wail loud and long. Den yo’ speak, up again, keeping yore eyes tight shet, ‘I am all alone beside de black trackway ob death.’ Den we wail right pitiful, and yo’ hole out yore arms and say. ‘Open de dore and let my spirit come ter me.’’ And den way off a light blink and a skull grin at yo’ from de altar, and a v’ice it say ter yo’. ‘What all will yo’ do ter merit de gif’ ob yore spirit from de portals of Hostibilla?’ An’ yo’ say: ‘I
will pertect all present and all Celsiors whereber dey be at, hang dere persecutors and cut dere enemies deep, An’ I’ll turn inter de treasury ob dis hyar lodge sixty per cent, ob ebery dollar I
“Len,” Homer was half crouching,. hanging to the one arm of the bridge. His eyes were rolling and his hat had fallen in the dirt. “Len, fer gawdamighty sake, stop. Stop it, Len.’” “Why Homer, I-” “Lemme outin hyar. Oh, nigger, fer de love ob heaven, let me outin hyar. I don” want ter be no Celsior. I don” wanter see no coffin. I’d die sure put me in Yo’ all my yo’ lead me
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back to de light and de noise. I’se plum crazed up wif dem secret goin’s on-”
Homer presented a pitiable, grovelling sight. He sank on his knees and his arms twined about Len’s legs.
“Homer, yo’ all gotter have courage.” Len, bent and lifted the shaking form.
“I’se had my fill, I tells yo’. I’se froo wif secret societies. All I wanter do is get right away from what yo’ been a sayin’. It’ll ring in my. ears and hant
“Homer, I reckon yo’ could neber stan’ de full ’nitiation if yo’s scared ob what little I tell yo’.”
“Lor, don’ I know it? I jest couldn’!”
“Well, here yore two dollars back.”
Len slowly drew the bill from his pocket and tendered it to the quaking Homer. “Yo’ bes’ burn it when yo’ get home, Homer,” he advised. “No good a harborin’ a hant ter set on-”
But Homer with a wild yell, had dashed away, and was running towards the blinking city lights as though the very fiends were pursuing him.
Lenix watched him top the hill, and twist about the corner of the main thoroughfare. Then he gently put the two dollars back in his pocket.
“Well, say,” he soliloquized, “dat Homer is de nervousest nigger I ebber seen. No wonder Jedge McDool soak