An Arkansas Planter
"A Yankee from the West," "The Waters of Caney Fork," "Mrs. Annie Green," "Up Terrapin River."
CHICAGO AND NEW YORK: RAND, McNALLY & COMPANY, PUBLISHERS.
AN ARKANSAS PLANTER.
Lying along the Arkansas River, a few miles below Little Rock, there is a broad strip of country that was once the domain of a lordly race of men. They were not lordly in the sense of conquest; no rusting armor hung upon their walls; no ancient blood-stains blotched their stairways—there were no skeletons in dungeons deep beneath the banquet hall. But in their own opinion they were just as great as if they had possessed these gracious marks of medieval distinction. Their country was comparatively new, but their fathers came mostly from Virginia and their whisky came wholly from Kentucky. Their cotton brought a high price in the Liverpool market, their daughters were celebrated for beauty, and their sons could hold their own with the poker players that traveled up and down the Mississippi River. The slave trade had been abolished, and, therefore, what remained of slavery was right; and in proof of it the pulpit contributed its argument. Negro preachers with wives scattered throughout the community urged their fellow bondsmen to drop upon their knees and thank God for the privilege of following a mule in a Christian land. The merciless work of driving the negroes to their tasks was performed by men from the North. Many a son of New England, who, with emotion, had listened to Phillips and to Garrison, had afterward hired his harsh energies to the slave owner. And it was this hard driving that taught the negro vaguely to despise the abolitionist. But as a class the slaves were not unhappy. They were ignorant, but the happiest song is sometimes sung by ignorance. They believed the Bible as read to them by the preachers, and the Bible told them that God had made them slaves; so, at evening, they twanged rude strings and danced the "buck" under the boughs of the cottonwood tree.
On the vine-shaded veranda the typical old planter was wont to sit, looking up and down the road, watching for a friend or a stranger—any one worthy to drink a gentleman's liquor, sir. His library was stocked with romances. He knew English history as handed down to him by the sentimentalist. He hated the name of king, but revered an aristocracy. No business was transacted under his roof; the affairs of his estate were administered in a small office, situated at the corner of the yard. His wife and daughters, arrayed in imported finery, drove about in a carriage. New Orleans was his social center, and he had been known to pay as much as a thousand dollars for a family ticket to a ball at the St. Charles hotel. His hospitality was known everywhere. He was slow to anger, except when his honor was touched upon, and then he demanded an apology or forced a fight. He was humorous, and yet the consciousness of his own dignity often restrained his enjoyment of the ludicrous. When the cotton was in bloom his possessions were beautiful. On a knoll he could stand and imagine that the world was a sea of purple.
That was the Arkansas planter years ago, before the great sentimental storm swept down upon him, before an evening's tea-table talk in Massachusetts became a tornado of iron in Virginia. When ragged and heart-sore he returned from the army, from as brave a fight as man ever engaged in, he sat down to dream over his vanished greatness. But his dream was short. He went to work, not to re-establish his former condition of ease—for that hope was beyond him—but to make a living for his family.
On a knoll overlooking the Arkansas River stood the Cranceford homestead. The site was settled in 1832, by Captain Luke Cranceford, who had distinguished himself in an Indian war. And here, not long afterward, was born John Cranceford, who years later won applause as commander of one of the most stubborn batteries of the Confederate Army. The house was originally built of cypress logs, but as time passed additions of boards and brick were made, resulting in a formless but comfortable habitation, with broad passage ways and odd lolling places set to entrap cool breezes. The plantation comprised about one thousand acres. The land for the most part was level, but here and there a hill arose, like a sudden jolt. From right to left the tract was divided by a bayou, slow and dark. The land was so valuable that most of it had been cleared years ago, but in the wooded stretches the timber was thick, and in places the tops of the trees were laced together with wild grape vines. Far away was a range of pine-covered hills, blue cones in the distance. And here lived the poorer class of people, farmers who could not hope to look to the production of cotton, but who for a mere existence raised thin hogs and nubbins of corn. In the lowlands the plantations were so large and the residences so far apart that the country would have appeared thinly settled but for the negro quarters here and there, log villages along the bayous.
In this neighborhood Major John Cranceford was the most prominent figure. The county was named in honor of his family. He was called a progressive man. He accepted the yoke of reconstruction and wore it with a laugh, until it pinched, and then he said nothing, except to tell his neighbors that a better time was coming. And it came. The years passed, and a man who had been prominent in the Confederate council became Attorney-General of the American Nation, and men who had led desperate charges against the Federal forces made speeches in the old capitol at Washington. And thus the world was taught a lesson of forgiveness—of the true greatness of man.
In New Orleans the Major was known as a character, and his nerve was not merely a matter of conjecture. Courage is supposed to hold a solemn aspect, but the Major was the embodiment of heartiness. His laugh was catching; even the negroes had it, slow, loud and long. Sometimes at morning when a change of season had influenced him, he would slowly stride up and down the porch, seeming to shake with joviality as he walked. Years ago he had served as captain of a large steamboat, and this at times gave him an air of bluff authority. He was a successful river man, and was therefore noted for the vigor and newness of his profanity. His wife was deeply religious, and year after year she besought him to join the church, pleaded with him at evening when the two children were kissed good night—and at last he stood the rector's cross-examination and had his name placed upon the register. It was a hard struggle, but he weeded out his oaths until but one was left—a bold "by the blood." He said that he would part even with this safety valve but that it would require time; and it did. The Major believed in the gradual moral improvement of mankind, but he swore that the world intellectually was going to the devil. And for this conviction he had a graded proof. "Listen to me a minute," he was wont to say. "I'll make it clear to you. My grandfather was graduated with great honors from Harvard, my father was graduated with honor, I got through all right, but my son Tom failed."
One hot afternoon the Major sat in his library. The doors were open and a cool breeze, making the circuitous route of the passage ways, swept through the room, bulging a newspaper which he held opened out in front of him. He was scanning the headlines to catch the impulsive moods of the world. The parlor was not far away, down the hall, and voices reached him. And then there came the distressing hack, hack, of a hollow cough. He put down the newspaper, got up, and slowly strode about the room, not shaking with joviality as he walked. In the parlor the voices were hushed, there was a long silence, and then came the hollow cough. He sat down and again took up the newspaper, but the cough, hack, hack, smote him like the recurrence of a distressing thought, and he crumpled the paper and threw it upon the floor. Out in the yard a negro woman was singing; far down the stream a steamboat whistled. And again came the hollow cough. There was another long silence, and then he heard light footsteps in the hall. A young woman halted at the door and stood looking at him. Her face was pale and appeared thin, so eager was her expression. She was slight and nervous.
"Well," he said. She smiled at him and said, "Well." Then she slowly entered the room, and with a sigh took a seat near him. The cough from the parlor was more distressful, and she looked at him, and in her eyes was a beseeching sadness.
"What did I tell you?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Don't say that, for you do know."
"You've told me so many things—"
"Yes, I know. But what did I tell you about Carl Pennington?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Yes you do. I told you that I didn't want him to come here. Didn't I?"
"Then why is he here?"
"I met him and invited him to come."
"Ah, ha. But I don't want him here; don't want you to see him."
She sat looking at him as if she would study every line of his face. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and looked down. The cough came again, and he looked at the girl. "You know the reason I don't want you to see him. Don't you?"
"Yes, sir, and I know the reason why I do want to see him."
"The devil—pardon me," he quickly added, withdrawing his hands from his pockets and bowing to her. She slightly inclined her head and smiled sadly. He looked hard at her, striving to read her thoughts; and she was so frail, her face was so thin and her eyes so wistful that she smote him with pity. He reached over and took one of her hands, and affectionately she gave him the other one. She tried to laugh. The cough came again, and she took her hands away. He reached for them, but she put them behind her. "No, not until I have told you," she said, and he saw her lip tremble. "He was afraid to come in here to see you," she went on, speaking with timid slowness. "He is so weak and sick that he can't stand to be scolded, so I have come to—" She hesitated. He shoved himself back and looked hard at her, and his eyebrows stuck out fiercely.
"To ask me what?" His voice was dry and rasping. "What can you ask me? To let him come here to see you? No, daughter. I can't permit that. And I don't intend to be cruel when I say this. I am sorry for him, God knows I deeply sympathize with him, but he must not hope to—"
"I was not going to ask you to let him come," she broke in. "I am going to ask you to let me go—go with him."
"By the blood!" the Major exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "What do you mean? Marry him?"
"Yes, sir," she quietly answered. He looked at her, frowning, his face puffed, his brows jagged. And then appearing to master himself he sat down and strove to take her hand, but she held it behind her. "My daughter, I want to talk to you, not in anger, but with common sense. It actually horrifies me to think of your marriage—I can't do it, that's all. Why, the poor fellow can't live three months; he is dead on his feet now. Listen at that cough. Louise, how can you think of marrying him? Haven't you any judgment at all? Is it possible that you have lost—but I won't scold you; I must reason with you. There is time enough for you to marry, and the sympathetic fancy that you have for that poor fellow will soon pass away. It must. You've got plenty of chances. Jim Taylor—"
"Why do you speak of him, father?"
"I speak of him because he loves you—because he is as fine a young fellow as walks the face of the earth."
"But, father, he is so big and strong that he doesn't need any one to love him."
At this the Major appeared not to know whether to laugh or to frown. But he did neither; he sat for a time with his hands on his knees, looking wonderingly, almost stupidly at her; and then he said: "Nonsense. Where did you pick up that preposterous idea? So strong that he doesn't need love! Why, strength demands love, and to a big man the love of a little woman—" She drew back from him as he leaned toward her and he did not complete the sentence. Her impatience made him frown. "Won't you let me reason with you?" he asked. "Won't you help me to suppress all appearance of displeasure?"
"It is of no use," she replied.
"What is of no use? Reason?"
"What! Do you mean—"
"I mean that I am going to marry him."
In her eyes there was no appeal, no pleading, for the look that she gave him was hard and determined. Harsh words flew to the Major's mind, and he shook with the repression of them; but he was silent. He shoved his hands into his pockets and she heard his keys rattling. He arose with a deep sigh, and now, with his hands behind him, walked up and down the room. Suddenly he faced about and stood looking down upon her, at the rose in her hair.
"Louise, one night on a steamboat there was a rollicking dance. It was a moonlight excursion. There was a splash and a cry that a woman had fallen overboard. I leaped into the river, grasped her, held her head above the stream, fighting the current. A boat was put out and we were taken on board, and then by the light of a lantern I found that I had saved the life of my own daughter. So, upon you, I have more than a father's claim—the claim of gallantry, and this you cannot disregard, and upon it I base my plea."
She looked up straight at him; her lips were half open, but she said nothing.
"You don't seem to understand," he added, seeming to stiffen his shoulders in resentment at the calmness with which she regarded him. "I tell you that I waive the authority of a father and appeal to your gratitude; I remind you that I saved your life—leaped into the cold water and seized you, not knowing whose life I was striving to save at the risk of losing my own. Isn't that worth some sort of return? Isn't it worth even the sacrifice of a whim? Louise, don't look at me that way. Is it possible that you don't grasp—" He hesitated and turned his face toward the parlor whence came again the cough, hollow and distressing. The sound died away, echoing down the hall, and a hen clucked on the porch and a passage door slammed.
"Louise," he said, looking at her.
"Do you catch—"
"I catch everything, father. It was noble of you to jump into the river when you didn't know but that you might be drowned, and recognizing that you risked your life, and feeling a deep gratitude, it is hard to repay you with disobedience. Wait a moment, please. You must listen to me. It is hard to repay you with disobedience, but it cannot be helped. You say that Mr. Pennington is dying and I know that you speak the truth. He knows that he is dying, and he appeals to me not to let him die alone—not alone in words," she quickly added, "but with something stronger than words, his helplessness, his despair. Other people have appeared to shun him because he is dying, but—"
"Hold on," he broke in. "I deny that. No one has shunned him because he is dying. Everybody is sorry for him, and you know that I would do anything for him."
"Would you? Then let him die under this roof as my husband. Oh, look how poor and thin he is, so helpless, and dying day by day, with no relatives near him, with nothing in prospect but long nights of suffering. Please don't tell me that I shan't take care of him, for I feel that it is the strongest duty that will ever come to me. Listen how he coughs. Doesn't it appeal to you? How can you refuse—how can you remind me of the gratitude I owe you?"
Tears were streaming down her face. He bent over her, placed his hands upon her cheeks and kissed her, but instantly he drew back with his resentful stiffening of the shoulders.
"Louise, it can't be. No argument and no appeal can bring it about. It makes me shudder to think of it. Really I can't understand it. The situation to me is most unnatural. But I won't be harsh with you. But I must say that I don't know where you get your stubbornness. No, I won't be harsh. Let me tell you what I will agree to do. He may come to this house and stay here until—may stay here and the best of care shall be taken of him, and you may nurse him, but you must not bear his name. Will you agree to this?"
She shook her head. She had wiped away her tears and her eyes were strong and determined. "After conceding so much I don't see why you should refuse the vital point," she said.
"I can tell you why, and I am afraid that I must."
"Don't be afraid; simply tell me."
"But, daughter, it would seem cruel."
"Not if I demand it."
"Then you do demand it? Well, you shall know. His father served a term in the Louisiana penitentiary for forgery. And now you may ask why I ever let him come into this house. I will tell you. He had been teaching school here some time and I said nothing. One day during a rainstorm he stopped at the gate. He was sick and I invited him to come in. After that I could not find enough firmness to tell him not to come, he was so pale and weak. I see now that it was a false sympathy. Do you understand me? His father was a convict."
"Yes, I understand. He told me."
"By the blood on the Cross! Do you mean to say—Louise," he broke off, gazing upon her, "your mind is unsettled. Yes, you are crazy, and, of course, all your self-respect is gone. You needn't say a word, you are crazy. You are—I don't know what you are, but I know what I am, and now, after the uselessness of my appeal to your gratitude, I will assert the authority of a father. You shall not marry him."
"And would you kill a dying man?" she quietly asked.
The question jolted him, and he shouted out: "What do you mean by such nonsense? You know I wouldn't."
"Then I will marry him."
For a moment the Major's anger choked him. With many a dry rasp he strove to speak, and just as he had made smoother a channel for his words, he heard the hollow cough drawing nearer. He motioned toward a door that opened in an opposite direction, and the girl, after hesitating a moment, quickly stepped out upon a veranda that overlooked the river. The Major turned his eyes toward the other door, and there Pennington stood with a handkerchief tightly pressed to his mouth. For a time they were silent, one strong and severe, the other tremulous and almost spectral in the softened light.
"There is a chair, sir," said the Major, pointing.
"I thank you, sir; I don't care to sit down. I—I am very sorry that you are compelled to look upon me as—as you do, sir. And it is all my fault, I assure you, and I can't defend myself."
He dropped his handkerchief and looked down as if he were afraid to stoop to pick it up. The Major stepped forward, caught up the handkerchief, handed it to him and stepped back.
"Thank you, sir," Pennington said, bowing, and then, after a short pause, he added: "I don't know what to say in explanation of—of myself. But I should think, sir, that the strength of a man's love is a sufficient defense of any weakness he may possess—I mean a sufficient defense of any indiscretion that his love has led him to commit. This situation stole upon me, and I was scarcely aware of its coming until it was here. I didn't know how serious—" He coughed his words, and when he became calmer, repeated his plea that love ought to excuse any weakness in man. "Your daughter is an angel of mercy," he said. "When I found myself dying as young as I was and as hopeful as I had been my soul filled up with a bitter resentment against nature and God, but she drew out the bitterness and instilled a sweetness and a prayer. And now to take her from me would be to snatch away the prospect of that peaceful life that lies beyond the grave. Sir, I heard you tell her that she was crazy. If so, then may God bless all such insanity."
He pressed the handkerchief to his mouth, racking, struggling; and when the convulsive agony had passed he smiled, and there in the shadow by the door the light that crossed his face was ghastly, like a dim smear of phosphorus. And now the Major's shoulders were not stiffened with resentment; they were drooping with a pity that he could not conceal, but his face was hard set, the expression of the mercy of one man for another, but also the determination to protect a daughter and the good name of an honored household.
"Mr. Pennington, I was never so sorry for any human being as I am for you at this moment, but, sir, the real blessings of this life come through justice and not through impulsive mercy. In thoughtless sympathy a great wrong may lie, and out of a marriage with disease may arise a generation of misery. We are largely responsible for the ailments of those who are to follow us. The wise man looks to the future; the weak man hugs the present. You say that my daughter is an angel of mercy. She has ever been a sort of sister of charity. I confess that I have never been able wholly to understand her. At times she has even puzzled her mother, and a daughter is odd, indeed, when a mother cannot comprehend her. I am striving to be gentle with you, but I must tell you that you cannot marry her. I don't want to tell you to go, and yet it is better that this interview should come to a close."
He bowed to Pennington and turned toward the veranda that overlooked the river, but a supplicating voice called him back. "I wish to say," said the consumptive, "that from your point of view you are right. But that does not alter my position. You speak of the misery that arises from a marriage with disease. That was very well put, but let me say, sir, that I believe that I am growing stronger. Sometimes I have thought that I had consumption, but in my saner moments I know that I have not. I can see an improvement from day to day. Several days ago I couldn't help coughing, but now at times I can suppress it. I am growing stronger."
"Sir," exclaimed the Major, "if you were as strong as a lion you should not marry her. Good day."
Slowly and heavily the Major walked out upon the veranda. He stood upon the steps leading down into the yard, and he saw Louise afar off standing upon the river's yellow edge. She had thrown her hat upon the sand, and she stood with her hands clasped upon her brown head. A wind blew down the stream, and the water lapped at her feet. The Major looked back into the library, at the door wherein Pennington had stood, and sighed with relief upon finding that he was gone. He looked back toward the river. The girl was walking along the shore, meditatively swinging her hat. He stepped to the corner of the house, and, gazing down the road, saw Pennington on a horse, now sitting straight, now bending low over the horn of the saddle. The old gentleman had a habit of making a sideward motion with his hand as if he would put all unpleasant thoughts behind him, and now he made the motion not only once, but many times. And it seemed that his thoughts would not obey him, for he became more imperative in his pantomimic demand.
At one corner of the large yard, where the smooth ground broke off into a steep slope to the river, there stood a small office built of brick. It was the Major's executive chamber, and thither he directed his steps. Inside this place his laugh was never heard; at the door his smile always faded. In this commercial sanctuary were enforced the exactions that made the plantation thrive. Outside, in the yard, in the "big house," elsewhere under the sky, a plea of distress might moisten his eyes and soften his heart to his own financial disadvantage, but under the moss-grown shingles of the office all was business, hard, uncompromising. It was told in the neighborhood that once, in this inquisition of affairs, he demanded the last cent possessed by a widowed woman, but that, while she was on her way home, he overtook her, graciously returned the money and magnanimously tore to pieces a mortgage that he held against her small estate.
Just as he entered the office there came across the yard a loud and impatient voice. "Here, Bill, confound you, come and take this horse. Don't you hear me, you idiot? You infernal niggers are getting to be so no-account that the last one of you ought to be driven off the place. Trot, confound you. Here, take this horse to the stable and feed him. Where is the Major? In the office? The devil he is."
Toward the office slowly strode old Gideon Batts, fanning himself with his white slouch hat. He was short, fat, and bald; he was bowlegged with a comical squat; his eyes stuck out like the eyes of a swamp frog; his nose was enormous, shapeless, and red. To the Major's family he traced the dimmest line of kinship. During twenty years he had operated a small plantation that belonged to the Major, and he was always at least six years behind with his rent. He had married the widow Martin, and afterward swore that he had been disgracefully deceived by her, that he had expected much but had found her moneyless; and after this he had but small faith in woman. His wife died and he went into contented mourning, and out of gratitude to his satisfied melancholy, swore that he would pay his rent, but failed. Upon the Major he held a strong hold, and this was a puzzle to the neighbors. Their characters stood at fantastic and whimsical variance; one never in debt, the other never out of debt; one clamped by honor, the other feeling not its restraining pinch. But together they would ride abroad, laughing along the road. To Mrs. Cranceford old Gid was a pest. With the shrewd digs of a woman, the blood-letting side stabs of her sex, she had often shown her disapproval of the strong favor in which the Major held him; she vowed that her husband had gathered many an oath from Gid's swollen store of execration (when, in truth, Gid had been an apt pupil under the Major), and she had hoped that the Major's attachment to the church would of necessity free him from the humiliating association with the old sinner, but it did not, for they continued to ride abroad, laughing along the road.
Like a skittish horse old Gid shied at the office door. Once he had crossed that threshold and it had cost him a crop of cotton.
"How are you, John?" was Gid's salutation as he edged off, still fanning himself.
"How are you, sir?" was the Major's stiff recognition of the fact that Gid was on earth.
"Getting hotter, I believe, John."
"I presume it is, sir." The Major sat with his elbow resting on a desk, and about him were stacked threatening bundles of papers; and old Gid knew that in those commercial romances he himself was a familiar character.
"Are you busy, John?"
"Yes, but you may come in."
"No, I thank you. Don't believe I've got time."
"Then take time. I want to talk to you. Come in."
"No, not to-day, John. Fact is I'm not feeling very well. Head's all stopped up with a cold, and these summer colds are awful, I tell you. It was a summer cold that took my father off."
"How's your cotton in that low strip along the bayou?"
"Tolerable, John; tolerable."
"Come in. I want to talk to you about it."
"Don't believe I can stand the air in there, John. Head all stopped up. Don't believe I'm going to live very long."
"Nonsense. You are as strong as a buck."
"You may think so, John, but I'm not. I thought father was strong, too, but a summer cold got him. I am getting along in years, John, and I find that I have to take care of myself. But if you really want to talk to me about that piece of cotton, come out under the trees where it's cool."
The Major shoved back his papers and arose, but hesitated; and Gid stood looking on, fanning himself. The Major stepped out and Gid's face was split asunder with a broad smile.
"I gad. I've been up town and had a set-to with old Baucum and the rest of them. Pulled up fifty winner at poker and jumped. Devilish glad to see you; miss you every minute of the time I'm away. Let's go over there and sit down on that bench."
They walked toward a bench under a live-oak tree, and upon Gid's shoulder the Major's hand affectionately rested. They halted to laugh, and old Gid shoved the Major away from him, then seized him and drew him back. They sat down, still laughing, but suddenly the Major became serious.
"Gid, I'm in trouble," he said.
"Nonsense, my boy, there is no such thing as trouble. Throw it off. Look at me. I've had enough of what the world calls trouble to kill a dozen ordinary men, but just look at me—getting stronger every day. Throw it off. What is it, anyway?"
"Louise declares that she is going to marry Pennington!"
"What!" old Gid exclaimed, turning with a bouncing flounce and looking straight at the Major. "Marry Pennington! Why, she shan't, John. That's all there is of it. We object and that settles it. Why, what the deuce can she be thinking about?"
"Thinking about him," the Major answered.
"Yes, but she must quit it. Why, it's outrageous for as sensible a girl as she is to think of marrying that fellow. You leave it to me; hear what I said? Leave it to me."
This suggested shift of responsibility did not remove the shadow of sadness that had fallen across the Major's countenance.
"You leave it to me and I'll give her a talk she'll not forget. I'll make her understand that she's a queen, and a woman is pretty devilish skittish about marrying anybody when you convince her that she's a queen. What does your wife say about it?"
"She hasn't said anything. She's out visiting and I haven't seen her since Louise told me of her determination to marry him."
"Don't say determination, John. Say foolish notion. But it's all right."
"No, it's not all right."
"What, have you failed to trust me? Is it possible that you have lost faith in me? Don't do that, John, for if you do it will be a never failing source of regret. You don't seem to remember what my powers of persuasion have accomplished in the past. When I was in the legislature, chairman of the Committee on County and County Lines, what did my protest do? It kept them from cutting off a ten-foot strip of this county and adding it to Jefferson. You must remember those things, John, for in the factors of persuasion lie the shaping of human life. I've been riding in the hot sun and I think that a mint julep would hit me now just about where I live. Say, there, Bill, bring us some mint, sugar and whisky. And cold water, mind you. Oh, everything will come out all right. By the way, do you remember that Catholic priest that came here with a letter of introduction to you?"
"Yes, his name is Brennon."
"Yes, that's it. But how did he happen to bring a letter to you?"
"He came from Maryland with a letter given him by a relative of mine."
"Yes, and he has gone to work, I tell you. Do you know what he's doing? Reaching out quietly and gathering the negroes into his church. And there are some pretty wise men behind him. They didn't send an Irishman or a Dutchman or an Italian, but an American from an old family. He's already got three negroes on my place, and Perdue tells me that he's nipping one now and then over his way. There's a scheme in it, John."
"There is a scheme in all human affairs, and consequently in all church movements," the Major replied, and the impulse of a disquisition straightened him into a posture more dignified, for he was fond of talking and at times he strove to be logical and impressive; but at this moment Bill arrived with mint from the spring; and with lighter talk two juleps were made.
"Ah," said old Gideon, sipping his scented drink, "virtue may become wearisome, and we may gape during the most fervent prayer, but I gad, John, there is always the freshness of youth in a mint julep. Pour just a few more drops of liquor into mine, if you please—want it to rassle me a trifle, you know. Recollect those come-all ye songs we used to sing, going down the river? Remember the time I snatched the sword out of my cane and lunged at a horse trader from Tennessee? Scoundrel grabbed it and broke it off and it was all I could do to keep him from establishing a close and intimate relationship with me. Great old days, John; and I Gad, they'll never come again."
"I remember it all, Gid, and it was along there that you fell in love with a woman that lived at Mortimer's Bend."
"Easy, now, John. A trifle more liquor, if you please. Thank you. Yes, I used to call her the wild plum. Sweet thing, and I had no idea that she was married until her lout of a husband came down to the landing with a double-barrel gun. Ah, Lord, if she had been single and worth money I could have made her very happy. Fate hasn't always been my friend, John."
"Possibly not, Gid, but you know that fate to be just should divide her favors, and this time she leaned toward the woman."
"Slow, John. I Gad, there's your wife."
A carriage drew up at the yard gate and a woman stepped out. She did not go into the house, but seeing the Major, came toward him. She was tall, with large black eyes and very gray hair. In her step was suggested the pride of an old Kentucky family, belles, judges and generals. She smiled at the Major and bowed stiffly at old Gid. The two men arose.
"Thank you, I don't care to sit down," she said. "Where is Louise?"
"I saw her down by the river just now," the Major answered.
"I wish to see her at once," said his wife.
"Shall I go and call her, madam?" Gid asked.
She gave him a look of surprise and answered: "No, I thank you."
"No trouble, I assure you," Gid persisted. "I am pleased to say that age has not affected my voice, except to mellow it with more of reverence when I address the wife of a noble man and the mother of a charming girl."
She had dignity, but humor was never lost upon her, and she smiled. This was encouraging and old Gid proceeded: "I was just telling the Major of my splendid prospects for a bountiful crop this year, and I feel that with this blessing of Providence I shall soon be able to meet all my obligations. I saw our rector, Mr. Mills, this morning, and he spoke of how thankful I ought to be—he had just passed my bayou field—and I told him that I would not only assert my gratitude but would prove it with a substantial donation to the church at the end of the season."
In the glance which she gave him there was refined and gentle contempt; and then she looked down upon the decanter of whisky. Old Gideon drew down the corners of his mouth, as was his wont when he strove to excite compassion.
"Yes," he said with a note of pity forced upon his voice, "I am exceedingly thankful for all the blessings that have come to me, but I haven't been very well of late, rather feeble to-day, and the kind Major, noticing it, insisted upon my taking a little liquor, the medicine of our sturdy and gallant fathers, madam."
The Major sprawled himself back with a roaring laugh, and hereupon Gid added: "It takes the Major a long time to get over a joke. Told him one just now and it tickled him mighty nigh to death. Well, I must be going now, and, madam, if I should chance to see anything of your charming daughter, I will tell her that you desire a conference with her. William," he called, "my horse, if you please."
Mrs. Cranceford had met Pennington in the road, and on his horse, in the shade of a cottonwood tree, he had leaned against the carriage window to tell her of his interview with the Major. He had desperately appealed to the sympathy which one with so gentle a nature must feel for a dying man, and had implored her to intercede with her husband; but with compassionate firmness she had told him that no persuasion could move her husband from the only natural position he could take, and that she herself was forced to oppose the marriage.
The Major, with his hands behind him, was now walking up and down the short stretch of shade. "I don't wonder that the absurdity of it does not strike him," he said, "for he is a drowning sentimentalist, catching at a fantastic straw." He paused in his walk to look at his wife as if he expected to find on her face a commendation of this simile. She nodded, knowing what to do, and the Major continued, resuming his walk: "I say that I can't blame him so much, but Louise ought to have better sense. I'll swear I don't know where she gets her stubbornness. Oh, but there is no use worrying ourselves with a discussion of it. You may talk to her, but I have had my say."
Louise, meanwhile, was strolling along a shaded lane that led from the ferry. Iron weeds grew in the corners of the fence, and in one hand she carried a bunch of purple blooms; with the other hand she slowly swung her hat, holding the strings. A flock of sheep came pattering down the road. With her hat she struck at the leader, a stubborn dictator demanding the whole of the highway. His flock scampered off in a fright, leaving him doggedly eyeing the disputer of his progress. But now she was frightened, with such fierceness did the old ram lower his head and gaze at her, and she cried out, "Go on back, you good-for-nothing thing."
"He won't hurt you," a voice cried in the woods, just beyond the fence. "Walk right up to him."
An enormous young fellow came up to the fence and with climbing over broke the top rail. "Don't you see he's scared?"
"But he would have knocked me over if you hadn't come."
"No, he wouldn't; he was just trying to make friends with you."
"But I don't want such a friend."
Together they slowly walked along. With tenderness in his eyes he looked down upon her, and when he spoke, which he did from time to time, his voice was deep and heavy but with a mellowness in it. She addressed him as Mr. Taylor and asked him if he had been away. And he said that he had, but that was not a sufficient reason for the formality of Mister—his name was Jim. She looked up at him—and her eyes were so blue that they looked black—and admitted that his name had been Jim but that now it must be Mr. Taylor. She laughed at this but his face was serious.
"Why, I haven't called you Jim since——"
"Since I asked you to marry me."
"No, not since then. And now you know it wouldn't be right to call you Jim."
In his slowness of speech he floundered about, treading down the briars that grew along the edge of the road, walking with heavy tread but tenderly looking down upon her. "That ought not to make any difference," he said. "I knew you before you—before you knew anything, and now it doesn't sound right to hear you call me anything but Jim. It is true that the last time I saw you—seems a long time, but it wasn't more than a week ago—you said that you wouldn't marry me, and really the time seems so long that I didn't know but you might have changed your mind."
"No, not yet," she replied.
"But you might."
"No, I couldn't."
"Is it as bad as that?"
"It's worse; it would be impossible for me to change."
"I don't suppose you know why?"
"Yes, I do. I am going to be married."
"What!" He stopped, expecting her to obey his own prompting and halt also, but she walked on. With long strides he overtook her, passed her, stood in front of her. She stepped aside and passed on. But again he overtook her, but this time he did not seek to detain her.
"I can't believe it," he said, stripping the leaves from the thorn bushes and briars that came within touch of his swinging hand. "I don't believe that you would marry a man unless you loved him and who—who——"
"Somebody," she said.
"Please don't tantalize me in this way. Tell me all about it."
"You know Mr. Pennington——"
"Who, that poor fellow!" he cried. "You surely don't think of marrying him. Louise, don't joke with me. Why, he can't live more than three months."
Now she halted and there was anger in her eyes as she looked at him, and resentful rebuke was in her voice when she spoke. "And you, too, fix the length of time he is to live. Why do you all agree to give him three months? Is that all the time you are willing to allow him?"
He stepped back from her and stood fumbling with his great hands. "I didn't know that any one else had given him three months," he replied. "I based my estimate merely on my recollection of how he looked the last time I saw him. I am willing to allow him all the time he wants and far more than Nature seems willing to grant."
"No, you are not. You all want him to die."
"Don't say that, Louise. You know that I ain't that mean. But I acknowledge that I don't want you to marry him."
"What need you care? If I refuse to marry you what difference does it make to you whom I marry?"
"It makes this difference—that I would rather see you the wife of a man that can take care of you. Louise, they say that I'm slow about everything, and I reckon I am, but when a slow man loves he loves for all time."
"I don't believe it; don't believe that any man loves for all time."
"Louise, to hear you talk one might think that you have been grossly deceived, but I know you haven't, and that is what forces me to say that I don't understand you."
"You don't have to understand me. Nobody has asked you to."
She walked on and he strode beside her, stripping the leaves off the shrubs, looking down at her, worshipping her; and she, frail and whimsical, received with unconcern the giant's adoration.
"I told the Major that I loved you—"
"Told him before you did me, didn't you?" she broke in, glancing up at him.
"No, but on the same day. I knew he was my friend, and I didn't know but—"
"That he would order me to marry you?"
"No, not that, but I thought he might reason with you."
"That's just like a stupid man. He thinks that he can win a woman with reason."
He pondered a long time, seeming to feel that this bit of observation merited well-considered reply, and at last he said: "No, I didn't think that a woman could be won by something she didn't understand."
"Oh, you didn't. That was brilliant of you. But let us not spat with each other, Jim."
"I couldn't spat with you, Louise; I think too much of you for that, and I want to say right now that no matter if you do marry I'm going to keep on loving you just the same. I have loved you so long now that I don't know how to quit. People say that I am industrious, and they compliment me for keeping up my place so well, and for not going to town and loafing about of a Sunday and at night, but the truth is there ain't a dog in this county that's lazier than I am. During all these years my mind has been on you so strong that I have been driven to work."
She had thrown down her iron weed blossoms and had put her hands to her ears to shut out his words as if they were a reproach to her, but she heard him and thus replied: "It appears that I have been of some service at any rate."
"Yes, but now you are going to undo it all."
"I thought you said you were going to keep on loving me just the same."
"What! Do you want me to?" There was eagerness in his voice, and with hope tingling in his blood he remembered that a few moments before she had called him Jim. "Do you want me to?"
"I want you always to be my friend."
Under these words he drooped and there was no eagerness in his voice when he replied: "Friendship between a great big man and a little bit of a woman is nonsense. They must love or be nothing to each other."
They had now reached the road that led past the Major's house. She turned toward home. "Wait a moment," he said, halting. She stopped and looked back at him. "Did you hear what I said?"
"Hear what I said about a big man and a little woman?"
"No, what did you say?"
He fumbled with his hands and replied: "No matter what I said then. What I say now is good-bye."
She tripped along as if she were glad to be rid of him, but after a time she walked slower as if she were deeply musing. She heard the brisk trotting of a horse, and, looking up, recognized Gideon Batts, jogging toward her. He saw her, and, halting in the shade, he waited for her to come up, and as she drew near he cried out, "Helloa, young rabbit."
She wrinkled her Greek nose at him, but she liked his banter, and with assumed offense she replied: "Frog."
"None of that, my lady."
"Well, then, what made you call me a young rabbit?"
"Because your ears stick out."
"I don't care if they do."
"Neither does a young rabbit."
"I call you a frog because your eyes stick out and because you are so puffy."
"Slow, now, my lady, queen of the sunk lands. Oh, but they are laying for you at home and you are going to catch it. I'd hate to be in your fix."
"And I wouldn't be in yours."
"Easy, now. You allude to my looks, eh? Why, I have broken more than one heart."
"Why, I didn't know you had been married but once."
He winced. "Look here, you mustn't talk that way."
"But you began it. You called me a young rabbit."
"That's right, and now we will call it off. What a memory you've got. I gad, once joke with a woman and her impudence—which she mistakes for wit—leaps over all difference in ages. But they are laying for you at home and you are going to catch it. I laughed at them; told them it was nonsense to suppose that the smartest girl in the state was going to marry—"
"You've said enough. I don't need your championship."
"But you've got it and can't help yourself. Why, so far as brains are concerned, the average legislator can't hold a candle to you."
"That's no compliment."
"Slow. I was in the legislature."
"Yes, one term, I hear."
"Why did you hear one term?"
"Because they didn't send you back, I suppose."
"Easy. But I tell you that the Major and your mother are furious. Your mother said—"
"She said very little in your presence."
"Careful. She said a great deal. But I infer from your insinuation that she doesn't think very well of me."
"You ought to know."
"I do; I know that she is wrong in her estimate of me. And I also know that I am right in my estimate of her. She is the soul of gentleness and quiet dignity. But you like me, don't you?"
"I am ashamed to say that I like you in spite of my judgment."
"Easy. That's good, I must say. Ah, the influence I have upon people is somewhat varied. Upon a certain type of woman, the dignified lady of a passing generation, I exercise no particular influence, but I catch the over-bright young women in spite of themselves. The reason you think so much of me is because you are the brightest young woman I ever saw. And this puts me at a loss to understand why you are determined to marry that fellow Pennington. Wait a moment. I gad, if you go I'll ride along with you. Answer me one question: Is your love for him so great that you'll die if you don't marry him? Or is it that out of a perversity that you can't understand you are determined to throw away a life that could be made most useful? Louise, we have joked with each other ever since you were a child. In my waddling way I have romped with you, and I can scarcely realize that you are nearly twenty-four years old. Think of it, well advanced toward the age of discretion, and yet you are about to give yourself to a dying man. I don't know what to say."
"It seems not," she replied. And after a moment's pause she added: "If I am so well advanced toward the age of discretion I should be permitted to marry without the advice of an entire neighborhood."
She was now standing in the sun, looking up at him, her half-closed eyes glinting like blue-tempered steel.
"Is marriage wholly a matter of selfishness?" she asked.
"Slow. If you are putting that to me as a direct question I am, as a man who never shies at the truth, compelled to say that it is. But let me ask you if it is simply a matter of accommodation? If it is, why not send out a collection of handsome girls to marry an aggregation of cripples?"
Her eyes were wide open now and she was laughing. "No one could be serious with you, Mr. Gid."
"And no one could make you serious with yourself."
She put her hands to her ears. "I would rather be a young rabbit than a frog."
"Wait a moment," he called as she turned away.
"When you go home I wish you'd tell your mother that I talked to you seriously concerning the foolishness of your contemplated marriage. Will you do that much for your old playmate?"
She made a face at him and trippingly hastened away. He looked after her, shook his head, gathered up his bridle reins, and jogged off toward his home.
At home Louise made known her arrival by singing along the hallway that led to her room. She knew that not a very pleasant reception awaited her, and she was resolved to meet it with the appearance of careless gayety. She entered her room, drew back the curtains to admit the light, deftly touched her hair at the mirror, and sat down in a rocking chair. She took up a book, an American fad built upon a London failure, and was aimlessly turning the leaves when she heard her mother's voice.
"Are you in there, Louise?"
In the mother's appearance there was no suggestion of a stored rebuke; her gray hair, faultlessly parted, was smoothed upon her brow, her countenance bespoke calmness, and her sad eyes were full of tender love.
"Oh, you look so cool and sweet," said the girl. "Have this chair."
"No, thank you, I prefer to sit here."
She sat upon a straight-back chair. In her "day" only grandmothers were supposed to sit in rockers; younger women were thought to preserve their health and their grace of form by sitting with rigid dignity upon chairs which might now be exhibited as relics of household barbarism.
"Did you have a pleasant visit?" the girl asked.
"Yes, very; but it was so warm over there under the hills that I was glad when the time came to leave."
"Does that Englishman still live alone on the Jasper place?"
"Yes, with his straight pipe and Scotch whisky. Perdue says that he appears to be perfectly contented there all alone."
"Have they found out anything about him?"
"No, only what he has been pleased to tell, and that isn't much. It seems that he is the younger son of a good family strayed off from home to better his condition."
"But why should he try to raise cotton when they say there is so little money in it, and especially when it requires experience? And the climate must be trying on him?"
"No, he says that the climate agrees with him. He has lived in India. He is reading American history and is much taken with the part the South has borne, so I learned from Mr. Perdue. He did not expect to find so little prejudice against foreigners. I could have told him that, in the South, an Englishman is scarcely looked upon as a foreigner—that is, among the best people."
They talked about many things that concerned them but little, of a new steamboat that had just entered upon the commerce of the lower river, of a cotton gin that was burned the night before, of the Catholic priest who had come to gather the negroes into his church; and surely they were far from a mention of Pennington. But suddenly Louise moved with uneasiness, for she had caught something that had not been said, that had not been looked, and, springing to her feet, she almost threw herself upon her mother, and with her arms about her, she cried: "Please don't say a word; please don't. I can argue with father, but I can't argue with you, for you take everything so to heart and suffer so much. Please don't speak anybody's name—don't say that father has said anything to you about anybody. You mustn't cry, either. Leave it all to me, and if I was born to wring your dear heart—there, let us hush."
She straightened up, putting the hair out of her eyes, and the silent and stately woman sat there with the tears rolling down her face. "Please don't, mother. You'll make me think I'm the meanest creature in the world. And I don't know but that I am, but I can't help it. Just call me unnatural, as you have done so many times, and let it all go. There, just listen at father walking up and down the porch; and I know he's mad at me."
"No, my child, he is not angry; he is hurt."
"Please don't say that. I don't want to hurt him. I would rather make him mad than to hurt him. Oh, I don't know what ails me, I am so restless and unhappy. I have tried every way to cure myself, but can't—I have read and read until I haven't any sense, and now I don't know what to do. But don't you tell me what not to do; don't say anything, but be your own sweet self."
She took up a brush from the dresser, touched her mother's hair, and said: "Let me, please." She loosened the thick coil. "Beautiful," she said. "Don't you know how I used to tease you to let me comb it, a long time ago? But it wasn't as pretty then as it is now."
Through her fingers the white hair streamed, glinting in the light now sobered by the falling of dusk.
The Major's step was heard at the door. "Come in, father. See, I am at my old employment." And in their faces and in the hair streaming through his daughter's fingers the old man read that all was well. He stood smiling at them. Out in the yard the fox-hounds began to yelp, and a galloping horse stopped with a loud, jolting "gluck" at the gate. Then came authoritative commands, and then a jar as if some one had leaped upon the porch. There was brisk walking, the opening and slamming of doors, and then at Louise's door a voice demanded: "What are you all doing here in the dark? Ain't supper ready? I'm as hungry as a she bear."
The Major's son Tom had arrived. And just at that moment, and before any one replied to him, the supper bell began to ring. "Takes me to bring things about, eh? You people might have waited here hungry for an hour. What are you doing here, anyway? Lou brushing mam's hair and pap looking on like a boy at a show."
"Thomas," said his mother, "I wish you wouldn't be so rough. There, daughter, that will do. Just coil it. That's it; thank you. Major, I do wish you wouldn't laugh at the brusqueness of your son; you encourage him."
Tom took his mother by the shoulders and turned her face toward the door. He was a clean-looking, blondish fellow, younger than his sister—an athlete, a boxer, with far more restlessness of muscle than absorption of mind. He had failed at Harvard, where his great-grandfather had distinguished himself; he had, with the influence of a Congressman, secured a West Point cadetship, and there had fallen under the rapid fire of a battery of mathematics, and had come home scouting at the humiliation which he had put upon his parents, and was now ready to submit himself to any other test that might present itself—was ready to borrow, to lend, or to fight. He picked negro tunes on a banjo, and had been heard hoarsely to sing a love song under a cypress tree. He had now just returned from the capital of the state, where he had spent two days watching the flank movements of a military drill.
"You people seem to be mighty solemn," was Tom's observation as they sat down to supper, glancing from one to another, and finally directing a questioning look at his father. "What's the trouble? What's happened? Is it possible that old Gideon has paid his rent?"
Louise laughed, a wrinkle crept across Mrs. Cranceford's brow and the Major sprawled back with a loud "haw." Gid's rent was a standing joke; and nothing is more sacredly entitled to instant recognition than a joke that for years has been established in a Southern household.
"I notice that he never goes into the Major's office," Mrs. Cranceford remarked; and Tom quickly replied: "And I don't blame him for that. I went in there about a month ago and haven't had a dollar since."
The Major did not laugh at this. The reputed exaction of his executive chamber was a sore spot to him. "How you robbers, young and old, would like to fleece me," he said. "And if I didn't turn to defensive stone once in a while you'd pull out my eye teeth."
"Don't see how anybody could get hold of your eye teeth, dad," Tom replied. "You are always busy cutting them when I come round. Oh, by the way," he added with sudden seriousness, "you remember that fellow Mayo, the one that ran for County Clerk down here some time ago?"
"The scoundrel who swore he was elected?"
"That's the man. He disappeared, you know, after his trouble down here, then he went on from one community to another, a Democrat one season and a Republican the next, and now he has returned as a labor leader. I met him yesterday in Little Rock, and I never have seen a more insolent ruffian. He makes no secret of his plans, and he says that blood is bound to flow. I asked him if he had any to spare, and he cocked his eye at me and replied that he didn't know but he had."
The Major was silent, abstractedly balancing his knife on the rim of his plate. Mayo, an adventurer, a scoundrel with a brutish force that passed for frankness, had at one time almost brought about an uprising among the negroes of Cranceford County, and eager ears in the North, not the ears of the old soldier, but of the politician, shutting out the suggestions of justice, heard only the clamor of a political outrage; and again arose the loud cry that the South had robbed the inoffensive negro of his suffrage. But the story, once so full of alarm, was beginning to be a feeble reminiscence; Northern men with business interests in the South had begun to realize that the white man, though often in the wrong, could sometimes be in the right. But now a problem—graver than the over-thrashed straw of political rights, was about to be presented.
"I was in hopes that somebody had killed that fellow," said the Major, and his wife looked up with gentle reproof. "Don't say that, dear. The Lord will take him in His own good time."
The old gentleman winked at Tom. "I don't know about that," he replied. "I am afraid that the Lord in His management of the universe has forgotten him."
"John, please don't talk that way." When she was very serious she called him John. "When you speak so lightly you make me afraid that your relationship with the church is not very sacred to you."
"It's serious at any rate, Margaret."
"What do you mean by that, John?"
"Why," Tom cried, "it means that you dragged him into the pow-wow."
"Thomas"—and this time her reproof was not very gentle—"I won't stand that from you. And daughter," she added, speaking to Louise, "it is not a laughing matter. It all comes from so close an association with that good-for-nothing old Gideon. I know it does, and you needn't say a word. Nothing is sacred to him; he has no respect for God and cares nothing for man except to the extent that he can use him."
The Major strove to wink at Tom, but there was a hitch in his eye. "My dear, you don't understand the old fellow," said he. "And therefore you misjudge him. I know that he is weak, but I also know that he is strong, and he is quite as necessary to me as I am to him. He rests me, and rest is as essential as work. Sometimes the perfect gentleman is a bore; sometimes the perfect lady is tiresome. In man there is a sort of innocent evil, a liking for the half depraved and an occasional feeding of this appetite heightens his respect for the truly virtuous."
"I don't believe it, John."
"Of course you don't. You are the truly virtuous, and—" he spread himself back with a loud "haw," and sat there shaking under her cool gaze. "There, Margaret," he said, wiping his eyes, "don't take it to heart. I am doing the best I can and that is all the excuse I have to offer. I'm getting old; do you realize that? The things that used to amuse me are flat now and I can't afford to kill an amusement when one does happen to come along. Don't you worry about Gid. Why, Margaret, he has stood by me when other men turned their backs. The river was dangerous during my day, and the pop of a pistol was as natural as the bark of a dog. But old Gid was there by me."
"Oh, I don't doubt that he has some good qualities," she admitted. "But why doesn't he mend his ways?"
"Oh, he hasn't time for that, Margaret. He's too busy with other matters. There, now, we won't talk about him. But I promise you, my dear, that he shall not unduly influence me. I don't exactly know what I mean by that, either. I mean that you need have no fear of my permitting him to weaken my respect for the church. Yes, I think that's about what I mean. But the fact is he has never tried to do that. But what's the use of this talk. I can sum up the whole situation by reminding you that I am the master. There, now, don't sigh—don't look so worried."
"But, John, it grieves me to hear you say that you need him."
"Had to step back to pick that up, didn't you? Tom, after you're married you'll find that your wife will look with coldness or contempt upon your most intimate friend. It's the absurdest jealousy in woman's nature."
"Thomas," said his mother, "you will find nothing of the sort; but I'll tell you what you may expect from the right sort of a wife—contempt for a coarse, low-bred fellow, should you insist upon holding him as your closest companion."
"Mother," Louise spoke up, "I think you are too severe. Mr. Batts is hemmed in with faults, but he has many good points. And I can understand why he is necessary to father. I am fond of him, and I am almost ready to declare that at times he is almost necessary to me. No, I won't make it as strong as that, but I must say that at times it is a keen pleasure to jower with him."
"To do what?" Mrs. Cranceford asked. "Jower with him? Where did you get that word?"
"It's one of his, picked up from among the negroes, I think, and it means more than dispute or wrangle. We jower at times—quarrel a little more than half in earnest."
"Well," said the mother, "perhaps I ought not to say anything, but I can't help it when I am so often hurt by that man's influence. Why, last Sunday afternoon your father left the rector sitting here and went away with that old sinner, and we heard them haw-hawing over in the woods. But I won't say any more."
"You never do, Margaret," the Major replied, winking at Louise. "But let us drop him. So you saw Mayo, eh?" he added, turning to Tom.
"Yes, sir, and I understand that he is coming back down here to prove to the negroes that we are cheating them out of their earnings."
The Major tossed a cigar to Tom, lighted one, and had begun to talk with a rhetorical and sententious balancing of periods—which, to his mind, full of the oratory of Prentiss, was the essence of impressiveness—when a negro woman entered the room. And hereupon he changed the subject.
When bedtime came the old gentleman stood on a rug in front of a large fire-place, meditatively winding his watch. His wife sat on a straight-back chair, glancing over the harmless advertisements in a religious newspaper. In the parlor they had spent an agreeable evening, with music and with never an allusion to an unpleasant subject, but there was something finer than an allusion, and it had passed from husband to wife and back again—a look at each other and a glance toward Louise. But they had laughed at the girl's imitation of a cakewalk, and yet in the minds of the father and the mother was the low echo of a hollow cough. Affectionately she had kissed them good night, and had started off down the hall in mimicry of a negro belle's walk, but they had heard her door shut with a quick slam as if she were at last impelled to be truthful with herself, to close herself in with her own meditations.
The Major hung his watch on a nail above the mantel-piece. From a far-off nook of the sprawling old house came the pling-plang of the boy's banjo.
"What did you say to her?"
She began to fold the newspaper. "I didn't say anything. She wouldn't permit me."
"What do you think?"
"That she will do as she pleases."
"Consoling, by the—consoling, I must say. But I tell you she won't. I will shame her out of it."
The top of the cotton stalk glimmered with a purple bloom, but down between the rows, among the dying leaves, the first bolls were opening. The air was still hot, for at noontime the glare in the sandy road was fierce, but the evening was cool, and from out in the gleaming dew came a sweetly, lonesome chirrup, an alarm in the grass, the picket of the insect army, crying the approach of frost. In the atmosphere was felt the influence of a reviving activity; new cotton pens were built along the borders of the fields, and the sounds of hammer and saw were heard in the neighborhood of the gin-house. With the dusk of Saturday evening "new" negroes came. In the city they had idled the summer away, gambling, and had now come with nimble fingers to pick cotton during the day and with tricky hands to throw dice at night. Gaunt, long-legged birds flew from the North and awkwardly capered on a sand-bar. Afar off there appeared to hover over the landscape a pall of thin, pale smoke; but, like the end of the rainbow, it stole back from closer view, was always afar off, lying low to the earth. The autumn rains had not yet set in, and the water in the bayou was low and yellow. The summer grapes were ripe, and in the cool, shaded coves at the base of the hills the muscadine was growing purple. The mules, so over-worked during plow-time, now stumbled down the lane, biting at one another. The stiffening wind, fore-whistle of the season's change of tune, was shrill amid the rushes at the edge of the swamp.
It was a time to work, but also to muse and dream while working. In the air was something that invited, almost demanded reverie. Upon the fields there might lie many a mortgage, but who at such a time could worry over the harsh exactions of debt?
Nearly three weeks had passed, and not again in the Major's household had Pennington's name been mentioned. But once, alone with his wife, the Major was leading up to it when she held up her hands and besought him to stop. "I can't bear to think of it," she said. "It stuns and stupefies me. But it is of no use to say anything to her. She is of age and she is head-strong."
There was a dry rasp in the Major's throat. "Don't you think that to say she is a crank would be hitting nearer the mark?"
"No, I don't," his wife answered. "She is not a crank. She is a remarkably bright woman."
"Yes, she shows it. When a man does a fool thing he is weak, off, as they say; but when a woman jumps out of the enclosure of common sense we must say that she is bright."
"I thought you were going to shame her out of it?"
"I will, but she hasn't given me a chance. But we'll let it go. I believe she has repented of her folly and is too much humiliated to make a confession."
His wife smiled sadly. "Don't you think so?" he asked.
"No, I don't."
"Well, I must say that you are very calm over the situation."
"Didn't I tell you that I was stunned and stupefied by it?"
"Yes, that's all right, and there's no use in worrying with it. Common sense says that when you can't help a thing the best plan is to let it go until a new phase is presented."
And so they ceased to discuss the subject, but like a heavy weight it lay upon them, and under it they may have sighed their worry, but they spoke it not. From Tom this sentimental flurry had remained securely hidden. Sometimes the grave tone of his father's words, overheard at night, and his mother's distressful air, during the day, struck him with a vague apprehension, but his mind was not keen enough to cut into the cause of what he might have supposed to be a trouble; and so, he gave it none of his time, so taken up with his banjo, his dogs, his sporting newspaper, and his own sly love affair. In Louise's manner no change was observed.
One afternoon the Major, old Gid, and an Englishman named Anthony Low were sitting on the porch overlooking the river when the Catholic priest from Maryland, Father Brennon, stopped to get a drink of water. And he was slowly making his way across the yard to the well when the Major called him, urging him to come upon the porch and rest himself. "Wait," the Major added, "and I'll have some water drawn for you."
"I thank you," the priest replied, bowing, "but I prefer to draw it." When he had drunk out of the bucket, he took a seat on the porch. He was a man of middle age, grave, and sturdy. His eyes were thoughtful and his smile was benevolent; his brow was high and broad, his nose large and strong, and a determined conviction seemed to have molded the shape of his mouth. His speech was slow, resonant, dignified; his accent of common words was Southern, but in some of his phrases was a slight burr, the subdued echo of a foreign tongue.
The Englishman was a stocky young fellow, with light hair and reddish side whiskers, a man of the world, doggedly careful in his use of superlatives, but with a habit of saying, "most extraordinary." He had rented an old plantation and lived alone in a dilapidated log house, with his briar pipe, Scotch whisky, sole leather hatbox, and tin bathtub. He had thought that it would be a sort of lark to grow a crop of cotton, and had hired three sets of negroes, discharging them in turn upon finding that they laughed at his ways and took advantage of his inexperience. He had made his first appearance by calling one morning at the Major's house and asking to be shown about the place. The Major gladly consented to do this, and together they set out on horseback.
The planter knew much of English hospitality, gathered from old romances, and now was come the time to show a Britain what an American gentleman could do. They rode down a lane, crossed a small field, and halted under a tree; and there was a negro with whisky, mint and sugar. They crossed a bayou, passed the "quarters," turned into the woods; and there was another negro with whisky, mint and sugar. They rode across a large field, and went through a gate, came to a spring; and there waiting for them was a negro with liquor for a julep. They turned into the "big" road, trotted along until they came to another spring, at least three miles from the starting point; and there was a negro with whisky, sugar and mint. But the Englishman's only comment was, "Ah, most extraordinary, how that fellow can keep ahead of us, you know."
Several months had elapsed, and the Major had called on Mr. Low, had shouted at the yard-gate, had supposed that no one was at home, had stalked into the wide open house and there had found the Englishman sitting in his bathtub, reading Huxley. And to-day Mr. Low had come to acknowledge the receipt of that visit.
"You are on the verge of your busy season," said the priest.
"Yes," the Major replied, "we begin picking to-morrow."
"A beautiful view across the whitening fields," said the priest.
"You ought to see my bayou field," old Gid spoke up. "It would make you open your eyes—best in the state. Don't you think so, John?"
"Well," the Major answered, "it is as good as any, I suppose."
"I tell you it's the best," Gid insisted. "And as a man of varied experience I ought to know what best is. Know all about cotton. I gad, I can look at a boll and make it open."
"Tell me," said the Englishman, "have you had any trouble with your labor?"
"With the negroes?" Gid asked. "Oh, no; they know what they've got to do and they do it. But let a cog slip and you can have all the trouble you want. I gad, you can't temporize with a negro. He's either your servant or your boss."
"All the trouble you want," said the Englishman. "By Jove, I don't want any. Your servant or your master. Quite remarkable."
"Don't know how remarkable it is, but it's a fact all the same," Gid replied. "You've had trouble, I understand."
"Yes, quite a bit. I've had to drive them off a time or two; the rascals laughed at me. Quite full of fun they were, I assure you. I had thought that they were a solemn race. They are everywhere else except in America."
"It is singular," the Major spoke up, "but it is nevertheless true that the American negro is the only species of the African race that has a sense of humor. There's no humor in the Spanish negro, nor in the English negro, nor in fact in the American negro born north of the Ohio river, but the Southern negro is as full of drollery as a black bear."
"Ah, yes, a little too full of it, I fancy," Mr. Low replied. "I threatened them with the law, but they laughed the more and were really worse in every respect after that."
"With the law!" old Gid snorted. "What the deuce do they care about the law, and what sort of law do you reckon could keep a man from laughing? You ought to threatened them with a snake bone or a rabbit's foot."
"I beg pardon. A snake bone or a rabbit's foot, did you say? I really don't understand."
"Yes, threaten to conjure them. That might have fetched them."
"Ah, I see. Quite extraordinary, I assure you."
The priest began to talk, and with profound attention they turned to him. He sat there with the mystery of the medieval ages about him, with a great and silent authority behind him.
"Have you gentlemen ever considered the religious condition of the negro? Have you not made his religion a joke? Is it not a popular belief that he will shout at his mourners' bench until midnight and steal a chicken before the dawn? He has been taught that religion is purely an emotion and not a matter of duty. He does not know that it means a life of inward humanity and outward obedience. I have come to teach him this, to save him; for in our church lies his only salvation, not alone of his soul, but of his body and of his rights as well as of his soul. I speak boldly, for I am an American, the descendant of American patriots. And I tell you that the Methodist negro and the Baptist negro and the Presbyterian negro are mere local issues; but the Catholic negro is international—he belongs to the great nervous system of Rome; and whenever Rome reaches out and draws him in, he is that moment removed as a turbulent element from politics. Although slavery was long ago abolished, there existed and to some small extent still exists a bond between the white man and the black man of the South—a sort of family tie; but this tie is straining and will soon be broken; a new generation is coming, and the negro and the white man will be two antagonistic forces, holding in common no sunny past—one remembering that his father was a master, the other that his father was a slave. When that time comes, and it is almost at hand, there will be a serious trouble growing out of a second readjustment. The Anglo-Saxon race cannot live on a perfect equality with any other race; it must rule; it demands complete obedience. And the negro will resent this demand, more and more as the old family ties are weakened. He has seen that his support at the North was merely a political sentiment, and must know that it will not sustain him in his efforts against capital, for capital, in the eye of capital, is always just, and labor, while unfortunate, is always wrong. And when the negro realizes this, remembering all his other wrongs, he will become desperate. That is the situation. But is there no way to avert this coming strife? I am here to say that there is. As communicants of the Catholic Church the negroes will not listen to the labor agitator. He will listen to the church, which will advise peace and submission to proper authority."
The priest had not gone far into his discourse before the Major began to walk up and down the porch in front of him, nodding at him each time as he passed. And when the clergyman ceased to speak, the Major, halting and facing him, thus replied: "There may be some truth, sir, in what you have said—there is some little truth in the wildest of speculation—but I should like to ask you why is not a Protestant negro in a Protestant country as safe as a Catholic negro in a Protestant country? You tell me that your religion will protect the negro, and I ask you why it does not protect the laborer in the North? You say that the Protestant negro in the South is a local issue, and I ask you why is not a Catholic laborer in the North an international issue? If the negro of the South, yielding to your persuasion, is to become a part of the great nervous system of Rome, why are not Catholic laborers everywhere a part of that system? I think, sir, that you have shrewdly introduced a special plea. Your church, with its business eyes always wide open, sees a chance to make converts and is taking advantage of it. And I will not say that I will oppose your cause. If the negro thinks that your church is better for him than the Protestant churches have proved themselves to be, why I say let him be taken in. I admit that we are not greatly concerned over the negro's religion. We are satisfied with the fact that he has his churches and that he has always been amply provided with preachers agreeing with him in creed and color of skin. I will concede that his professions of faith are regarded more or less in the light of a joke. But I want to tell you one thing—that the negro's best friends live here in the South. From us he knows exactly what to expect. He knows that he cannot rule us—knows that he must work for a living. The lands belong to the white man and the white man pays the taxes, and the white man would be a fool to permit the negro to manage his affairs. Men who dig in the coal mines of Pennsylvania don't manage the affairs of the company that owns the mines. I cannot question the correctness of one of your views—that the old tie is straining and may soon be broken. The old negroes still regard us with a sort of veneration, but if the younger ones show respect it is out of fear. Into this county a large number of negroes have lately come from Mississippi and South Carolina. They have been brought up on large plantations and have but a limited acquaintance with the white man. Instinctively they hate him. And these newcomers will listen to the voice of the agitator and by their example will lead their brethren into trouble. You are right when you say that the Anglo-Saxon race must rule. It will rule a community as it must eventually rule the civilized world. But I don't see how your church is to be the temporal as well as the spiritual salvation of the negro."
The Major sat down; the priest smiled gravely, showing the shape into which conviction and determination had molded his mouth. "My church is not at all times able to prevent labor troubles in the North," said he, "but it has often prevented the shedding of blood."
"Ah," the Major broke in, "that may be true; and so has the influence of the other churches. But what I want to know is this: How can you protect a negro here more than you protect an Italian in the North?"
"My dear sir, the Italian in the North is protected."
"I grant you, but by the law rather than by the church."
"But is not the church behind the law?" There was a shrewd twinkle in the priest's eyes, and he was about to proceed with his talk when old Gid snorted: "I gad, I hear that the public schools of the North are in the hands of the Catholics, and if that's the case I reckon they've got a pretty good hold on the court house. I understand that they daresn't open a Bible in the public schools of Chicago; and they also tell me that the children there have to learn Dutch. Zounds, ain't that enough to make old Andy Jackson rattle his bones in his grave? I wish I had my way for a few weeks. I'd show the world that this is America. I'd catch low-browed wretches carrying all sorts of spotted and grid-ironed flags through the streets. Dutch! Now, I'd just like to hear a child of mine gabbling Dutch."
The priest addressed himself to the Major: "You ask how we are to protect the negro in the South. I will tell you—by teaching him that except in the Catholic Church he cannot hope to find perfect equality. Our communion knows no color—save red, and that is the blood of Christ. Our religion is the only true democracy, but a democracy which teaches that a man must respect himself before he should expect others to respect him. But, my dear Major, I am not here to convince you, but to convince the negro. He has been buffeted about by political parties, and now it remains for the church to save him. One of these days an act rather than a word may convince you."
Tom had come out upon the porch. For a time he stood, listening, then quickly stepping down into the yard, he gazed toward the dairy house, into which, accompanied by a negro woman, had gone a slim girl, wearing a gingham sun-bonnet. The girl came out, carrying a jug, and hastened toward the yard gate. Tom heard the gate-latch click and then stepped quickly to the corner of the house; and when out of sight he almost ran to overtake the girl. She had reached the road, and she pretended to walk faster when she heard his footsteps. She did not raise her eyes as he came up beside her.
"Let me carry the jug, Sallie."
"No, I can carry it."
"Give it to me."
He took the jug and she looked up at him with a smile.
"How's your uncle, Sallie?"
"He ain't any better."
Her uncle was Wash Sanders. Twenty years had passed since he had first issued a bulletin that he was dying. He had liver trouble and a strong combination of other ailments, but he kept on living. At first the neighbors had confidence in him, and believed that he was about to pass away, but as the weeks were stretched into years, as men who had been strong and hearty were one by one borne to the grave, they began to lose faith in Wash Sanders. All day long he would sit on his shaky verandah, built high off the ground, and in answer to questions concerning his health would answer: "Can't keep up much longer; didn't sleep a wink last night. Don't eat enough to keep a chicken alive." His cows appeared always to be dry, and every day he would send his niece, Sallie Pruitt, for a jug of buttermilk. He had but one industry, the tending and scraping of a long nail on the little finger of his left hand. He had a wife, but no children. His niece had recently come from the pine woods of Georgia. Her hair looked like hackled flax and her eyes were large and gray.
"I didn't think you could see me," said the girl, taking off her bonnet and swinging it as she walked, keeping a sort of time with it.
"Why, you couldn't possibly come and get away without my seeing you."
"Yes, I could if it was night."
"Not much. I could see you in the dark, you are so bright."
"I'm not anything of the sort. Give me the jug and let me go on by myself if you are goin' to make fun of me."
She reached for the jug and he caught her hand, and walking along, held it.
"I wouldn't want to hold anybody's hand that I'd made fun of," she said, striving, though gently, to pull it away.
"I didn't make fun of you. I said you were bright and you are. To me you are the brightest thing in the world. Whenever I dream of you I awake with my eyes dazzled."
"Oh, you don't, no such of a thing."
They saw a wagon coming, and he dropped her hand. He stepped to the right, she to the left, and the wagon passed between them. She looked at him in alarm. "That's bad luck," she said.
"To let anything pass between us."
"Oh, it doesn't make any difference."
"Yes, it does," she insisted. "No, you mustn't take my hand again—you've let something pass between us."
He awkwardly grabbed after her hand. She held it behind her, and about her waist he pressed his arm. "Oh, don't do that. Somebody might see us."
"I don't care if the whole world sees us."
"You say that now, but after awhile you'll care."
"Never as long as I live. You know I love you."
"No, I don't."
"Yes, you do."
"You might say you do, but you don't. But even if you do love me now you won't always."
"Yes, as long as I live."
She looked up at him, and her eyes were full of beauty and tenderness. "Your mother——"
"None of that," he broke in. "I am my own master. To me you are the most beautiful creature in the world, and——"
"Somebody's comin'," she said.
A horseman came round a bend in the road, and he stepped off from her, but they did not permit the horseman to pass between them. He did not put his arm about her again, for now they were within sight of her uncle's desolate house. They saw Wash Sanders sitting on the verandah. Tom carried the jug as far as the yard gate.
"Won't you come in?" Sanders called.
"I ought to be getting back, I guess."
"Might come in and rest awhile."
Tom hesitated a moment and then passed through the gate. The girl had run into the house.
"How are you getting along?" the young man asked as he began slowly to tramp up the steps.
"Porely, mighty porely. Thought I was gone last night—didn't sleep a wink. And I don't eat enough to keep a chicken alive."
"Wouldn't you like a mess of young squirrels?" Tom asked, as he sat down in a hickory rocking chair. Of late he had become interested in Wash Sanders, and had resented the neighbors' loss of confidence in him.
"Well, you might bring 'em if it ain't too much trouble, but I don't believe I could eat 'em. Don't eat enough to keep a chicken alive."
He lifted his pale hand, and with his long finger nail scratched his chin.
"What's the doctor's opinion?" Tom asked, not knowing what else to say and feeling that at that moment some expression was justly demanded of him.
"The doctors don't say anything now; they've given me up. From the first they saw that I was a dead man. Last doctor that gave me medicine was a fellow from over here at Gum Springs, and I wish I may die dead if he didn't come in one of finishin' me right there on the spot."
There came a tap at a window that opened out upon the verandah, and the young fellow, looking around, saw the girl sitting in the "best room." She tried to put on the appearance of having accidentally attracted his attention. He moved his chair closer to the window.
"How did you know I was in here?" she asked, looping back the white curtain.
"I can always tell where you are without looking."
"Are you goin' to make fun of me again?"
"If I could even eat enough to keep a chicken alive I think I'd feel better," said Wash Sanders, looking far off down the road.
"I never did make fun of you," the young fellow declared in a whisper, leaning close to the window. "And I wish you wouldn't keep on saying that I do."
"I won't say it any more if you don't want me to."
"But I can't eat and can't sleep, and that settles it," said Wash Sanders.
"Of course I don't want you to say it. It makes me think that you are looking for an excuse not to like me."
"Would you care very much if I didn't like you?"
"If I had taken another slug of that Gum Springs doctor's stuff I couldn't have lived ten minutes longer," said Wash Sanders.
And thus they talked until the sun was sinking into the tops of the trees, far down below the bend in the river.
At the Major's house the argument was still warm and vigorous. But the evening was come, and the bell-cow, home from her browsing, was ringing for admittance at the barn-yard gate. The priest arose to go. At that moment there was a heavy step at the end of the porch, the slow and ponderous tread of Jim Taylor. He strode in the shadow and in the gathering dusk recognition of him would not have been easy, but by his bulk and height they knew him. But he appeared to have lost a part of his great strength, and he drooped as he walked.
"Where is the Major?" he asked, and his voice was hoarse.
"Here, my boy. Why, what's the trouble?"
"Let me see you a moment," he said, halting.
The Major arose, and the giant, with one stride forward, caught him by the arm and led him away amid the black shadows under the trees. Mrs. Cranceford came out upon the porch and stood looking with cool disapproval upon the priest. At a window she had sat and heard him enunciate his views. Out in the yard Jim Taylor said something in a broken voice, and the Major, madly bellowing, came bounding toward the house.
"Margaret," he cried, "Louise is married!"
The woman started, uttered not a sound, but hastening to meet him, took him by the hand. Jim Taylor came ponderously walking from amid the black shadows. The Englishman and old Gid stole away. The priest stood calmly looking upon the old man and his wife.
"John, come and sit down," she said. "Raving won't do any good. We must be seemly, whatever we are." She felt the eye of the priest. "Who told you, Mr. Taylor?"