E-text prepared by Al Haines
American Authors' Series, No. 17.
M. G. McCLELLAND
Author of "Oblivion," "Jean Monteith," "Eleanor Gwynn," Etc.
New York: United States Book Company Successors to John W. Lovell Company 150 Worth St., Cor Mission Place Copyright, 1886, by Henry Holt & Co.
With love and admiration,
I dedicate this book to the memory of my friend,
THOMAS ALEXANDER SEDDON.
When the idea of a removal to Virginia was first mooted in the family of General Percival Smith, ex-Brigadier in the United States service, it was received with consternation and a perfect storm of disapproval. The young ladies, Norma and Blanche, rose as one woman—loud in denunciation, vehement in protest—fell upon the scheme, and verbally sought to annihilate it. The country! A farm!! The South!!! The idea was untenable, monstrous. Before their outraged vision floated pictures whereof the foreground was hideous with cows, and snakes, and beetles; the middle distance lurid with discomfort, corn-bread, and tri-weekly mails; the background lowering with solitude, ennui, and colored servants.
Rusticity, nature, sylvan solitudes, and all that, were exquisite bound in Russia, with gold lettering and tinted leaves; wonderfully alluring viewed at leisure with the gallery to one's self, and the light at the proper angle, charmingly attractive behind the footlights, but in reality!—to the feeling of these young ladies it could be best appreciated by those who had been born to it. In their opinion, they, themselves, had been born to something vastly superior, so they rebelled and made themselves disagreeable; hoping to mitigate the gloom of the future by intensifying that of the present.
Their mother, whose heart yearned over her offspring, essayed to comfort them, casting daily and hourly the bread of suggestion and anticipation on the unthankful waters, whence it invariably returned to her sodden with repinings. The young ladies set their grievances up on high and bowed the knee; they were not going to be comforted, nor pleased, nor hopeful, not they. The scheme was abominable, and no aspect in which it could be presented rendered its abomination less; they were hopeless, and helpless, and oppressed, and there was the end of it.
Poor Mrs. Smith wished it might be the end, or anywhere near the end; for the soul within her was "vexed with strife and broken in pieces with words." The general could—and did—escape the rhetorical consequences of his unpopular measure, but his wife could not: no club afforded her its welcome refuge, no "down town" offered her sanctuary. She was obliged to stay at home and endure it all. Norma's sulks, Blanche's tears, the rapture of the boys—hungering for novelty as boys only can hunger—the useless and trivial suggestions of friends, the minor arrangements for the move, the decision on domestic questions present and to come, the questions, answers, futile conjectures, all formed a murk through which she labored, striving to please her husband and her children, to uphold authority, quell mutiny, soothe murmurs, and sympathize with enthusiasm; with a tact which shamed diplomacy, and a patience worthy of an evangelist.
After the indulgent American custom, she earnestly desired to please all of her children. In her own thoughts she existed only for them, to minister to their happiness; even her husband was, unconsciously to her, quite of secondary importance, his strongest present claim to consideration lying in his paternity. Had it been possible, she would have raised her tent, and planted her fig tree in the spot preferred by each one of her children, but as that was out of the question, in the mother's mind of course her sons came first. And this preference must be indulged the more particularly that Warner—the elder of her two boys, her idol and her grief—was slowly, well-nigh imperceptibly, but none the less surely, drifting away from her. A boyish imprudence, a cold, over-exertion, the old story which is so familiar, so hopeless, so endless in its repetition and its pathos. When interests were diverse, the healthy, blooming daughters could hope to make little headway against the invalid son. They had all the sunny hours of many long years before them; he perhaps only the hurrying moments of one.
For Warner a change was imperative—so imperative that even the rebellious girls were fain to admit its necessity. His condition required a gentler, kindlier atmosphere than that of New York. The poor diseased lungs craved the elixir of pure air; panted for the invigoration of breezes freshly oxygenized by field and forest, and labored exhaustedly in the languid devitalized breath of a city. The medical fraternity copiously consulted, recognized their impotence, but refrained from stating it; and availed themselves of their power of reference to the loftier physician—the boy must be healed, if he was to be healed, by nature. The country, pure air, pure milk, tender care; these were his only hope.
General Smith was a man trained by military discipline to be instant in decision and prompt in action. As soon as the doctors informed him that his son's case required—not wanderings—but a steady residence in a climate bracing, as well as mild, where the comforts of home could supplement the healing of nature, he set himself at once to discover a place which would fill all the requirements. To the old soldier, New England born and Michigan bred, Virginia appeared a land of sun and flowers, a country well-nigh tropical in the softness of its climate, and the fervor of its heat. The doctors recommended Florida, or South Carolina, as in duty bound, and to the suggestion of Virginia yielded only a dubious consent; it was very far north, they said, but still it might do. To the general, it seemed very far south, and he was certain it would do.
In the old time, he remembered, when he was in lower Virginia with McClellan, he had reveled in the softness, the delight of that, to him, marvelous climate. He had found the nights so sweet; the air, vitalized with the breath of old ocean, so invigorating, the heat at noonday so dry, and the coolness at evening so refreshing. There were pines, too; old fields of low scrub, and some forests of the nobler sort; that would be the thing for Warner. He remembered how, as he sat in the tent door, the breeze scented with resinous odors used to come to him, and how, strong man though he was, he had felt as he drew it into his lungs that it did him good.
In those old campaigning days, the fancy had been born in him that some time in the future he would like to return and make his home here, where "amorous ocean wooed a gracious land"—that when his fighting days were over, and the retired list lengthened by his name, it would be a pleasant thing to have his final bivouac among the gallant foes who had won his admiration by their dauntless manner of giving and taking blows.
The exigencies and absorptions of military life, in time, dimmed the fancy, but it never altogether vanished. Out on the plains with Custer, away in the mountains and the Indian country, vegetating in the dullness of frontier posts, amid the bustle, the luxury and excitement of city life, the fancy would return; the memory of those soft starlit Virginia evenings would infold him with a subtle spell. In thought he would again sit smoking in the tent door, the gray shadows stealing out from their covert in the woods, reconnoitering all the country ere they swept down and took possession, in the name of their queen—the night. The air would grow cool with the fragrant breath of the ocean and the pines; whip-poor-wills would chant in the tree tops, and partridges sound their blithe note away in the fields. It was not wonderful that when the necessity of securing a country home arose, the fancy should resume its sway, and that a meditated flitting southward should suggest Virginia as its goal.
The idea that any portion of his family would be displeased by the realization of his fancy, or feel themselves aggrieved by his arrangements, never entered into the veteran's calculations; he returned from the South with his purchase made, and his mind filled with anticipations of the joy the unlading of this precious honey would occasion in the domestic hive, and when he was met by the angry buzz of discontent instead of the gentle hum of applause, his surprise was great, and his indignation unbounded.
"What the devil are they grumbling about?" he demanded of his wife. "Shirley's a fine plantation. The water is good, the air superb; there are excellent gardens and first-rate oyster beds. The house is old-fashioned, but it's comfortable, and a little money will make it more so. What's the matter with them?"
"The girls are young, Percival," explained the mother, putting in a plea for her rebels. "They are used to society and admiration. They don't take interest in gardens and oyster beds yet; they like variety and excitement. The country is very dull."
"Not at all dull," contradicted the general. "You talk as if I were requiring you all to Selkirk on a ten acre island, instead of going to one of the pleasantest and most populous counties in the oldest state in the Union. Mr. Byrd, the former owner of Shirley, told me that the neighborhood was very thickly settled and sociable. I counted five gentlemen's houses in sight myself. Southerners, as a rule, are great visitors, and if the girls are lonely it will be their own fault. They'll have as much boating and dancing and tom-foolery as is good for them."
"Are there any young men?" demanded Mrs. Smith, who recognized the necessity of an infusion of the stronger element to impart to social joys body and flavor.
"Yes, I guess so," replied her husband indifferently, masculinity from over-association having palled on him; "there's always men about everywhere, except back in the home villages in Maine—they're scarce enough there, the Lord knows! I saw a good many about in the little village near Shirley—Wintergreen, they call it. One young fellow attracted my attention particularly; he was sitting on a tobacco hogshead, down on the wharf, superintending some negroes load a wagon, and I couldn't get it out of my head that I'd seen his face before. He was tall, and fair, and had lost an arm. I must have met him during the war, I think, although I'll be hanged if I can place him."
Mrs. Smith looked interested. "Perhaps you formerly knew him," she remarked, cheerfully; "it's a pity your memory is so bad. Why didn't you inquire his name of some one, that might have helped you to place him?"
"My memory is excellent," retorted the general, shortly; for a man must resent such an insinuation even from the wife of his bosom. "I've always been remarkable for an unusually strong and retentive memory, as you know very well—but it isn't superhuman. At the lowest computation, I guess I've seen about a million men's faces in the course of my life, and it's ridiculous to expect me to have 'em all sorted out, and ticketed in my mind like a picture catalogue. My memory is very fine."
Mrs. Smith recanted pleasantly. Her husband's memory was good, for his age, she was willing to admit, but it was not flawless. About this young man, now, it seemed to her that if she could remember him at all, she could remember all about him. These hitches in recollection were provoking. It would have been nice for the girls to find a young man ready to their hands, bound to courtesy by previous acquaintance with their father.
She regretted that her husband should fail to recall, and had neglected to inquire, the name of this interesting person; but the knowledge that he was there, and others besides him, ameliorated the rigor of the situation.
Mrs. Smith did not care for the south or southern people; their thoughts were not her thoughts, nor their ways, her ways. In her ignorance, she classed them low in the scale of civilization, deeming them an unprofitable race, whose days were given over to sloth, and their nights to armed and malignant prowling. For the colored people of the censured states, she had a profound and far-off sympathy, viewing them from an unreal and romantic standpoint. This tender attitude was mental; physically she shrank from them with disgust, and it was not the least of the crosses entailed by a residence in the south that she would be obliged to endure colored servants.
But all this was trifling and unimportant in comparison with the main issue, Warner's health. To secure the shadow of hope for her boy, Mrs. Smith decided that any thing short of cannibalism in her future surroundings would be endurable.
The information gleaned from her husband was faithfully repeated by Mrs. Smith to her daughters, with some innocent exaggeration and unconscious embellishment. She always wanted to make things pleasant for the children.
Blanche looked up from her crewel sun-flowers with reviving interest, but Norma walked over to the window, and stood drumming on the panes, and regarding the passers with a lowering brow.
"I wonder what Nesbit Thorne will think of it all?" she remarked, after an interval of silence, giving voice to the inwardness of her discontent.
"He'll hate it!" spoke Blanche, with conviction; "he'll abhor it, just as we do. I know he will." Blanche always followed her sister's lead, and when Norma was cross considered it her duty to be tearful. She was only disagreeable now because Norma was.
Percival, the youngest of the family, a spoiled and lively lad of twelve, to whom the prospect of change was rapture, took up the last remark indignantly.
"Nesbit won't do anything of the kind," quoth he. "Nesbit isn't a spoiled, airified idiot of a girl. He's got sense enough to appreciate hunting and fishing and the things that are of importance to men. I guess he'll want to come to Shirley this autumn for his shooting, instead of going down to North Carolina." Norma stopped her tattoo and turned her head slightly; the boy, observing that he had scored a point, proceeded: "Just the minute he gets back from Montana, I'm going to tell him all about Shirley and beg him to come. And if he does, I'm going gunning with him every day, and make him teach me how to shoot—see if I don't," regarding his mother from under his tawny brows threateningly. Percival's nature was adventurous and unruly: he had red hair.
"Nesbit got back last night," announced Warner from his sofa beside the other window. "I saw him pass the house this morning. There he is now, coming up the street. If his opinion is a matter of such importance, you can call him over and get it. I don't see that it makes any difference what he thinks, myself." The latter part of the sentence was muttered in an unheeded undertone.
Norma tapped sharply on the glass, and beckoned to a gentleman on the opposite pavement, her brow clearing. He nodded gayly in response, and crossing, in obedience to her summons, entered the house familiarly without ringing the bell.
All turned expectantly toward the door, pausing in their several occupations; even Warner's eyes were raised from his book, although his attention was involuntary and grudging. The attitude of the little circle attested the influence which the coming man wielded over every member of it; an influence which extended insensibly to every one with whom Nesbit Thorne's association was intimate. He was Mrs. Smith's nephew, and much in the habit, whenever he was in New York, of making her house his home—having none now of his own.
He was a slender, dark man, with magnificent dark eyes, which had a power of expression so enthralling as to disarm, or defy, criticism of the rest of his face. Not one man in fifty could tell whether Nesbit Thorne was handsome, or the reverse—and for women—ah, well! they knew best what they thought.
In his air, his carriage, his expression, was that which never fails to attract and hold attention—force, vitality, individuality. He was small, but tall men never dwarfed him; plain, but the world—his world—turned from handsomer men with indifference, to heap consideration upon him. To borrow the forceful vernacular of the street, there was "something in him." There was no possibility of viewing either him or his actions with indifference; of merging him in, and numbering him with, the crowd.
There are men whose lives are intaglios, cut by the chisel of destiny deep into the sard of their generations; every line and curve and faintest tracing pregnant with interest, suggestion, and emotion. Men who are loved and hated, feared, adored and loathed with an intensity that their commonplace fellows are incapable of evoking. They are loadstones which attract events; whirlpools which draw to themselves excitement, emotion, and vast store of sympathy.
Some years previous to the opening of this story, Nesbit Thorne, then a brilliant recent graduate of Harvard, a leader in society, and a man of whom great things were predicted, whose name was in many mouths as that of a man likely to achieve distinction in any path of life he should select, made a hasty, ill-advised marriage with a Miss Ethel Ross, a New York belle of surpassing beauty and acumen. A woman whose sole thought was pleasure, whose highest conception of the good of life was a constantly varied menu of social excitement, and whose noblest reading of the word duty was compassed in having a well ordered house, sumptuous entertainments, and irreproachable toilets. A wife to satisfy any man who was unemotional, unexacting, and prepared to give way to her in all things.
Nesbit Thorne, unfortunately, was none of these things, and so his married life had come to grief. The first few months were smoothed and gilded by his passionate enjoyment of her mere physical perfection, his pleasure in the admiration she excited, and in the envy of other men. Life's river glided smoothly, gayly in the sunshine; then ugly snags began to appear, and reefs, fretting the surface of the water, and hinting of sterner difficulties below; then a long stretch of tossing, troubled water, growing more and more turbulent as it proceeded, boiling and bubbling into angry whirlpools and sullen eddies. The boat of married happiness was hard among the breakers, tossed from side to side, the sport of every wind of passion; contesting hands were on the tiller ropes. The craft yawed and jerked in its course, a spectacle for men to weep over, and devils to rejoice in; ran aground on quicksands, tore and tangled its cordage, rent the planking, and at the end of a cruise of as many months as it should have lasted years, it lay a hopeless wreck on the grim bar of separation.
The affair was managed gracefully, and with due deference to the amenities. There was gossip, of course—there always is gossip—and public opinion was many sided. Rumors circled around which played the whole gamut from infidelity to bankruptcy; these lived their brief span, and then gave place to other rumors, equally unfounded, and therefore equally enjoyable. The only fact authenticated, was the fact of separation, and the most lasting conclusion arrived at in regard to the matter was that it had been managed very gracefully.
The divorce which seemed the natural outcome of this state of affairs, and to which every one looked, as a matter of course, was delayed in this instance. People wondered a little, and then remembered that the Thornes were a Roman Catholic family, and concluded that the young man had religious scruples. With Mrs. Thorne the matter was plain enough; she had no reason, as yet, sufficiently strong to make her desire absolute release, and far greater command over Thorne's income by retaining her position as his wife.
When his domestic affairs had reached a crisis, Thorne had quietly disappeared for a year, during which time people only knew that he was enjoying his recovered freedom in distant and little frequented places. There were rumors of him in Tartary, on the Niger, in Siberia. At the expiration of the year he returned to New York, and resumed his old place in society as though nothing untoward had occurred. He lived at his club, and no man or woman ever saw him set foot within the precincts of his own house. Occasionally he was seen to stop the nurse in the park, and caress and speak to his little son. His life was that of a single man. In the society they both frequented, he often encountered his wife, and always behaved to her with scrupulous politeness, even with marked courtesy. If he ever missed his home, or experienced regret for his matrimonial failure, he kept the feeling hidden, and presented to the world an unmoved front.
In default of nearer ties, he made himself at home in his aunt's house, frequenting it as familiarly as he had done in the days before his marriage. In his strong, almost passionate nature, there was one great weakness; the love and admiration of women was a necessity to him. He could no more help trying to make women love him, than the kingfisher can help thrusting down his beak when the bright speckled sides of his prey flash through the water. It was from neither cruelty nor vanity, for Thorne had less of both traits than usually falls to the lot of men; it was rather from the restlessness, the yearning of a strong nature for that which it needed, but had not yet attained; the experimental searching of a soul for its mate. That sorrow might come to others in the search he scarcely heeded; was he to blame that fair promises would bud and lead him on, and fail of fruition? To himself he seemed rather to be pitied; their loss was balanced by his own. Thorne had never loved as he was capable of loving; as yet the ego was predominant.
As he entered the room, after an absence of weeks, with a smile and a pleasant word of greeting, the younger members of the circle fell upon him clamorously; full of themselves and their individual concerns. Even Warner, in whose mind lurked a jealousy of his cousin's influence, forgot it for the nonce, and was as eager to talk as the rest. Nesbit found himself listening to a demand for advice, an appeal for sympathy, and a paean of gratulation, before he had made his salutations, or gotten himself into a chair.
"Hold on!" he cried, putting up his hand in protest. "Don't all talk at once. I can't follow. What's the matter, Norma?"
His eye turned to his favorite involuntarily, and an almost imperceptible brightening, a lifting of the clouds on that young lady's horizon, began to take place. She answered his look, and (assisted by the irrepressible Percival) unfolded to him the family plans. Thorne, with good-humored enthusiasm, threw himself into the scheme, pronounced it delightful, and proceeded to indulge in all manner of cheerful prognostications. Percival was enchanted, and, establishing himself close beside the arm of his cousin's chair, commenced a series of vehement whispers, which lasted as long as the visit. Norma's brow cleared more and more, and when Thorne declared his intention of paying them a long visit during the hunting season, she allowed a smile to wreathe her full crimson lips, and snubbed poor little Blanche unmercifully for still daring to be lachrymose.
The talk grew momentarily merrier, and the mother listened, smiling; her eyes, with a tender glow in them, fixed on Warner's face. The sick boy was in raptures over the old house mossed over with history and tradition, which would be his future home. Noting the eagerness of his interest, her heart gave a sudden bound, hope took her by the hand, and she dreamed dreams. There might come a reaction and improvement. At times the intuition of an invalid was the voice of nature, crying out for that which she needed. Warner's longing for this change might be the precursor of his cure. Who could read the future?
Backward and forward, from pantry to sideboard, from sideboard to china closet, flitted Pocahontas Mason setting the table for breakfast. Deftly she laid out the pretty mats on the shining mahogany, arranged the old-fashioned blue cups and saucers, and placed the plates and napkins. She sang at her work in a low, clear voice, more sweet than powerful, and all that her hands found to do was done rapidly and skillfully, with firm, accustomed touches, and an absence of jar and clatter. In the center of the table stood a corpulent Wedgwood pitcher, filled with geraniums and roses, to which the girl's fingers wandered lovingly from time to time, in the effort to coax each blossom into the position in which it would make the bravest show. On one corner, near the waiter, stood a housewifely little basket of keys, through the handle of which was thrust a fresh handkerchief newly shaken out.
When all the arrangements about the table had been completed, Pocahontas turned her attention to the room, giving it those manifold touches which, from a lady's fingers, can make even a plain apartment look gracious and homelike. Times had changed with the Masons, and many duties formerly delegated to servants now fell naturally to the daughter of the house. Perhaps the change was an improvement: Berkeley Mason, the young lady's brother, maintained that it was.
Having finished her work, Pocahontas crossed the room to one of the tall, old-fashioned windows, and pushed open the half-shut blinds, letting a flood of sunshine and morning freshness into the room. Under the window stood an ottoman covered with drab cloth, on which the fingers of some dead and gone Mason had embroidered a dingy wreath of roses and pansies. Pocahontas knelt on it, resting her arms on the lofty window-sill, and gazed out over the lawn, and enjoyed the dewy buoyance of the air. The September sunshine touched with golden glory the bronze abundance of her hair, which a joyous, rollicking breeze, intoxicated with dew and the breath of roses, tangled and tumbled into a myriad witcheries of curl and crinkle. The face, glorified by this bright aureole, was pure and handsome, patrician in every line and curve, from the noble forehead, with its delicate brown brows, to the well-cut chin, which spoke eloquently of breadth of character and strength of will. The eyes were gray, and in them lay the chief charm of the face, for their outlook was as honest and fearless as that of a child—true eyes they were, fit windows for a brave, true soul.
The house, neutral-tinted with years and respectability, stood well back from the river, to whose brink the smooth, green lawn swept in scarcely perceptible undulation. The river here was broad, almost resembling an arm of the sea it was moving languidly to join. There was no haste about it, and no fret of ever active current; as all large bodies should, it moved slowly, and the eye rested gratefully on the tranquil flow. Across the water, apparently against the far horizon, a dense line of trees, fringing the further shore, rose tall and dark, outlined with picturesque distinctness against the soft, warm blue. The surrounding country was flat, but relieved from monotony by a certain pastoral peacefulness, and a look of careless plenty which, with thrift, might have become abundance. In the meadows the grass grew rich and riotous between the tall stacks of cured hay, and the fields of corn and tobacco gave vigorous promise of a noble harvest. The water also teemed with life and a shiftless out-at-elbow energy. Shabby looking fishing smacks, with dirty white wings, like birds too indolent to plume themselves, passed constantly, and flat-bottomed canoes, manned by good-humored negro oystermen, plied a lazy, thievish trade, with passing steamers.
Presently a gate slammed somewhere in the regions back of the house, and there was a sound of neighing and trampling. Pocahontas leaned far out, shading her eyes with her hands, to watch the colts career wildly across the lawn, with manes and tails and capering legs tossed high in air, in the exuberance of equine spirits. Following them sedately came a beautiful black mare, stepping high and daintily, as became a lady of distinction. She was Kentucky born and bred, and had for sire none other than Goldenrod himself. In answer to a coaxing whistle of invitation, she condescended to approach the window and accept sugar and caresses. Pocahontas patted the glossy head and neck of the beauty, chattering soft nonsense while the little heap of sugar she had placed on the window-sill vanished. Presently she laid an empty palm against the nose pushed in to her, and dealt it a gentle blow.
"That's all, Phyllis; positively all this morning. You would empty the sugar bowl if I'd let you. No, take your nose away; it's all gone; eleven great lumps have you had, and the feast of the gods is over."
But Phyllis would not be convinced; she pushed her nose up over the window ledge, and whinnied softly. As plainly as a horse can beg, she begged for more, but her mistress was obdurate. Placing both hands behind her, she drew back into the room, laughing.
"Not another lump," she called, "eleven are enough. Greedy Phyllis, to beg for more when you know I'm in earnest. Go away and play with the colts; you'll get no more to-day."
"You'll never make Phyllis believe that, my dear," remarked a tall, gray-haired lady, in a pretty muslin cap, who had entered unperceived.
"Oh, yes, mother. She understands quite well. See, she's moving off already. Phyllis knows I never break my word, and that persuasion is quite useless," replied Pocahontas, turning to give her mother the customary morning kiss, to place her chair before the waiter for her, and to tell her how becoming her new cap was. The Masons never neglected small courtesies to each other.
The branch of the Mason family still resident at the old homestead of Lanarth had dwindled to four living representatives—Mrs. Mason, who had not changed her name in espousing her cousin Temple Mason, of Lanarth, and her son Berkeley, and daughters Grace and Pocahontas. There had been another son, Temple, the younger, whose story formed one of those sad memories which are the grim after-taste of war. All three of the Masons had worn gray uniforms; the father had been killed in a charge at Malvern Hill, the elder son had lost his good right arm, and the younger had died in prison.
Of the two daughters, Grace had early fulfilled her destiny in true Virginian fashion, by marrying a distant connection of her family, a Mr. Royall Garnett, who had been a playmate of her brothers, and whose plantation lay in an adjoining county. With praiseworthy conservatism, Mrs. Garnett was duplicating the uneventful placidity of her parents' early years, content to rule her household wisely, to love and minister to her husband, and to devote her energies to the rearing of her children according to time-honored precedent. Pocahontas, the youngest of the family, was still unmarried, nay, more—still unengaged.
They had called her "Pocahontas" in obedience to the unwritten law of southern families, which decrees that an ancestor's sin of distinction shall be visited on generations of descendants, in the perpetuation of a name no matter what its hideousness. It seems a peculiarity of distinguished persons to possess names singularly devoid of beauty; therefore, among the burdens entailed by pride upon posterity, this is a grievous one. Some families, with the forest taint in their blood, at an early date took refuge in the softer, prettier "Matoaca;" but not so the Masons. It was their pride that they never shirked an obligation, or evaded a responsibility: they did not evade this one. Having accepted "Pocahontas" as the name by which their ancestress was best known, they never swerved from it; holding to it undaunted by its length and harshness, and unmoved by the discovery of historians that Pocahontas is no name at all, but simply a pet sobriquet applicable to all Indian girls alike, and whose signification is scarcely one of dignity. Historians might discover, disagree, wrangle and explain, but Pocahontas followed Pocahontas in the Mason family with the undeviating certainty of a fixed law.
To the present Pocahontas (the eighth in the line) it really seemed as though the thing should stop. She yielded to the family fiat her own case, because not having been consulted she had no option in the matter, but when Grace's little daughter was born she put in a plea for the child.
"Break the spell," she entreated, "and unborn generations will bless you. We Virginians will keep on in one groove until the crack of doom unless we are jerked out of it by the nape of the neck. Your heart ought to yearn over the child—mine does. It's a wicked sin to call a pretty baby by such a monstrous name."
Grace trampled on the protest: "Not name her Pocahontas? Why, of course I shall! If the name were twice as long and three times as ugly my baby should bear it. I wonder you should object when you know that every Pocahontas in the family has invariably turned out an exceptionally fine woman. All have been noble, truthful, honorable; quick to see the right and unswerving in pursuit of it. I shall call my baby by that name, and no other."
Pocahontas opened her eyes. "Why, Grace," she said, "you talk as if the name were a talisman; as if virtues were transmitted with it. Isn't that silly?"
"Not at all," responded Grace promptly; "unless we cease to be ourselves after death, we must still take interest in the things of this world, in our families and descendants. We may not be able actually to transmit our virtues to them, but surely by guardian influence we can help them imitate ancestral good qualities. Guardian angels of our own blood are a great deal nearer than outside angels, and I believe the dear Lord appoints them whenever he can; and if so, why shouldn't the good women who are in heaven take interest in my baby who will bear their name? It is their name still, and it must hurt them to see it soiled; of course they must take interest. Were I an angel, the child on earth who bore my name should be my special charge."
"Then, according to your showing, Grace, six good women, now holy angels, have baby and me in constant keeping for love of our ugly name. The idea is fanciful, and I don't consider it orthodox: but it's pretty, and I like it. Miss Pocahontas the ninth, you and I must walk with circumspection, if not to grieve the good ladies up above who are kind enough to take such interest in us."
Pocahontas mocked at Grace's idea, but it pleased her all the same, and unconsciously it influenced her more than she knew. She loved the legends of her house, delighted in the fact of descent from brave men and true women. The past held her more than is common with the young people of the present day, and she sought out and treasured all the records of the six women who had borne her name, from the swarthy Indian princess down to the gentle gray-haired lady who held the place of honor at the Lanarth breakfast table.
"Princess," said Mrs. Mason, as she distributed the sugar and cream, "I wish you'd ring the bell. Rachel must have breakfast ready by this time, and I hear Berkeley's step outside."
Princess rang the bell quite meekly. The pet sobriquet was in as familiar use among them as her real name, but her touch on the bell did not suggest the imperiousness of royalty. Aunt Rachel was an old family servant, faithful, fat, and important, and Aunt Rachel hated to be hurried. She said "it pestered her, an' made her spile the vittles." She answered promptly this time, however, entering with the great waiter of hot and tasty dishes before the bell had ceased its faint tintinnabulation. Berkeley, a tall fair man, whose right sleeve was fastened against his breast, entered also.
"I saw Jim Byrd this morning," he remarked as he seated himself, after the customary greeting to his mother and sister. "He called here on his way over to Roy Garnett's, where he was going to bid good-by. I asked him in to breakfast, but he couldn't stop; said he had promised Grace to take breakfast with them. He has to make a farewell tour, or old friends' feelings will be hurt. It's rather awful, and hard on Jim, but he couldn't bear the thought of the neighbors feeling slighted. I suggested a barbecue and a stump speech and bow, but the idea didn't seem to appeal to Jim. Poor old fellow!"
"Couldn't he contrive to hold Shirley, Berke?" questioned Mrs. Mason, as she passed his cup. "He had retained possession so long, there must have been some way to hold it altogether."
"No; the thing was impossible," replied Berkeley; "the plantation was mortgaged to the hub before Jim was born. The Byrds have been extravagant for generations, and a crash was inevitable. Old Mr. Byrd could barely meet the interest, even before the loss of Cousin Mary's money. During the last years of his life some of it was added to the principal, which made it harder work for Jim. But for Jim's management, and the fact that the creditors all stood like a row of blocks in which the fall of one would inevitably touch off the whole line, things would have gone to smash long ago. Each man was afraid to move in the matter, lest by so doing he should invite his own creditors to come down on him. Until lately they haven't bothered Jim much outside of wringing all the interest out of him they could get. While his sisters were single, he was obliged to keep a home together for them, you know. Nina's marriage last spring removed that responsibility, and I reckon it's a relief to Jim to relinquish the struggle."
"What a pity old Mr. Byrd persuaded Mary to sell out her bonds, and invest the money in tobacco during the war!" observed Mrs. Mason, regretfully. "It would have been something for the children if she had kept the bonds. It was too bad that those great warehouses, full of tobacco, belonging to the Byrds and Masons were burned in Richmond at the evacuation. Charlie Mason persuaded Mr. Byrd into that speculation, and although Charlie is my own cousin and Mary's brother, I must admit that he did wrong. Your father always disapproved of the sale of those bonds."
"The speculation was a good one, and would have paid splendidly had events arranged themselves differently; even at the worst no one could foresee the burning of Richmond. Cousin Mary's money couldn't have freed Shirley, but if things had gone well with the venture, that tobacco would have done so, and left a handsome surplus. Charlie Mason is a man of fine judgment, and that he failed that time was through no fault of his. It was the fortunes of war."
Mrs. Mason sighed and dropped the subject. She was unconvinced, and continued to feel regret that Mr. Byrd had been allowed to work his speculative will with his wife's little patrimony. It would have been a serviceable nest-egg for the children, and a help to Jim in his long struggle. All of her life, she had been accustomed to seeing husbands assume full control of their wives' property, using it as their own, and she had taken little thought of the equities of the matter. To her it appeared natural that a wife's surrender to her husband should embrace things financial as well as things less material, but in this case she had always felt it a trifle hard. It would have been such a pleasant thing for Jim to have had some money, and been able to hold Shirley.
Pocahontas helped herself to hot waffles, and sugared them with a liberal hand.
"Dear old Jim," she said, calmly, "I wish he had come in: you should have insisted, Berkeley. It's cruel for him to have to give up the old home to strangers, and start life in a new place. I can't bear to think of it. Jim's such a good fellow, and Mexico seems a long way off. When is he coming to say good-by to us, Berke?"
"This evening. He is coming to tea; so mind you have something special."
After a pause, Mrs. Mason resumed the subject with the inquiry whether he had heard any thing relative to the purchaser of Shirley. But Berkeley only knew that the place had been bought by a northern man, a retired army officer, and that his name was Smith.
After they rose from the table, he lingered awhile, watching his mother gather the cups and saucers into the waiter in readiness for Aunt Rachel, and Pocahontas collect scraps for the dogs, two of which were already poking impatient, wistful noses into the room. Beyond the threshold they were not allowed to intrude, but they stood in the passage outside the open door, and whined and indulged in sharp "yaps" of protest against hope deferred. When they saw their mistress advancing with a heaped-up plate of food, both gave reins to their joy, and jumped and barked around her with delight. Pocahontas loved animals; the nobleness and fidelity of their instincts, harmonized with the large faithfulness of her own nature.
When his sister was out of hearing, Berkeley reopened the topic of Jim Byrd. He was standing at the mantle filling his pipe, which he balanced dextrously against one of the ornaments, and his back was toward his mother as he spoke.
"Mother," he questioned, "did it ever occur to you that Jim might grow fond of Pocahontas—might want her for a wife, in fact? I fancy something of the sort has happened, and that he came to grief. He has been depressed and unhappy for months; and neither business, nor trouble about the old place can account for his shunning us in the way he has been doing lately. I don't believe he's been inside this house twice in the last three months."
"Yes, my dear, I used often to think of it—long before Jim thought of it himself, I believe, Berkeley. He spoke to Princess this summer, and she refused him. She did not tell me about it; but from little things I could guess pretty accurately. It's a great disappointment to me, for I scarcely remember when the hope that they might love each other first dawned on my mind. Mary Mason and I were warm friends, as well as cousins, and it seemed natural that our children should marry."
Berkeley knew that his mother had wished him to marry Belle or Susie, and that this was not the first time that she had been disappointed in her desire for another Byrd-Mason match. Had Temple lived, Nina Byrd would have been his wife: the two had been sweethearts from babyhood.
Mrs. Mason sighed regretfully. "I wish it could have been," she said; "Jim is such a good fellow, and was always gentle and careful with the little girls, even when he grew a great rough lad; such a little chevalier in his feelings, too. I remember one Christmas just after the war, when he was about fourteen, the children wanted some Christmas green to decorate the parlor. It was the fall you were in the South, and they wanted to make the room pretty to welcome you home again. Susie, Nina and my two girls, went over into the Shirley woods to get it, and Jim went with them. They found plenty of lovely holly, but no mistletoe for a long time; you know how scarce it is around here. At last Pocahontas 'spied a splendid bunch, full of pure, waxen berries, way up in the top of a tall oak tree, and she set her heart at once on having it. There had been heavy sleet the night before, and every limb was caked with ice—slippery as glass. Climbing was doubly dangerous, and Grace begged him not to try, but that foolish Pocahontas looked disappointed, and Jim dashed right at the tree. It was a terribly foolhardy thing to do, and Grace said it made her sick to watch him; every minute she expected to see him slip and come crashing to the ground. The little girls all cried, and Grace boxed Jim's ears the instant he was safe on the ground again with the mistletoe. The children came home in great excitement, Pocahontas with the mistletoe hugged tight in her arms and tears pouring down her cheeks. When I scolded Jim for his recklessness, he opened those honest hazel eyes of his at me in surprise and said, 'But Princess wanted it,' as if that were quite sufficient reason for risking his life. Poor little Princess."
After a moment she resumed: "I wish she could have loved him in the way we wish. Marriage is a terrible risk for a girl like her. She is too straightforward, too uncompromisingly intolerant of every-day littleness, to have a very peaceful life. She has grown up so different from other girls; so full of ideals and romance; she belongs, in thought and motives, to the last century rather than to this, if what I hear be true. She is large-hearted and has a great capacity for affection, but she is self-willed and she could be hard upon occasion. If she should fall into weak or wicked hands she would both endure and inflict untold suffering. And there is within her, too, endless power of generosity and self-sacrifice. Poor child! with Jim I could have trusted her; but she couldn't love him, so there's nothing to be done."
"Why couldn't she?" demanded Berkeley, argumentatively. "She'll never do any better; Jim's a handsome fellow, as men go, brave, honorable and sweet-tempered. What more does she want? It looks to me like sheer perversity."
Mrs. Mason smiled indulgently at her son's masculine obtuseness. The subtleties of women were so far beyond his comprehension that it was hardly worth while to endeavor to make him understand. She made the effort, however, despite its uselessness.
"It isn't perversity, Berkeley," she said; "I hardly realize, myself, why the thing should have seemed so impossible. I suppose, having always regarded Jim as a kindly old playmate, and big, brotherly friend, the idea of associating sentiment with him appeared absurd. Had they ever been separated the affair might have had a different termination; but there has never been a break in their intercourse—Jim has always been here, always the same. That won't do with a girl like Princess. It is too commonplace, too devoid of interest and uncertainty. Yes, my dear, I know that in your eyes this is folly, but at the same time it is nature. You don't understand. Princess, I fear, sets undue value on intellect, holding less brilliant endowments cheap beside it. And we must admit, Berkeley, dearly as we love Jim Byrd, and noble fellow as he is, he has not the intellectual power which commands admiration. With all my respect for intellect, I can see that Princess greatly overrates it. She has often declared that unless a man were intellectually her superior, she could never love him."
"Intellectually—a fiddle-stick!" scoffed Berkeley, contemptously. "She don't know what she wants, or what is good for her. Women rarely do. They make their matrimonial selections like the blindest of bats, the most egregious of fools, and then, when the mischief is done, go in for unending sackcloth, or a divorce court. Pocahontas will get hold of a fellow some day who will wring her heart—with her rubbishing longing after novelty and intellect, and fine scorn of homespun truth and loyalty. Were I a woman, I should esteem the size of my husband's heart, and the sweetness of his temper, matter of more importance than the bigness of his brain, or the freshness of the acquaintance."
"Very true, my son," assented Mrs. Mason, gently, "but you are powerless to alter women. Their hearts must go as nature wills, and lookers-on can only pray God to guide them rightly. But, Berkeley, you are unjust to your sister. Pocahontas has sound discrimination, and a very clear judgment. Her inability to meet our wishes is no proof that her choice will fall unworthily."
Berkeley made no response in words, but he looked unconvinced, and soon withdrew to attend to the plantation, indulging in profound conclusions about women, which were most of them erroneous.
In the afternoon Pocahontas, providing herself with a book and a gayly colored feather fan, established herself comfortably in the old split-bottomed rocking-chair in the deep shadow of the porch. The day had been close and sultry, and even the darkened rooms felt stifling; outside it was better, although the morning freshness had evaporated, and that of evening had not yet come. The sun sank slowly westward, sending long rays across the bosom of the river, whose waters were so still that they gleamed with opalescent splendor. The slender leaves of the old willows at the foot of the lawn drooped exhaustedly, showing all their silver linings; and the sky was one tawny blaze of color. The sail-boats in sight rocked gently with the sluggish flow of the current, and drifted rather than sailed on their course. Once a noisy, throbbing steamer, instinct with life and purpose, dashed by tumultuously, churning the still water with impatient wheels, and rupturing the slumberous air with its discordant whistle. It jarred upon the quiet beauty of the scene, and it was a relief when it swept around a bend of the river, leaving only a trail of blue smoke, which was harmonious.
One of the setters who had secreted himself in the house during the hot hours, stepped out with overdone innocence, and stretched himself in a shaded corner, panting and yawning dismally.
Pocahontas formed the only bit of coolness in the picture, sitting in the shadow of the old porch, in her pretty white dress, with a cape jessamine blossom showing purely against the bronze knot of her hair, and another among the laces on her breast. The volume of Emerson selected for the enlargement of her mental vision lay unheeded in her lap, and the big fan moved lazily, as the gray eyes gazed and gazed out over the parched lawn and the glistening river until the glare nearly blinded them.
She was thinking of Jim, and feeling pitiful and sad over her old friend who must break away from every home association, and far from kindred and family, among strange faces and unfamiliar surroundings, make for himself a new life. She was sorry for Jim—grieved for his pain in parting, for his disappointment in regard to herself, for her own inability to give him the love he longed for. She would have loved him had it been in her power; she honestly regretted that the calm, true sisterly affection she felt for him could not be converted into something warmer. Her friends wished it; his friends wished it. It was the natural and proper thing to have happened, and yet with her it had not happened. With Pocahontas, marriage was a very sacred thing, not to be contemplated lightly, or entered into at all without the sanctification of a pure, unselfish love. If she should marry Jim now, it would be with the knowledge that the depths of her nature were unstirred, the true rich gold still hidden. It did not seem to her that her old playfellow's hand was the one destined to stir the one, or discover the other. She might judge wrongly, but so it appeared to her, and she was too loyal to Jim to imagine for an instant that he would be satisfied with aught save her very best.
The evening freshened as the sun went down, a vagrant breeze stole out from some leafy covert and disported itself blithely. The big Irish setter moved from the corner to the top step, and ceased yawning. An old colored man appearing from behind the house took his way across the lawn in quest of the colts. The dog, with his interest in life reawakened, bounded off the steps prepared to lend valuable assistance, but was diverted from this laudable object by the approach of two gentlemen who must be welcomed riotously.
Pocahontas, rising, advanced out of the shadow to meet them—Jim Byrd, and a tall broad-shouldered man with a great silky red beard, her brother-in-law, Mr. Royall Garnett.
After a joyous exchange of greeting with her brother-in-law, of whom she was unusually fond, and a sweet, gracious welcome to her old play-fellow, Pocahontas withdrew to tell her mother of their arrival, and to assure herself that every thing was perfectly arranged for Jim's last meal among them.
Through some strange deficiency in herself, she was unable to give him what he most desired, but what she could give him she lavished royally. She wore her prettiest dress in his honor, and adorned it with his favorite flowers, forgetful in her eagerness to please him, that this might make things harder for him. She ordered all the dishes she knew he liked for tea, and spent a couple of hours in the hot kitchen that scorching morning preparing a cake that he always praised. With eager haste she took from its glass-doored cabinet the rare old Mason china, and rifled the garden of roses to fill the quaint century old punch-bowl for the center of the table. All things possible should be done to make Jim feel himself, that night, the honored guest, the person of most importance in their world. It was an heirloom—the Mason china—quaint and curious, and most highly prized. There was a superstition—how originated none knew—that the breakage of a piece, whether by design or accident, foreboded misfortune to the house of Mason. Very carefully it was always kept, being only used on rare occasions when special honor was intended. During the civil war it had lain securely hidden in a heavy box under the brick pavement of one of the cellar rooms, thereby escaping dire vicissitudes. Many pieces had been broken, said to have been followed in every case by calamities harder to endure than the loss of precious porcelain, but much of it still remained. In design it was unique, in execution wonderful, and its history was romantic.
In the olden time a rich and fanciful Mason had visited the colonies with one of the expeditions sent out by the Virginia Company of London. He was an artist of no mean repute, and during his stay in the new world had made sketches of the strange beautiful scenery, and studies from the wild picturesque life which captivated his imagination.
After his return to England, he perfected these drawings from memory, and some years later crossed over to France, and had them transferred to china at fabulous cost. The result was very beautiful, for each piece showed small but exquisite portrayals of life and scenery in the new world. The scenes were varied, and depicted in soft, glowing colors, and with a finish that made each a gem.
On one cup a hunter followed the chase through the silent forest; another showed a dusky maiden dreaming beside a waterfall; a third, a group of deer resting in a sunny valley; a fourth, a circle of braves around a council fire.
When, in after years, the grandson of the artist had married a bride with Indian blood in her veins, the punch-bowl had been added as a special compliment to the lady, and the china had been sent a wedding gift from the Masons of England, to the Masons of Virginia. The bowl was very graceful, and contained on one side a lovely representation of the landing at Jamestown, with the tranquil, smiling river, the vessel in the offing, and the group of friendly red men on the shore; on the other was, of course, depicted the rescue of Captain John Smith by the Indian girl. The bowl was finished at top and bottom with wreaths of Virginia creepers, forest leaves and blossoms.
To bring out this precious heirloom in honor of a guest was making him of consequence indeed.
Jim knew all about it, and when he caught sight of the pretty tea-table he understood the girl's intention and shot a quick, grateful glance across to her from his brown eyes. A whimsical memory of a superb breakfast he had once seen served to a man about to be hanged obtruded itself, but he banished it loyally. As betook the cup with the dreaming maiden on it from Mrs. Mason's hand, he said gratefully:
"How good of you to have out the beautiful old china in my honor. When I was a boy, I always imagined that coffee from these cups tasted different—had a woodsy, adventurous flavor. I think so still."
It was a merry meal, despite the shadow in the background, for the gentlemen taking their cue from Pocahontas vied with each other in talking nonsense, and depicting ridiculous phases of camp life in the tropics with Jim always for the hero of the scene. And Jim, shaking off the dismal emotions peculiar to farewell visits, responded gallantly, defending himself from each sportive attack, and illumining his exile with such rays of promise as occurred to him. He knew these old friends were sorry to lose him, and trying to lessen the wrench of parting; and being a quiet, self-controlled man—more given to action than speech, and with a deep abhorrence of scenes, he appreciated their efforts.
After tea, Berkeley and Royall lit their pipes and strolled out toward the stables, leaving Jim and Pocahontas alone together on the porch. The girl leaned back in her chair silently, not trying to make conversation any more, and Jim sat on the steps at her feet, letting his eyes follow wistfully the slope of the lawn, and the flow of the river. Presently, without turning his head, he asked her to walk with him down to the old willows by the riverside, for a farewell look on the scene so dear to him, and Pocahontas rose instantly and slipped her hand within his proffered arm.
Down by the river, where the lawn bent softly to the wooing of the water, stood two ancient willows of unusual size: they were gnarled with age, but vigorous and long limbed. The story ran that once a Pocahontas Mason, the lady of the manor here, had lovers twain—twin brothers who being also Masons were her distant cousins. One she loved, and one she did not, but both loved her, and being passionate men both swore that they would have her, come what might; and cause any man that came between, most bloodily to rue it. Between the brothers there arose quarrels, and ill feeling, which afflicted the lady, who was a good woman, and averse to breaking the peace of families. That brothers—twin-brothers, should be scowling venomously at each other because of her, appeared a grievous thing, and she set herself to mend it. By marrying the man she loved, she could end the affair at once, but his brother would never forgive him, and before love had maddened them the men had been friends as well as brothers. She gauged their characters thoughtfully, and hit upon a plan—which, at the expense of some self-sacrifice, would arrange the matter peacefully. Bidding both lovers attend her one day, she brought them to this spot, and cutting two willow wands of exactly the same length and thickness she stuck them deep into the moist soil, and announced her decision. They would wait three years, she said, and at the end of that time the man whose tree had grown the strongest, should come and claim his answer. She would attend to both willows herself, giving to each the same care, and treating them with equal fairness. Then she made the men shake hands in amity once more, and swear to abide by her decision.
The story further tells that both willows flourished finely, but that in the last year the true love's tree outstripped its mate, as was right and proper. As the lady had anticipated, when the term of probation expired only one of the twins appeared to claim an answer to his suit. And in the pocket of the constant man, when he kissed his own true love, lay a letter, from across the seas, full of brotherly affection and congratulation.
This little story was a favorite with Pocahontas, and she was fond of relating how her great-great-grandmother by a little wit and generous self-sacrifice, averted a feud between brothers, and kept family peace unbroken.
The trees were always called "The Lovers," and under their sweeping branches the young people were fond of gathering on moonlit summer evenings.
Pocahontas seated herself under the larger tree on the dry, warm grass, and Jim leaned against the rugged trunk, silently drinking in, with his eyes, the still beauty of the night—the silvery sheen of the water, the pure bend of the sky, the slope of the lawn, and the gray tranquillity of the old house in the background. And as he gazed, there awoke in his breast, adding to its pain, that weary yearning which men call home-sickness.
With a shuddering sigh and a movement of the strong shoulders as though some burden were settling down upon them, Jim dropped himself to the ground beside his companion, and suffered her gently to possess herself of his tobacco pouch and pipe. The girl felt that the peacefulness of the scene jarred upon his mood, and set herself to soothe him into harmony with himself and nature. Jim watched the white fingers deftly fill the bowl, and strike the match for him; then he took it from her hand and breathed softly through the curved stem until the fire circled brightly round, and the tobacco all was burning. He leaned back on his elbow and sent the smoke out in long quiet wreaths, and Pocahontas, with her hands folded together in her lap, watched it rise and vanish dreamily.
"I wonder," she murmured presently, "if the nights out there—in Mexico, I mean—can be more beautiful than this. I have read descriptions, and dreamed dreams, but I can't imagine any thing more perfect than that stretch of water shimmering in the moonlight, and the dark outline of the trees yonder against the sky."
"It's more than beautiful; it's home." Jim's voice shook a little. "Do you know, Princess, that whenever the memory of home comes to me out yonder in the tropics, it will be just this picture, I shall always see. The river, the lights and shadows on the lawn, the old gray house, and you, with the flowers on your breast, and the moonlight on your dear face. Don't be afraid, or move away; I'm not going to make love to you—all that is over; but your face must always be to me the fairest and sweetest on earth." He paused a moment, and then added, looking steadily away from her; "I want to tell you—this last time I may ever have an opportunity of speaking to you alone—that you are never to blame yourself for what has come and gone. It's been no fault of yours. You could no more help my loving you than I could help it myself; or than you could make yourself love me in return."
"Oh, Jim, dear!" spoke the girl, quickly and penitently, "I do love you. I do, indeed."
"I know it, Princess, in exactly the same way you love Roy Garnett, and immeasurably less than you love Berkeley. That isn't what I wanted, dear. I'm a dull fellow, slow at understanding things, and I can't put my thoughts into graceful, fluent language; but I know what love is, and what I wanted you to feel is very different. Don't be unhappy about it—or me. I'll worry through the pain in time, or grow accustomed to it. It's tough, just at first, but I'll pull through somehow. It shall not spoil my life either, although it must mar it; a man must be a pitiful fellow, who lets himself go to the bad because the woman he loves won't have him. God means every man to hold up his own weight in this world. I'd as soon knock a woman down as throw the blame of a wasted life upon her."
Pocahontas listened with her eyes on the folded hands in her lap, realizing for the first time how deeply the man beside her loved her. Would any other man ever love her with such grand unselfishness, she wondered, ever give all, receive nothing in return, and still give on. Why could not she love him? Why was her heart still and speechless, and only her mind responsive. He was worthy of any woman's love; why could not she give him hers?
Ask the question how she would, the answer was always the same. She did not love him; she could not love him; but the reason was beyond her.
After a little while Jim spoke again: "When you were a little girl," he said, "I always was your knight. In all our plays, and troubles, it was always me you wanted. My boat was the one you liked best, and my dog and horse would come to your whistle as quickly as to mine. I was the one always to care for you and carry out your will. That can never be again, I know, but don't forget me, Princess. Let the thought of your old friend come to you sometimes, not to trouble you, only to remind you when things are hard and rough, and you need comfort, that there's a heart in the world that would shed its last drop to help you."
With quick impulse Pocahontas leaned forward and caught his hand in hers, and before he could divine her intention, bent her head and laid her soft, warm lips against it. When she lifted her eyes to his there were tears in them, and her voice trembled as she said: "I will think of you often, old friend; of how noble you are, and how unselfish. You have been generous to me all my life; far more generous than I have ever deserved."
As they arose, to return to the house, the jasmin blossom fell from the girl's hair to the ground at Jim's feet; he stooped and raised it. "May I keep it?" he said.
She bowed her head, silently.
In the dining-room at Lanarth stood Pocahontas, an expression of comical dismay upon her face, a pile of dusty volumes on the floor at her feet. The bookcase in the recess by the fireplace, with yawning doors and empty shelves, stood swept and garnished, awaiting re-possession. In a frenzy of untimely cleanliness, she had torn all the books from the repose of years, and now that the deed was beyond recall, she was a prey to disgust, and given over to repentance. The morning promised to be sultry, and the pile was very big; outside bugs and bees and other wise things hummed and sang in leafy places; the leaves on the magnolias were motionless, and the air asleep. A butterfly, passing to his siesta on the bosom of a rose, paused an instant on the window ledge to contemplate her foolishness; the flowers in the borders hung their heads. Berkeley passed the open window, looking cool and fresh in summer clothing, and Pocahontas, catching sight of him, put her fingers to her lips and whistled sharply to attract his attention, which being done, she followed up the advantage with pantomimic gestures, indicative of despair, and need of swift assistance. Berkeley turned good-naturedly, and came in to the rescue, but when he discovered the service required of him, he regarded it with aversion, and showed a mean desire to retreat, which unworthiness was promptly detected by Pocahontas, and as promptly frustrated.
"Do help me, Berkeley," she entreated. "They must all be put in place again before dinner, and it only wants a quarter to one now. I can't do it all before half-past two, to save my life, unless you help me. You know, mother dislikes a messy, littered room, and I've got your favorite pudding for dessert. Oh, dear! I'm tired to death already, and it's so warm!" The rising inflection of her voice conveyed an impression of heat intense enough to drive an engine.
"What made you do it?" inquired Berkeley, in a tone calculated to make her sensible of folly.
"Mother asked me to dust the books sometime ago, but I neglected it, and this morning when the sun shone on them I saw that their condition was disgraceful. I was so much disgusted with my untidiness, that I dragged them all out on the impulse of the moment, and only realized how hot it was, and how I hated it, after the deed was done. Come, Berke, do help me. I'm so tired."
Thus adjured, Berkeley laid aside his coat, for lifting is warm work with the sun at the meridian. The empty shirt sleeve had a forlorn and piteous look as it hung crumpled and slightly twisted by his side. Berkeley caught it with his other hand and thrust the cuff in the waistband of his trowsers. He was well used to his loss, and apparently indifferent to it, but the dangling of the empty sleeve worried him; the arm was gone close up at the shoulder.
Then the pair fell to work briskly, dusting, arranging, re-arranging and chatting pleasantly. Pocahontas plied the duster and her brother sorted the books and replaced them on the shelves. The sun shone in royally, until Pocahontas served a writ of ejectment on his majesty by closing all the shutters; and the sun promptly eluded it by peeping in between the bars. A little vagrant breeze stole in, full of idleness and mischief, and meddled with the books—fluttering the leaves of "The Faery Queen," which lay on its back wide open, lifting up the pages, and flirting them over roguishly as though bent on finding secrets. The little noise attracted the girl's attention, and she raised the book and wiped the covers with her duster. As she slapped it lightly with her hand to get out all the dust, a letter slipped from among the leaves and fell to the floor near Berkeley's feet.
"Where did this come from?" he inquired, as he picked it up.
"Out of this book," she answered, holding up the volume in her hand. "It fell out while I was dusting; some one must have left it in to mark a place. It must have been in the book for years; see how soiled it is. Whose is it?"
There is something in the unexpected finding of a stray letter which stimulates curiosity, and Berkeley turned it in his hand to read the address. The envelope was soiled like the coat of a traveler, and the letter was crumpled as though a hand had closed over it roughly. The writing was distinct and clerkly. "Berkeley Mason, Esq., Wintergreen, —— Co., Virginia." Mr. Mason examined the blurred, indistinct postmark. "Point"—something, it seemed to be; and on the other side, Washington, plain enough, and the date, May, 1865. What letter had been forwarded him from the seat of government in the spring of '65? Then memory unfolded itself like a map whose spring is loosened.
Seating himself in an easy chair, he drew the letter from its envelope, unfolding it slowly against his knee. It was a half-sheet of ordinary commercial paper and the lines upon it numbered, perhaps, a dozen. Mason winced at sight of the heading as though an old wound had been pressed. His sister, leaning over the back of his chair, read with him; putting out a hand across his shoulder to help him straighten the page. It ran thus:
May —, 1865.
TO BERKELEY MASON, ESQ., Virginia.
SIR—A Confederate soldier, now a prisoner of war at this place, giving his name as Temple Mason, is lying in the prison hospital at the point of death. He was too ill to be sent south with the general transfer, and in compliance with his urgent request, I write again—the third time, to inform you of his condition. He can't last much longer, and in event of his dying without hearing from his friends, he will be buried in the common cemetery connected with the prison, and his identity, in all probability, lost. This is what he appears to dread, and he entreats that you will come to him, in God's name, if you are still alive. The utmost dispatch will be necessary.
PERCIVAL SMITH, B. G. U. S. A.
Comdt., U. S. P., Point Lookout.
Mason returned the letter to its envelope and leaned back in his chair thinking. It was one of the many messages of sorrow that had winged their way through the country in the weeks following the close of the war; one of the murmurs of pain that had swelled the funeral dirge vibrating through the land.
Pocahontas came and seated herself on her brother's knee, gazing at him with wide gray eyes filled with inquiry. "When did this come? I never saw it before," she questioned, gravely.
Then with troubled brow, and voice that grew husky at times, he went over for her the sad story of the last months of the last year of that unhappy and fateful struggle. In the autumn of '64 their brother Temple, a lad of seventeen, had been taken prisoner, with others of his troop, while making a reconnoissance, and they had been unable to discover either his condition or place of incarceration. Mason, himself, had been at home on sick leave, weak and worn with the loss of his arm and a saber cut across his head. All through the winter and spring, while calamity followed calamity with stunning rapidity, the wearing anxiety about Temple continued, made more intolerable by the contradictory reports of his fate brought by passing soldiers. Finally, this letter had arrived and converted a dread fear into a worse certainty.
It had been handed to Roy Garnett by a Federal officer at Richmond, and Roy had ridden straight down with it all those weary miles, feeling curiously certain that it contained news of Temple, and sharing their anxiety to the full. Roy had been stanch and helpful in their trouble, aiding in the hurried preparations for the journey, and accompanying the wounded man, and the pale, resolute mother on their desperate mission. Then came the hideous journey, the arrival at the prison, the fearful questioning, the relief akin to pain of the reply; the interview with the bluff, kindly commandant, who took their hands heartily and rendered them every assistance in his power. Then, in the rough hospital of the hostile prison, the strange, sad waiting for the end, followed by the stranger, sadder home-coming. It was a pitiful story, common enough both north and south—but none the less pitiful for its commonness.
With her head down on her brother's shoulder, Pocahontas sobbed convulsively. She was familiar with the outlines of the tale, and knew vaguely of the weeks of anxiety that had lined her mother's gentle face and silvered her brown hair, but of all particulars she was ignorant. She had been very young at the time these sad events occurred; the young brother sleeping in the shadow of the cedars in the old burying-ground was scarcely more than a name to her, and the memories of her childhood had faded somewhat, crowded out by the cheerful realities of her glad girl-life.
When she broke the silence, it was very softly. "Berkeley," she said, "it was kindly done of that Federal officer to let us know. This is the third letter he wrote about poor Temple; the others must have miscarried."
"They did; and this one only reached us just in time. You see, communication with the south in those early days was more than uncertain. If Roy hadn't happened to be in Richmond, it's a question whether I should have received this one. It was kindly done, as you say, and this General Smith was a kindly man. I shall never forget his consideration for my mother, nor the kindness he showed poor Temple. But for his aid we could hardly have managed at the last, in spite of Roy's efforts. We owe him a debt of gratitude I'd fain repay. God bless him!"
"Amen!" echoed Pocahontas, softly.
One bright, crisp morning about the middle of October, Pocahontas stood in the back yard surrounded by a large flock of turkeys. They were handsome birds of all shades, from lightish red to deep glossy black; the sunlight on their plumage made flashes of iridescent color, green, purple, and blue, and that royal shade which seems to combine and reflect the glory of all three. Their heads were bent picking up the corn their mistress threw from the little basket in her hand, but occasionally the great gobblers would pause in their meal, and puff themselves out and spread their tails and throw their crimson heads back against their shining feathers, and proudly strut backward and forward, to the admiration, doubtless, of their mates.
Turkeys were the young lady's specialty, and on them alone of all the denizens of the poultry yard did she bestow her personal attention. From the thrilling moment in early spring when she scribbled the date of its arrival on the first egg, until the full-grown birds were handed over to Aunt Rachel to be fattened for the table, the turkeys were her particular charge, and each morning and afternoon saw her sally forth, armed with a pan full of curds, or a loaf of brown bread, for her flock.
Her usual attendant, on these occasions, was a little colored boy named Sawney—the last of a line of Sawneys extending back to the dining-room servant of Pocahontas's great-grandmother. The economy in nomenclature on a southern plantation in the olden time was worthy of Dandie Dinmont himself. The Sawney in question was a grandson of Aunt Rachel, and an utterly abominable little darkey, inky black, grotesque, and spoiled to a degree. He was devoted to Pocahontas, and much addicted to following her about, wherever she would allow him. At feeding-time he always appeared as duly as the turkeys, for Pocahontas never forgot to put a biscuit, or a lump of sugar, in her pocket for him.
With the largest black gobbler Sawney was on terms of deadly enmity; for on more than one occasion had his precious biscuit been plucked from his unsuspicious hand, and borne away in triumph by the wily bird. Half of feeding time was usually consumed by Sawney in throwing small stones at his enemy, who, as he was never by any chance smitten, would raise his head from time to time and gobble his assailant to scorn.
On this particular morning there had been a lull in the feud. Sawney had devoured his biscuit unmolested, and had offered no gratuitous insults to his foe. Pocahontas, having emptied her basket, was watching her flock with interest and admiration, when Berkeley made his appearance on the porch with a letter in his hand. He seemed in a hurry, and called to his sister impatiently.
"Look here, Princess," he said, as she joined him, "here's a letter from Jim to old Aunt Violet, his 'mammy.' He told me he had promised the old woman to write to her. It came with my mail this morning, and I haven't time to go over to Shirley and read it to her; I wish you would. She's too poorly to come after it herself, so put on your bonnet and step over there now, like a good girl."
"Step over there, indeed!" laughed Pocahontas. "How insinuatingly you put it. Aunt Vi'let's cabin is way over at Shirley; half a mile beyond Jim Byrd's line fence."
"General Smith's line fence, you mean. I wish you'd go, Princess. There's money in the letter, and I don't want to send it by the negroes. I promised Jim we'd look after the old woman for them. The girls want her to come to Richmond, but she won't consent to quit the old place. She hasn't any children of her own, you know."
Pocahontas extended her hand for the letter. "She ought to go to Richmond and live with Belle or Nina," she said, slipping it into her pocket. "She'd die of homesickness way out in California with Susie. I wonder whether the new people will let her stay at Shirley?"
"Oh, yes; Jim made every arrangement when he found she wouldn't consent to move. He had an understanding with General Smith about the corner of land her cabin stands on; reserved it, or leased it, or something. It's all right."
Always kind, always considerate, thought the girl, wistfully, even amid the pain and hurry of departure—the sundering of old ties, finding time to care for the comfort of his old nurse. Good, faithful Jim.
"Have the new people come?" she called after her brother, as he disappeared within the house.
"I don't know. I rather think they have," he answered. "I noticed smoke rising from the kitchen chimney this morning. Ask Aunt Rachel—the negroes are sure to know."
Pausing a moment at the kitchen door to request the servants to inform her mother that she had walked over to Shirley to read a letter to old Aunt Vi'let, and would be home in an hour or so, Pocahontas set out on her expedition, never noticing that little Sawney, with a muttered "Me d'wine too," was resolutely following her. The way led along a pleasant country road, as level as a table, which ran, with scarcely a bend, or turning, straight from the Masons' back gate over to the ancient home of the Byrd family at Shirley. Overhead the interlacing branches of oak and magnolia trees made a gorgeous canopy of glossy green and russet, and the sunshine filtering through the leaves embroidered the old road with an intricate pattern of light and shadow. Now and then a holly tree, or bush, bright with berries, made a lovely dash of color, and glowed all over with suggestions of Christmas and rejoicing.
Pocahontas sauntered slowly, enjoying the beauty of the morning, and thinking happy thoughts of the past, in which were mingled memories of the three Byrd girls, who had been her playmates, and of Jim. It was just beside that holly that Nina Byrd, an enterprising child, had fallen over the fence into a mud puddle, while in pursuit of a little striped ground squirrel, and soiled her hands and dress, and afterward shook her and Susie because they laughed at her. Nina was always passionate. And over in that meadow, she had once been forced to take refuge in a tree from the hostile demonstrations of an unruly heifer whose calf she had annoyed with overtures of friendship. She had sat among the branches, forlorn and frightened, for more than an hour, feeling that each moment was a month, and that such a thing as forgetfulness was impossible to the bovine mind, when Jim, cantering home from school over in the village, had spied her out and rescued her.
Passing from retrospect to anticipation, the girl's mind wandered to the new arrivals, and idle speculations about them filled it. Naturally, her thoughts were colored by her wishes, and she pleased herself with fancying them agreeable people, refined and cultured, with whom association would be pleasant. Her fancy was untrammeled, for her facts were few, and the name afforded no clew whatever. People named "Smith" might be any thing—or nothing, regarded socially. The name was non-committal, but it suggested possibilities, and its range was infinite. Wits, felons, clergymen, adventurers, millionaires and spendthrifts, all had answered to the unobtrusive cognomen. It was plain and commonplace, but as baffling as a disguise. With Talbot, Meredith, or Percival, the case is different, such nomenclature presupposes gentility. As the name "Percival" crossed the girl's mind in her whimsical musings, her thoughts seized upon it and fitted it instantly to the name which had preceded it, Percival—and Smith! Percival Smith! That was the name signed to the letter they had re-discovered after its sleep of years—the letter telling them of Temple. This newcomer was, or had been, an army officer—a general. Suppose it should be the same person? Nay; it must be—it was! Her mind leaped to the delightful conclusion impetuously, and before she had proceeded ten yards further, Pocahontas was fully convinced of the correctness of her conclusion, and busy with plans for returning the kindness they had received.
Filled with pleasure in her thought, her steps quickened, as though her feet were trying to keep pace with her bright imaginings. And so engrossed was she with castle-building, that it was only when she stopped to climb a fence separating the road from a field through which lay a short cut to Aunt Violet's cabin, that she became aware of her small attendant.
"Why, Sawney, who told you to come?" she questioned, as she sprang to the ground on the other side. The little fellow slowly and carefully mounted the fence, balancing his fat body on the top rail as he turned circumspectly in order to scramble down. When the landing had been safely effected, he peered up at her with twinkling eyes, and announced, with the air of one imparting gratifying intelligence: "Nobody. I tum myse'f. I dwine long-er you."
"There are sheep in this field; you'd better run home. They'll scare you to death."
"Ain't 'feard," was the valiant response.
Pocahontas wrinkled up her brows; it was almost too far to send him back alone, and there was no one passing along the road who could escort him to the home gate—even if he would go, which was unlikely. It would not do to start him home with the certainty that he would return, the instant her eye was off him, and stand by the fence, peeping through the cracks until she should get back to him. Since he had followed her so far, it would be better to let him go all the way.
"Come, then," she said, doubtfully, "I suppose I must take you, although you had no business to follow me. If the sheep come after us, Sawney, remember that you're not afraid. You must not cry, or hold on to my dress with your dirty little hands. Do you hear?"
"Ya-m," acquiesced Sawney, with suspicious readiness, resuming his line of march behind her.
They pursued their way uneventfully until they had reached the middle of the field when the catastrophe, which Pocahontas had anticipated, occurred. A flock of sheep peacefully grazing at a little distance, suddenly raised their heads, and advanced with joyful bleating, evidently regarding the pair as ministering spirits come to gratify their saline yearning. Sawney—perjured Sawney! all unmindful of his promise, no sooner beheld their advance, than he halted instantly, the muscles of his face working ominously.
"Come on, Sawney," urged the young lady, encouragingly, "the sheep won't hurt you: they think we have salt for them; come on."
But Sawney had no confidence in the explanation, and plainly discredited the statement of the animals' lack of hostile intention. He refused to stir: nay, more, he dropped himself solidly to the earth with an ear-splitting howl, and grabbed tight hold of Pocahontas's dress with both grimy paws; the sheep, meanwhile, came hurrying up at a sharp trot, pushing against each other in their haste, and bleating in glad anticipation of a treat. Some of the boldest ventured near enough to sniff the girl's dress, gazing up at her expectantly, with their soft, pretty eyes; a proceeding which evoked redoubled yells from Sawney. They were perfectly harmless; even the rams were peaceful, which made the child's conduct the more provoking. In vain Pocahontas coaxed, threatened and commanded, in vain she assured him solemnly that the sheep would not hurt him, and acrimoniously that if he did not hush instantly and get up, she would leave him alone for the sheep to eat up. Sawney would not stir. The more she talked the louder he howled and the more obstinately he clung to her dress. Then she took off her hat and waved it at the animals who sprang aside, startled at first, but returned in closer ranks with more insistent bleating. Losing patience at last, Pocahontas stooped and caught the boy by his shoulders and shook him soundly. She was about to proceed to more violent measures when a voice at her elbow said quietly:
"Perhaps I can be of service to you."
She started, and glanced round quickly. A slender, dark, young man, a stranger, was standing beside her, glancing, with unconcealed amusement, from her flushed, irate countenance to the sulky, streaming visage at her feet.
"Oh, thank you; you can indeed," accepting his proffered aid with grateful readiness. "If you will kindly drive these sheep away, I'll be much indebted to you. This provoking little boy is afraid of them, or pretends to be, and I can't induce him to stir. Now, Sawney, hush that abominable noise this instant! The gentleman is going to drive all the sheep away."
With perfect gravity, but his eyes full of laughter, Nesbit Thorne flourished his cane and advanced on the flock menacingly. The animals backed slowly. "Will that do?" he called, when he had driven them about a hundred yards.
"A little further, please," she answered. "No, a great deal further; quite to the end of the field. He won't move yet!" Her voice quivered with suppressed mirth.
Feeling like "Little Boy Blue" recalled to a sense of duty, Thorne pursued the sheep remorselessly; the poor beasts, convinced at last that disappointment was to be their portion, trotted before him meekly, giving vent to their feelings in occasional bleats of reproach.
Meanwhile, Pocahontas lifted Sawney forcibly to his feet, and led him across to the opposite fence, over which she helped him to climb, being determined that no more scenes should be inflicted on her that morning. When she had put a barrier between him and danger, she ordered him to sit down and calm his shattered nerves and recover his behavior. She remained within the field, herself, leaning against the fence and awaiting the gentleman's return, that she might thank him.
By the time he rejoined her, Nesbit Thorne had decided that his new acquaintance was a very handsome, and unusually attractive woman. The adventure amused him, and he had a mind to pursue it further. As he approached, he removed his hat courteously, with a pleasant, half-jocular remark about the demoralized condition of her escort, and a word indicative of his surprise at finding a country child, of any color, afraid of animals.
"Yes; it is unusual," she assented, smiling on him with her handsome gray eyes, "I can't account for his terror, for I'm sure no animal has ever harmed him. If he were older I'd accuse him of trying to earn a cheap notoriety, but he's almost too little to pretend. He's a troublesome monkey, and if I'd noticed he was following me, I'd have forbidden him. I'm much indebted for your kindly service; without your assistance, Sawney would have sat there screaming until they organized an expedition at home to cruise in search of us, or the sheep had retired of their own accord."
"Not as bad as that, I guess," he returned, extending his hand to aid her in mounting the fence, noticing that the one she gave him was delicate and shapely, and that the foot, of which he caught a glimpse, was pretty, and well-arched. He would gladly have detained her talking in the pleasant sunshine, or even—as time was no object, and all ways alike—have liked to saunter on beside her, but there was no mistaking the quiet decision of her manner as she repeated her thanks and bade him good morning.
"Who the dickens was she?" he wondered idly as he leaned on the fence in his turn, and watched the graceful figure disappearing in the distance. She walked well, he noticed, without any of the ugly tricks of gait so many women have; firm and upright, with head finely poised, and every movement a curve. Her look and voice harmonized with her carriage; she pleased his artistic sense, and he lowered his lids a little as he watched her, as one focuses a fine picture, or statue.
The aesthetic side of Thorne's nature was cultured to the extreme of fastidiousness; ugly, repulsive, even disagreeable things repelled him more than they do most men. He disliked intensely any thing that grated, any thing that was discordant. If "taste is morality," Thorne had claims to be considered as having attained an unusual development. His taste ruled him in most things, unless, indeed, his passions were aroused, or his will thwarted, in which case he could present angularities of character in marked contrast to the smoothness of his ordinary demeanor.
Women amused him, as a rule, more than they interested him. He constantly sought among them that which, as yet, he had never found—that which he was beginning to think he never should find, originality combined with unselfishness.
Even in that brief interview, Pocahontas had touched a chord in his nature no woman had ever touched before; it vibrated—very faintly, but enough to arrest Thorne's attention, for an instant, and to cause him to bend his ear and listen. In some subtle way, a difference was established between her and all other women. Her ready acceptance of his aid, her absolute lack of self-consciousness, even her calmly courteous dismissal of him, piqued Thorne's curiosity and interest. He reflected that in all probability he would meet her soon again, and the idea pleased him.
As he selected a cigar, the grotesque side of the adventure touched him; he smiled, and the smile broadened into a laugh as he recalled his own part in the performance. What would Norma have said, could she have beheld him heading off sheep from a squalling little African at the command of an utterly strange young woman?
Pocahontas related her adventure gleefully when they were all assembled at dinner; and the amusement it excited was great. Berkeley insisted teasingly that her deliverer would develop into one of the workmen from Washington, employed by General Smith in the renovation of Shirley. One of the carpenters, or—as he looked gentlemanly and wore a coat, a fresco man, abroad in search of an original idea for the dining-room ceiling. This idea she had obligingly furnished him, and he would be able to make a very effective ceiling of her, and Sawney, and the sheep, if he should handle them rightly. These suggestions Pocahontas scouted, maintaining gayly that the dark stranger was none other than her "Smith," the very identical John of her destiny.
Later she confided to her brother her conjecture relative to the identity of their new neighbor, and was more delighted than surprised to learn from him that her surmise had been correct. Berkeley had obtained the information from the solicitor in Wintergreen, who had been employed in the transfer of the estate.
The Smith family speedily settled down into their new home, and after the first feeling of strangeness had worn off, were forced to acknowledge that the reality of country living was not so disagreeable as they had anticipated. The neighborhood was pleasantly and thickly settled, the people kind-hearted and hospitable. True, Mrs. Smith still secretly yearned for modern conveniences and the comforts of a daily market, and felt that time alone could reconcile her to the unreliability and inefficiency of colored servants, but even she had compensation. Her husband—whose time, since his retirement, had hung like lead upon his hands, was busy, active and interested, full of plans, and reveling in the pure delight of buying expensive machinery for the negroes to break, and tons of fertilizers for them to waste. The girls were pleased, and Norma happier and less difficult than she had been for years. And, best and most welcome of all, Warner appeared to strengthen. As for Percival, his satisfaction knew no bounds; his father had given him a gun and Nesbit Thorne was teaching him how to use it.