THE DELIVERANCE; A ROMANCE OF THE VIRGINIA TOBACCO FIELDS
BOOK I. The Inheritance
I. The Man in the Field
II. The Owner of Blake Hall
III. Showing That a Little Culture Entails Great Care
IV. Of Human Nature in the Raw State
V. The Wreck of the Blakes
VI. Carraway Plays Courtier
VII. In Which a Stand Is Made
VIII. Treats of a Passion That Is Not Love
IX. Cynthia X. Sentimental and Otherwise
BOOK II. The Temptation
I. The Romance That Might Have Been
II. The Romance That Was
III. Fletcher's Move and Christopher's Counterstroke
IV. A Gallant Deed That Leads to Evil
V. The Glimpse of a Bride
VI. Shows Fletcher in a New Light
VII. In Which Hero and Villain Appear as One
VIII. Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
IX. As the Twig Is Bent
X. Powers of Darkness
BOOK III. The Revenge
I. In Which Tobacco Is Hero
II. Between Christopher and Will
III. Mrs. Blake Speaks Her Mind on Several Matters
IV. In Which Christopher Hesitates
V. The Happiness of Tucker
VI. The Wages of Folly
VII. The Toss of a Coin
VIII. In Which Christopher Triumphs
BOOK IV. The Awakening
I. The Unforeseen
II. Maria Returns to the Hall
III. The Day Afterward
IV. The Meeting in the Night
V. Maria Stands on Christopher's Ground
VI. The Growing Light
VII. In which Carraway Speaks the Truth to Maria
VIII. Between Maria and Christopher
IX. Christopher Faces Himself
X. By the Poplar Spring
BOOK V. The Ancient Law
I. Christopher Seeks an Escape
II. The Measure of Maria
III. Will's Ruin
IV. In Which Mrs. Blake's Eyes are Opened
V. Christopher Plants by Moonlight
VI. Treats of the Tragedy Which Wears a Comic Mask
VII. Will Faces Desperation and Stands at Bay
VIII. How Christopher Comes into His Revenge
IX. The Fulfilling of the Law
X. The Wheel of Life
LIST OF CHARACTERS
CHRISTOPHER BLAKE, a tobacco-grower
MRS. BLAKE, his mother
TUCKER CORBIN, an old soldier
CYNTHIA and LILA BLAKE; sisters of Christopher
CARRAWAY, a lawyer
BILL FLETCHER, a wealthy farmer
MARIA FLETCHER, his granddaughter
WILL FLETCHER, his grandson
"MISS SAIDIE," sister of Fletcher
JACOB WEATHERBY, a tobacco-grower
JIM WEATHERBY, his son
SOL PETERKIN, another tobacco-grower
MOLLY PETERKIN, daughter of Sol
Tom SPADE, a country storekeeper
SUSAN, his wife
UNCLE BOAZ, a Negro
CHAPTER I. The Man in the Field
When the Susquehanna stage came to the daily halt beneath the blasted pine at the cross-roads, an elderly man, wearing a flapping frock coat and a soft slouch hat, stepped gingerly over one of the muddy wheels, and threw a doubtful glance across the level tobacco fields, where the young plants were drooping in the June sunshine.
"So this is my way, is it?" he asked, with a jerk of his thumb toward a cloud of blue-and-yellow butterflies drifting over a shining puddle—"five miles as the crow flies, and through a bog?"
For a moment he hung suspended above the encrusted axle, peering with blinking pale-gray eyes over a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. In his appearance there was the hint of a scholarly intention unfulfilled, and his dress, despite its general carelessness, bespoke a different standard of taste from that of the isolated dwellers in the surrounding fields. A casual observer might have classified him as one of the Virginian landowners impoverished by the war; in reality, he was a successful lawyer in a neighbouring town, who, amid the overthrow of the slaveholding gentry some twenty years before, had risen into a provincial prominence.
His humour met with a slow response from the driver, who sat playfully flicking at a horsefly on the flank of a tall, raw-boned sorrel. "Wall, thar's been a sight of rain lately," he observed, with goodnatured acquiescence, "but I don't reckon the mud's more'n waist deep, an' if you do happen to git clean down, thar's Sol Peterkin along to pull you out. Whar're you hidin', Sol? Why, bless my boots, if he ain't gone fast asleep!"
At this a lean and high-featured matron, encased in the rigidity of her Sunday bombazine, gave a prim poke with her umbrella in the ribs of a sparrow-like little man, with a discoloured, scraggy beard, who nodded in one corner of the long seat.
"I'd wake up if I was you," she remarked in the voice her sex assumes when virtue lapses into severity.
Starting from his doze, the little man straightened his wiry, sunburned neck and mechanically raised his hand to wipe away a thin stream of tobacco juice which trickled from his half-open mouth.
"Hi!we ain't got here a'ready!" he exclaimed, as he spat energetically into the mud. "I d'clar if it don't beat all—one minute we're thar an' the next we're here. It's a movin' world we live in, ain't that so, mum?" Then, as the severe matron still stared unbendingly before her, he descended between the wheels, and stood nervously scraping his feet in the long grass by the roadside.
"This here's Sol Peterkin, Mr. Carraway," said the driver, bowing his introduction as he leaned forward to disentangle the reins from the sorrel's tail, "an' I reckon he kin pint out Blake Hall to you as well as another, seem' as he was under-overseer thar for eighteen years befo' the war. Now you'd better climb in agin, folks; it's time we were off."
He gave an insinuating cluck to the horses, while several passengers, who had alighted to gather blackberries from the ditch, scrambled hurriedly into their places. With a single clanking wrench the stage toiled on, plodding clumsily over the miry road.
As the spattering mud-drops fell round him, Carraway lifted his head and sniffed the air like a pointer that has been just turned afield. For the moment his professional errand escaped him as his chest expanded in the light wind which blew over the radiant stillness of the Virginian June. From the cloudless sky to its pure reflection in the rain-washed roads there was barely a descending shade, and the tufts of dandelion blooming against the rotting rail fence seemed but patches of the clearer sunshine.
"Bless my soul, it's like a day out of Scripture!" he exclaimed in a tone that was half-apologetic; then raising his walking-stick he leisurely swept it into space. "There's hardly another crop, I reckon, between here and the Hall?"
Sol Peterkin was busily cutting a fresh quid of tobacco from the plug he carried in his pocket, and there was a brief pause before he answered. Then, as he carefully wiped the blade of his knife on the leg of his blue jean overalls, he looked up with a curious facial contortion.
"Oh, you'll find a corn field or two somewhar along," he replied, "but it's a lanky, slipshod kind of crop at best, for tobaccy's king down here, an' no mistake. We've a sayin' that the man that ain't partial to the weed can't sleep sound even in the churchyard, an' thar's some as 'ill swar to this day that Willie Moreen never rested in his grave because he didn't chaw, an' the soil smelt jest like a plug. Oh, it's a great plant, I tell you, suh. Look over thar at them fields; they've all been set out sence the spell o' rain."
The road they followed crawled like a leisurely river between the freshly ploughed ridges, where the earth was slowly settling around the transplanted crop. In the distance, labourers were still at work, passing in dull-blue blotches between the rows of bright-green leaves that hung limply on their slender stalks.
"You've lived at the Hall, I hear," said Carraway, suddenly turning to look at his companion over his lowered glasses.
"When it was the Hall, suh," replied Sol, with a tinge of bitterness in his chuckle. "Why, in my day, an' that was up to the very close of the war, you might stand at the big gate an' look in any direction you pleased till yo' eyes bulged fit to bust, but you couldn't look past the Blake land for all yo' tryin'. These same fields here we're passin' through I've seen set out in Blake tobaccy time an' agin, an' the farm I live on three miles beyond the Hall belonged to the old gentleman, God bless him! up to the day he died. Lord save my soul! three hunnard as likely niggers as you ever clap sight on, an' that not countin' a good fifty that was too far gone to work."
"All scattered now, I suppose?"
"See them little cabins over yonder?" With a dirty forefinger he pointed to the tiny trails of smoke hanging low above the distant tree-tops. "The county's right speckled with 'em an' with thar children—all named Blake arter old marster, as they called him, or Corbin arter old miss. When leetle Mr. Christopher got turned out of the Hall jest befo' his pa died, an' was shuffled into the house of the overseer, whar Bill Fletcher used to live himself, the darkies all bought bits o'land here an' thar an' settled down to do some farmin' on a free scale. Stuck up, suh! Why, Zebbadee Blake passed me yestiddy drivin' his own mule-team, an' I heard him swar he wouldn't turn out o' the road for anybody less'n God A'mighty or Marse Christopher!"
"A-ahem!" exclaimed Carraway, with relish; "and in the meantime, the heir to all this high-handed authority is no better than an illiterate day-labourer."
Peterkin snorted. "Who? Mr. Christopher? Well, he warn't more'n ten years old when his pa went doty an' died, an' I don't reckon he's had much larnin' sence. I've leant on the gate myself an' watched the nigger children traipsin' by to the Yankee woman's school, an' he drivin' the plough when he didn't reach much higher than the handle. He' used to be the darndest leetle brat, too, till his sperits got all freezed out o' him. Lord! Lord! thar's such a sight of meanness in this here world that it makes a body b'lieve in Providence whether or no."
Carraway meditatively twirled his walking-stick. "Raises tobacco now like the rest, doesn't he?"
"Not like the rest—bless you, no, suh. Why, the weed thrives under his very touch, though he can't abide the smell of it, an' thar's not a farmer in the county that wouldn't ruther have him to plant, cut, or cure than any ten men round about. They do say that his pa went clean crazy about tobaccy jest befo' he died, an' that Mr. Christopher gets dead sick when he smells it smokin' in the barn, but he kin pick up a leaf blindfold an' tell you the quality of it at his first touch."
For a moment the lawyer was silent, pondering a thought he evidently did not care to utter. When at last he spoke it was in the measured tones of one who overcomes an impediment in his speech.
"Do you happen to have heard, I wonder, anything of his attitude toward the present owner of the Hall?"
"Happen to have heard!" Peterkin threw back his head and gasped. "Why, the whole county has happened to hear of it, I reckon. It's been common talk sence the day he got his first bird-gun, an' his nigger, Uncle Boaz, found him hidin' in the bushes to shoot old Fletcher when he came in sight. I tell you, if Bill Fletcher lay dyin' in the road, Mr. Christopher would sooner ride right over him than not. You ask some folks, suh, an' they'll tell you a Blake kin hate twice as long as most men kin love."
"Ah, is it so bad as that?" muttered Carraway.
"Well, he ain't much of a Christian, as the lights go," continued Sol, "but I ain't sartain, accordin' to my way of thinkin', that he ain't got a better showin' on his side than a good many of 'em that gits that befo' the preacher. He's a Blake, skin an' bone, anyhow, an' you ain't goin' to git this here county to go agin him—not if he was to turn an' spit at Satan himself. Old Bill Fletcher stole his house an' his land an' his money, law or no law—that's how I look at it—but he couldn't steal his name, an' that's what counts among the niggers, an' the po' whites, too. Why, I've seen a whole parcel o' darkies stand stock still when Fletcher drove up to the bars with his spankin' pair of bays, an' then mos' break tha' necks lettin' 'em down as soon as Mr. Christopher comes along with his team of oxen. You kin fool the quality 'bout the quality, but I'll be blamed if you kin fool the niggers."
Ahead of them there was a scattered group of log cabins, surrounded by little whitewashed palings, and at their approach a decrepit old Negro, followed by a slinking black-and-tan foxhound, came beneath the straggling hopvine over one of the doors and through the open gate out into the road. His bent old figure was huddled within his carefully patched clothes of coarse brown homespun.
"Howdy, marsters," he muttered, in answer to the lawyer's greeting, raising a trembling hand to his wrinkled forehead. "Y'all ain' seen nuttin' er ole miss's yaller cat, Beulah, I reckon?"
Peterkin, who had eyed him with the peculiar disfavour felt for the black man by the low-born white, evinced a sudden interest out of all proportion to Carraway's conception of the loss.
"Ain't she done come back yet, Uncle Boaz?" he inquired.
"Naw, suh, dat she ain', en ole miss she ain' gwine git a wink er sleep dis blessed night. Me en Spy we is done been traipsin' roun' atter dat ar low-lifeted Beulah sence befo' de dinner-bell."
"When did you miss her first?" asked Peterkin, with concern.
"I dunno, suh, dat I don't, caze she ain' no better'n one er dese yer wish-wishys,* an' I ain' mek out yit ef'n twuz her er her hant. Las' night 'bout sundown dar she wuz a-lappin' her sasser er milk right at ole miss feet, en dis mawnin' at sunup dar she warn't. Dat's all I know, suh, ef'n you lay me out."
"Well, I reckon she'll turn up agin," said Peterkin consolingly. "Cats air jest like gals, anyway—they ain't never happy unless they're eternally gallyvantin'. Why, that big white Tom of mine knows more about this here county than I do myself."
"Days so, suh; days de gospel trufe; but I'se kinder flustered 'bout dat yaller cat caze ole miss sutney do set a heap er sto' by 'er. She ain' never let de dawgs come in de 'oom, nohow, caze once she done feel Beulah rar 'er back at Spy. She's des stone blin', is ole miss, but I d'clar she kin smell pow'ful keen, an' 'taro' no use tryin' ter fool her wid one houn' er de hull pack. Lawd! Lawd! I wunner ef dat ar cat kin be layin' close over yonder at Sis Daphne's?"
He branched off into a little path which ran like a white thread across the field, grumbling querulously to the black-and-tan foxhound that ambled at his heels.
"Dar's a wallopin' ahaid er you, sho's you bo'n," he muttered, as he limped on toward a small log hut from which floated an inviting fragrance of bacon frying in fat. "I reckon you lay dat you kin cut yo' mulatter capers wid me all you please, but you'd better look out sharp 'fo' you begin foolin' 'long er Marse Christopher. Dar you go agin, now. Ain' dat des like you? Wat you wanter go sickin' atter dat ole hyar fer, anyhow?"
"So that is one of young Blake's hangers-on?" observed Carraway, with a slight inflection of inquiry.
"Uncle Boaz, you mean? Oh, he was the old gentleman's body-servant befo' the war. He used to wear his marster's cast-off ruffles an' high hat. A mighty likely nigger he was, too, till he got all bent up with the rheumatics."
The lawyer had lifted his walking-stick and was pointing straight ahead to a group of old brick chimneys huddled in the sunset above a grove of giant oaks.
"That must be Blake Hall over there," he said; "there's not another house like it in the three counties."
"We'll be at the big gate in a minute, suh," Peterkin returned. "This is the first view of the Hall you git, an' they say the old gentleman used to raise his hat whenever he passed by it." Then as they swung open the great iron gate, with its new coat of red, he touched Carraway's sleeve and spoke in a hoarse whisper. "Thar's Mr. Christopher himself over yonder," he said, "an' Lord bless my soul, if he ain't settin' out old Fletcher's plants. Thar! he's standin' up now—the big young fellow with the basket. The old gentleman was the biggest man twixt here an' Fredericksburg, but I d'clar Mr. Christopher is a good half-head taller!"
At his words Carraway stopped short in the road, raising his useless glasses upon his brow. The sun had just gone down in a blaze of light, and the great bare field was slowly darkening against the west.
Nearer at hand there were the long road, already in twilight, the rail fence wrapped in creepers, and a solitary chestnut tree in full bloom. Farther away swept the freshly ploughed ground over which passed the moving figures of the labourers transplanting the young crop. Of them all, Carraway saw but a single worker—in reality, only one among the daily toilers in the field, moulded physically perhaps in a finer shape than they, and limned in the lawyer's mental vision against a century of the brilliant if tragic history of his race. As he moved slowly along between the even rows, dropping from time to time a plant into one of the small holes dug before him, and pausing with the basket on his arm to settle the earth carefully with his foot, he seemed, indeed, as much the product of the soil upon which he stood as did the great white chestnut growing beside the road. In his pose, in his walk, in the careless carriage of his head, there was something of the large freedom of the elements.
"A dangerous young giant," observed the lawyer slowly, letting his glasses fall before his eyes. "A monumental Blake, as it were. Well, as I have remarked before upon occasions, blood will tell, even at the dregs."
"He's the very spit of his pa, that's so," replied Peterkin, "an' though it's no business of mine, I'm afeared he's got the old gentleman's dry throat along with it. Lord! Lord! I've always stood it out that it's better to water yo' mouth with tobaccy than to burn it up with sperits." He checked himself and fell back hastily, for young Blake, after a single glance at the west, had tossed his basket carelessly aside, and was striding vigorously across the field.
"Not another plant will I set out, and that's an end of it!" he was saying angrily. "I agreed to do a day's work and I've been at it steadily since sunrise. Is it any concern of mine, I'd like to know, if he can't put in his crop to-night? Do you think I care whether his tobacco rots in the ground or out of it?"
As he came on, Carraway measured him coolly, with an appreciation tempered by his native sense of humour. He perceived at once a certain coarseness of finish which, despite the deep-rooted veneration for an idle ancestry, is found most often in the descendants of a long line of generous livers. A moment later he weighed the keen gray flash of the eyes beneath the thick fair hair, the coating of dust and sweat over the high-bred curve from brow to nose, and the fullness of the jaw which bore with a suggestion of sheer brutality upon the general impression of a fine racial type. Taken from the mouth up, the face might have passed as a pure, fleshly copy of the antique idea; seen downward, it became almost repelling in its massive power.
Stooping beside the fence for a common harvest hat, the young man placed it on his head, and gave a careless nod to Peterkin. He had thrown one leg over the rails, and was about to swing himself into the road, when Sol spoke a little timidly.
"I hear yo' ma's done lost her yaller cat, Mr. Christopher."
For an instant Christopher hung midway of the fence.
"Isn't the beast back yet?" he asked irritably, scraping the mud from his boot upon the rail. "I've had Uncle Boaz scouring the county half the day."
A pack of hounds that had been sleeping under the sassafras bushes across the road came fawning to his feet, and he pushed them impatiently aside.
"I was thinkin'," began Peterkin, with an uncertain cough, "that I might manage to send over my big white Tom, an', bein' blind, maybe she wouldn't know the difference."
Christopher shook his head.
"Oh, it's no use," he replied, speaking with an air of superiority. "She could pick out that cat among a million, I believe, with a single touch. Well, there's no help for it. Down, Spot—down, I say, Sir!"
With a leisurely movement he swung himself from the fence, stopping to wipe his brow with his blue cotton sleeve. Then he went whistling defiantly down the way to the Hall, turning at last into a sunken road that trailed by an abandoned ice-pond where bullfrogs were croaking hoarsely in the rushes.
CHAPTER II. The Owner of Blake Hall
As they followed the descending road between flowering chestnuts, Blake Hall rose gradually into fuller view, its great oaks browned by the approaching twilight and the fading after-glow reflected in a single visible pane. Seen close at hand, the house presented a cheerful spaciousness of front—a surety of light and air—produced in part by the clean white, Doric columns of the portico and in part by the ample slope of shaven lawn studded with reds of brightly blooming flowers. From the smoking chimneys presiding over the ancient roof to the hospitable steps leading from the box-bordered walk below, the outward form of the dwelling spoke to the imaginative mind of that inner spirit which had moulded it into a lasting expression of a racial sentiment, as if the Virginia creeper covering the old brick walls had wreathed them in memories as tenacious as itself.
For more than two hundred years Blake Hall had stood as the one great house in the county—a manifestation in brick and mortar of the hereditary greatness of the Blakes. To Carraway, impersonal as his interest was, the acknowledgment brought a sudden vague resentment, and for an instant he bit his lip and hung irresolute, as if more than half-inclined to retrace his steps. A slight thing decided him—the gaiety of a boy's laugh that floated from one of the lower rooms and swinging his stick briskly to add weight to his determination, he ascended the broad steps and lifted the old brass knocker. A moment later the door was opened by a large mulatto woman, in a soiled apron, who took his small hand-bag from him and, when he asked for Mr. Fletcher, led him across the great hall into the unused drawing-room.
The shutters were closed, and as she flung them back on their rusty hinges the pale June twilight entered with the breath of mycrophylla roses. In the scented dusk Carraway stared about the desolate, crudely furnished room, which gave back to his troubled fancy the face of a pitiable, dishonoured corpse. The soul of it was gone forever—that peculiar spirit of place which makes every old house the guardian of an inner life—the keeper of a family's ghost. What remained was but the outer husk, the disfigured frame, upon which the newer imprint seemed only a passing insult.
On the high wainscoted walls he could still trace the vacant dust-marked squares where the Blake portraits had once hung—lines that the successive scrubbings of fifteen years had not utterly effaced. A massive mahogany sofa, carved to represent a horn of plenty, had been purchased, perhaps at a general sale of the old furniture, with several quaint rosewood chairs and a rare cabinet of inlaid woods. For the rest, the later additions were uniformly cheap and ill-chosen—a blue plush "set," bought, possibly, at a village store, a walnut table with a sallow marble top, and several hard engravings of historic subjects.
When the lawyer turned from a curious inspection of these works of art, he saw that only a curtain of flimsy chintz, stretched between a pair of fluted columns, separated him from the adjoining room, where a lamp, with lowered wick, was burning under a bright red shade. After a moment's hesitation he drew the curtain aside and entered what he took at once to be the common living-room of the Fletcher family.
Here the effect was less depressing, though equally uninteresting—a paper novel or two on the big Bible upon the table combined, indeed, with a costly piano in one corner, to strike a note that was entirely modern. The white crocheted tidies on the chair-backs, elaborated with endless patience out of innumerable spools of darning cotton, lent a feminine touch to the furniture, which for an instant distracted Carraway's mental vision from the impending personality of Fletcher himself. He remembered now that there was a sister whom he had heard vaguely described by the women of his family as "quite too hopeless," and a granddaughter of whom he knew merely that she had for years attended an expensive school somewhere in the North. The grandson he recalled, after a moment, more distinctly, as a pretty, undeveloped boy in white pinafores, who had once accompanied Fletcher upon a hurried visit to the town. The gay laugh had awakened the incident in his mind, and he saw again the little cleanly clad figure perched upon his desk, nibbling bakers' buns, while he transacted a tedious piece of business with the vulgar grandfather.
He was toying impatiently with these recollections when his attention was momentarily attracted by the sound of Fletcher's burly tones on the rear porch just beyond the open window.
"I tell you, you've set all the niggers agin me, and I can't get hands to work the crops."
"That's your lookout, of course," replied a voice, which he associated at once with young Blake. "I told you I'd work three days because I wanted the ready money; I've got it, and my time is my own again."
"But I say my tobacco's got to get into the ground this week—it's too big for the plant-bed a'ready, and with three days of this sun the earth'll be dried as hard as a rock."
"There's no doubt of it, I think."
"And it's all your blamed fault," burst out the other angrily; "you've gone and turned them all agin me—white and black alike. Why, it's as much as I can do to get a stroke of honest labour in this nigger-ridden country."
Christopher laughed shortly.
"There is no use blaming the Negroes," he said, and his pronunciation of the single word would have stamped him in Virginia as of a different class from Fletcher; "they're usually ready enough to work if you treat them decently."
"Treat them!" began Fletcher, and Carraway was about to fling open the shutters, when light steps passed quickly along the hall and he heard the rustle of a woman's silk dress against the wainscoting.
"There's a stranger to see you, grandfather," called a girl's even voice from the house; "finish paying off the hands and come in at once."
"Well, of all the impudence!" exclaimed the young man, with a saving dash of humour. Then, without so much as a parting word, he ran quickly down the steps and started rapidly in the direction of the darkening road, while the silk dress rustled upon the porch and at the garden gate as the latch was lifted.
"Go in, grandfather!" called the girl's voice from the garden, to which Fletcher responded as decisively.
"For Heaven's sake, let me manage my own affairs, Maria. You seem to have inherited your poor mother's pesky habit of meddling."
"Well, I told you a gentleman was waiting," returned the girl stubbornly. "You didn't let us know he was coming, either, and Lindy says there isn't a thing fit to eat for supper."
Fletcher snorted, and then, before entering the house, stopped to haggle with an old Negro woman for a pair of spring chickens hanging dejectedly from her outstretched hand, their feet tied together with a strip of faded calico.
"How much you gwine gimme fer dese, marster?" she inquired anxiously, deftly twirling them about until they swung with heads aloft.
Rising to the huckster's instinct, Fletcher poked the offerings suspiciously beneath their flapping wings.
"Thirty cents for the pair—not a copper more," he responded promptly; "they're as poor as Job's turkey, both of 'em."
"Lawdy, marster, you know better'n dat."
"They're skin and bones, I tell you; feel 'em yourself. Well, take it or leave it, thirty cents is all I'll give."
"Go 'way f'om yere, suh; dese yer chickings ain' no po' w'ite trash—dey's been riz on de bes' er de lan', dey is—en de aigs dey wuz hatched right dar in de middle er de baid whar me en my ole man en de chillun sleep. De hull time dat black hen wuz a-settin', Cephus he was bleeged ter lay right spang on de bar' flo' caze we'uz afeared de aigs 'ould addle. Lawd! Lawd! dey wuz plum three weeks a-hatchin', en de weather des freeze thoo en thoo. Cephus he's been crippled up wid de rheumatics ever sence. Go 'way f'om yer, marster. I warn't bo'n yestiddy. Thirty cents!"
"Not a copper more, I tell you. Let me go, my good woman; I can't stand here all night."
"Des a minute, marster. Dese yer chickings ain' never sot dey feet on de yearth, caze dey's been riz right in de cabin, en dey's done et dar vittles outer de same plate wid me en Cephus. Ef'n dey spy a chice bit er bacon on de een er de knife hit 'uz moughty likely ter fin' hits way down dir throat instid er down me en Cephus'."
"Let me go, I say—I don't want your blamed chickens; take 'em home again."
"Hi! marster, I'se Mehitable. You ain't fergot how peart I use ter wuk w'en you wuz over me in ole marster's day. You know you ain' fergot Mehitable, suh. Ain't you recollect de time ole marster gimme a dollar wid his own han' caze I foun' de biggest wum in de hull 'baccy patch? Lawd! dey wuz times, sho's you bo'n. I kin see ole marster now es plain es ef twuz yestiddy, so big en shiny like satin, wid his skin des es tight es a watermillion's."
"Shut up, confound you!" cut in Fletcher sharply.
"If you don't stop your chatter I'll set the dogs on you. Shut up, I say!"
He strode into the house, slamming the heavy door behind him, and a moment afterward Carraway heard him scolding brutally at the servants across the hall.
The old Negress had gone muttering from the porch with her unsold chickens, when the door softly opened again, and the girl, who had entered through the front with her basket of flowers, came out into the growing moonlight.
"Wait a moment, Aunt Mehitable," she said. "I want to speak to you."
Aunt Mehitable turned slowly, putting a feeble hand to her dazed eyes. "You ain' ole miss come back agin, is you, honey?" she questioned doubtfully.
"I don't know who your old miss was," replied the girl, "but I am not she, whoever she may have been. I am Maria Fletcher. You don't remember me—yet you used to bake me ash-cakes when I was a little girl."
The old woman shook her head. "You ain' Marse Fletcher's chile?"
"His granddaughter—but I must go in to supper. Here is the money for your chickens—grandpa was only joking; you know he loves to joke. Take the chickens to the hen-house and get something hot to eat in the kitchen before you start out again."
She ran hurriedly up the steps and entered the hall just as Fletcher was shaking hands with his guest.
CHAPTER III. Showing that a Little Culture Entails Great Care
Carraway had risen to meet his host in a flutter that was almost one of dread. In the eight years since their last interview it seemed to him that his mental image of his great client had magnified in proportions—that Fletcher had "out-Fletchered" himself, as he felt inclined to put it. The old betrayal of his employer's dependence, which at first had been merely a suspicion in the lawyer's mind, had begun gradually, as time went on, to bristle with the points of significant details. In looking back, half-hinted things became clear to him at last, and he gathered, bit by bit, the whole clever, hopeless villainy of the scheme—the crime hedged about by law with all the prating protection of a virtue. He knew now that Fletcher—the old overseer of the Blake slaves—had defrauded the innocent as surely as if he had plunged his great red fist into the little pocket of a child, had defrauded, indeed, with so strong a blow that the very consciousness of his victim had been stunned. There had been about his act all the damning hypocrisy of a great theft—all the air of stern morality which makes for the popular triumph of the heroic swindler.
These things Carraway understood, yet as the man strode into the room with open palm and a general air of bluff hospitality—as if he had just been blown by some fresh strong wind across his tobacco fields—the lawyer experienced a relief so great that the breath he drew seemed a fit measure of his earlier foreboding. For Fletcher outwardly was but the common type of farmer, after all, with a trifle more intelligence, perhaps, than is met with in the average Southerner of his class. "A plain man but honest, sir," was what one expected him to utter at every turn. It was written in the coarse open lines of his face, half-hidden by a bushy gray beard; in his small sparkling eyes, now blue, now brown; in his looselimbed, shambling movements as he crossed the room. His very clothes spoke, to an acute observer, of a masculine sincerity naked and unashamed—as if his large coffee-spotted cravat would not alter the smallest fold to conceal the stains it bore. Hale, hairy, vehement, not without a quality of Rabelaisian humour, he appeared the last of all men with whom one would associate the burden of a troubled conscience.
"Sorry to have kept you—on my word I am," he began heartily; "but to tell the truth, I thought thar'd be somebody in the house with sense enough to show you to a bedroom. Like to run up now for a wash before supper?"
It was what one expected of him, such a speech blurted in so offhand a manner, and the lawyer could barely suppress a threatening laugh.
"Oh, it was a short trip," he returned, "and a walk of five miles on a day like this is one of the most delightful things in life. I've been looking out at your garden, by the way, and—I may as well confess it—overhearing a little of your conversation."
"Is that so?" chuckled Fletcher, his great eyebrows overhanging his eyes like a mustache grown out of place. "Well, you didn't hear anything to tickle your ears, I reckon. I've been having a row with that cantankerous fool, Blake. The queer thing about these people is that they seem to think I'm to blame every time they see a spot on their tablecloths. Mark my words, it ain't been two years since I found that nigger Boaz digging in my asparagus bed, and he told me he was looking for some shoots for ole miss's dinner."
"The property idea is very strong in these rural counties, you see," remarked the lawyer gravely. "They feel that every year adds a value to the hereditary possession of land, and that when an estate has borne a single name for a century there has been a veritable impress placed upon it. Your asparagus bed is merely an item; you find, I fancy, other instances."
Fletcher turned in his chair.
"That's the whole blamed rotten truth," he admitted, waving his great red hand toward the door; "but let's have supper first and settle down to talk on a full stomach. Thar's no hurry with all night before us, and that, to come to facts, is why I sent for you. No lawyer's office for me when I want to talk business, but an easy-chair by my own table and a cup of coffee beforehand."
As he finished, a bell jangled in the hall, and the door opened to admit the girl whom Carraway had seen a little earlier upon the porch.
"Supper's a good hour late, Maria," grumbled Fletcher, looking at his heavy silver watch, "and I smelt the bacon frying at six o'clock."
For an instant the girl looked as if she had more than half an intention to slap his face; then quickly recovering her self-possession, she smiled at Carraway and held out a small white hand with an air of quiet elegance which was the most noticeable thing in her appearance.
"I am quite a stranger to you, Mr. Carraway," she said, with a laugh, "but if you had only known it, I had a doll named after you when I was very small. Guy Carraway!—it seemed to me all that was needed to make a fairy tale."
The lawyer joined in her laugh, which never rose above a carefully modulated minor. "I confess that I once took the same view of it, my dear young lady," he returned, "so I ended by dropping the name and keeping only the initial. Your grandfather will tell you that I am now G. Carraway and nothing more. I couldn't afford, as things were, to make a fairy tale of my life, you see."
"Oh, if one only could!" said the girl, lowering her full dark eyes, which gave a piteous lie to her sullen mouth.
She was artificial, Carraway told himself with emphasis, and yet the distinction of manner—the elegance—was certainly the point at which her training had not failed. He felt it in her tall, straight figure, absurdly overdressed for a granddaughter of Fletcher's; in her smooth white hands, with their finely polished nails; in her pale, repressed face, which he called plain while admitting that it might become interesting; in her shapely head even with its heavy cable of coal-black hair.
What she was her education had made of her—the look of serene distinction, the repose of her thin-featured, colourless face, refined beyond the point of prettiness—these things her training had given her, and these were the things which Carraway, with his old-fashioned loyalty to a strong class prejudice, found himself almost resenting. Bill Fletcher's granddaughter had, he felt, no right to this rare security of breeding which revealed itself in every graceful fold of the dress she wore, for with Fletcher an honest man she would have been, perhaps, but one of the sallow, over-driven drudges who stare like helpless effigies from the little tumbledown cabins along country roadsides.
Fletcher, meanwhile, had filled in the pause with one of his sudden burly dashes into speech.
"Maria has been so long at her high-and-mighty boarding-school," he said, "that I reckon her head's as full of fancies as a cheese is of maggots. She's even got a notion that she wants to turn out all this new stuff—to haul the old rubbish back again but I say wait till the boy comes on—then we'll see, we'll see."
"And in the meantime we'll go in to supper," put in the girl with a kind of hopeless patience, though Carraway could see that she smarted as from a blow. "This is Will, Mr. Carraway," she added almost gaily, skillfully sweeping her train from about the feet of a pretty, undersized boy of fourteen years, who had burst into the room with his mouth full of bread and jam. "He's quite the pride of the family, you know, because he's just taken all the honours of his school."
"History, 'rithmatic, Latin—all the languages," rolled out Fletcher in a voice that sounded like a tattoo. "I can't keep up with 'em, but they're all thar, ain't they, sonny?"
"Oh, you could never say 'em off straight, grandpa," retorted the boy, with the pertness of a spoiled girl, at which, to Carraway's surprise, Fletcher fairly chuckled with delight.
"That's so; I'm a plain man, the Lord knows," he admitted, his coarse face crinkling like a sundried leaf of tobacco.
"We've got chickens for supper—broiled," the boy chattered on, putting out his tongue at his sister; "that's why Lindy's havin' it an hour late she's been picking 'em, with Aunt Mehitable helping her for the feathers. Now don't shake your head at me, Maria, because it's no use pretending we have 'em every night, like old Mrs. Blake."
"Bless my soul!" gasped Fletcher, nettled by the last remark. "Do you mean to tell me those Blakes are fools enough to eat spring chicken when they could get forty cents apiece for 'em in the open market?"
"The old lady does," corrected the boy glibly. "The one who wears the queer lace cap and sits in the big chair by the hearth all day—and all night, too, Tommy Spade says, 'cause he peeped through once at midnight and she was still there, sitting so stiff that it scared him and he ran away. Well, Aunt Mehitable sold her a dozen, and she got a side of bacon and a bag of meal."
"Grandfather, you've forgotten Aunt Saidie," broke in Maria, as Fletcher was about to begin his grace without waiting for a dumpy little woman, in purple calico, who waddled with an embarrassed air from her hasty preparations in the pantry. At first Carraway had mistaken her for an upper servant, but as she came forward Maria laid her hand playfully upon her arm and introduced her with a sad little gaiety of manner. "I believe she has met one of your sisters in Fredericksburg," she added, after a moment. Clearly she had determined to accept the family in the lump, with a resolution that—had it borne less resemblance to a passive rage could not have failed to glorify a nobler martyrdom. It was not affection that fortified her—beyond her first gently tolerant glance at the boy there had been only indifference in her pale, composed face—and the lawyer was at last brought to the surprising conclusion that Fletcher's granddaughter was seeking to build herself a fetish of the mere idle bond of blood. The hopeless gallantry of the girl moved him to a vague feeling of pity, and he spoke presently with a chivalrous desire of making her failure easy.
"It was Susan, I think," he said pleasantly, shaking hands with the squat little figure in front of him, "I remember her speaking of it afterward."
"I met her at a church festival one Christmas Eve," responded Aunt Saidie, in a high-pitched, rasping voice. "The same evening that I got this pink crocheted nuby." She touched a small pointed shawl about her shoulders. "Miss Belinda Beale worked it and it was raffled off for ten cents a chance."
Her large, plump face, overflushed about the nose, had a natural kindliness of expression which Carraway found almost appealing; and he concluded that as a girl she might have possessed a common prettiness of feature. Above her clear blue eyes a widening parting divided her tightly crimped bands of hair, which still showed a bright chestnut tint in the gray ripples.
"Thar, thar, Saidie," Fletcher interrupted with a frank brutality, which the lawyer found more repelling than the memory of his stolen fortune. "Mr. Carraway doesn't want to hear about your fascinator. He'd a long ways rather have you make his coffee."
The little woman flushed purple and drew back her chair with an ugly noise from the head of the lavishly spread table.
"Set down right thar, suh," she stammered, her poor little pretense of ease gone from her, "right thar between Brother Bill and me."
"You did say it, Aunt Saidie, I told you you would," screamed the pert boy, beginning an assault upon an enormous dish of batterbread.
Maria flinched visibly. "Be silent, Will," she ordered. "Grandfather, you must really make Will learn to be polite."
"Now, now, Maria, you're too hard on us," protested Fletcher, flinging himself bodily into the breach, "boys will be boys, you know—they warn't born gals."
"But she did say it, Maria," insisted the boy, "and she bet me a whole dish of doughnuts she wouldn't. She did say 'set'; I heard her." Maria bit her lip, and her flashing eyes filled with angry tears, while Carraway, as he began talking hurriedly about the promise of tobacco, resisted valiantly an impulse to kick the pretty boy beneath the table. As his eyes traveled about the fine old room, marking its mellow wainscoting and the whitened silver handles on the heavy doors, he found himself wondering with implacable approval if this might not be the beginning of a great atonement.
The boy's mood had varied at the sight of his sister's tears, and he fell to patting penitently the hand that quivered on the table. "You needn't give me the doughnuts, Aunt Saidie; I'll make believe you didn't say it," he whispered at last.
"Do you take sugar, Mr. Carraway?" asked Miss Saidie, flushed and tremulous at the head of the overcrowded table, with its massive modern silver service. Poor little woman, thought the lawyer, with his first positive feeling of sympathy, she would have been happier frying her own bacon amid bouncing children in a labourer's cabin. He leaned toward her, speaking with a grave courtesy, which she met with the frightened, questioning eyes of a child. She was "quite too hopeless," he reluctantly admitted —yet, despite himself, he felt a sudden stir of honest human tenderness—the tenderness he had certainly not felt for Fletcher, nor for the pretty, pert boy, nor even for the elegant Maria herself.
"I was looking out at the dear old garden awhile ago," he said, "and I gathered from it that you must be fond of flowers—since your niece tells me she has been away so long."
She brightened into animation, her broad, capable hands fumbling with the big green-and-gold teacups.
"Yes, I raise 'em," she answered. "Did you happen to notice the bed of heartsease? I worked every inch of that myself last spring—and now I'm planting zinnias, and touch-me-nots, and sweet-williams they'll all come along later."
"And prince's-feather," added the lawyer, reminiscently; "that used to be a favourite of mine, I remember, when I was a country lad."
"I've got a whole border of 'em out at the back large, fine plants, too—but Maria wants to root 'em up. She says they're vulgar because they grow in all the niggers' yards."
"Vulgar!" So this was the measure of Maria, Carraway told himself, as he fell into his pleasant ridicule. "Why, if God Almighty ever created a vulgar flower, my dear young lady, I have yet to see it."
"But don't you think it just a little gaudy for a lawn," suggested the girl, easily stung to the defensive.
"It looks cheerful and I like it," insisted Aunt Saidie, emboldened by a rare feeling of support. "Ma used to have two big green tubs of it on either side the front door when we were children, and we used to stick it in our hats and play we was real fine folks. Don't you recollect it, Brother Bill?"
"Good Lord, Saidie, the things you do recollect!" exclaimed Fletcher, who, beneath the agonised eyes of Maria, was drinking his coffee from his saucer in great spluttering gulps.
The girl was in absolute torture: this Carraway saw in the white, strained, nervous intensity of her look; yet the knowledge served only to irritate him, so futile appeared any attempt to soften the effect of Fletcher's grossness. Before the man's colossal vulgarity of soul, mere brutishness of manner seemed but a trifling phase.
CHAPTER IV. Of Human Nature in the Raw State
When at last the pickles and preserved watermelon rind had been presented with a finishing flourish, and Carraway had successfully resisted Miss Saidie's final passionate insistence in the matter of the big blackberry roll before her, Fletcher noisily pushed back his chair, and, with a careless jerk of his thumb in the direction of his guest, stamped across the hall into the family sitting-room.
"Now we'll make ourselves easy and fall to threshing things out," he remarked, filling a blackened brier-root pipe, into the bowl of which he packed the tobacco with his stubby forefinger. "Yes, I'm a lover of the weed, you see—don't you smoke or chaw, suh?"
Carraway shook his head. "When I was young and wanted to I couldn't," he explained, "and now that I am old and can I have unfortunately ceased to want to. I've passed the time of life when a man begins a habit merely for the sake of its being a habit."
"Well, I reckon you're wise as things go, though for my part I believe I took to the weed before I did to my mother's breast. I cut my first tooth on a plug, she used to say."
He threw himself into a capacious cretonne-covered chair, and, kicking his carpet slippers from him, sat swinging one massive foot in its gray yarn sock. Through the thickening smoke Carraway watched the complacency settle over his great hairy face.
"And now, to begin with the beginning, what do you think of my grandchildren?" he demanded abruptly, taking his pipe from his mouth after a long, sucking breath, and leaning forward with his elbow on the arm of his chair.
The other hesitated. "You've done well by them, I should say."
"A fine pair, eh?"
"The admission is easy."
"Look at the gal, now," burst out Fletcher impulsively. "Would you fancy, to see her stepping by, that her grandfather used to crack the whip over a lot of dirty niggers?" He drove the fact in squarely with big, sure blows of his fist, surveying it with an enthusiasm the other found amazing. "Would you fancy, even," he continued after a moment, "that her father warn't as good as I am—that he left overseeing to jine the army, and came out to turn blacksmith if I hadn't kept him till he drank himself to death? His wife? Why, the woman couldn't read her own name unless you printed it in letters as long as your finger—and now jest turn and look at Maria!" he wound up in a puff of smoke.
"The girl's wonderful," admitted Carraway. "She's like a dressed-up doll-baby, too; all the natural thing has been squeezed out of her, and she's stuffed with sawdust."
"It's a pity she ain't a little better looking in the face," pursued Fletcher, waving the criticism aside. "She's a plagued sight too pale and squinched-up for my taste—for all her fine air. I like 'em red and juicy, and though you won't believe me, most likely she can't hold a tallow candle to what Saidie was when she was young. But then, Saidie never had her chance, and Maria's had 'em doubled over. Why, she left home as soon as she'd done sucking, and she hasn't spent a single summer here since she was eight years old. Small thanks I'll get for it, I reckon, but I've done a fair turn by Maria."
"The boy comes next, I suppose?" Carraway broke in, watching the other's face broaden into a big, purple smile.
"Ah, thar you're right—it's the boy I've got my eye on now. His name's the same as mine, you know, and I reckon one day William Fletcher'll make his mark among the quality. He'll have it all, too—the house, the land, everything, except a share of the money which goes to the gal. It'll make her childbearing easier, I reckon, and for my part, that's the only thing a woman's fit for. Don't talk to me about a childless woman! Why, I'd as soon keep a cow that wouldn't calve.
"You were speaking of the boy, I believe," coolly interrupted Carraway. To a man of his old-fashioned chivalric ideal the brutal allusion to the girl was like a deliberate blow in the face.
"So I was—so I was. Well, he's to have it all, I say—every mite, and welcome. I've had a pretty tough life in my time—you can tell it from my hands, suh—but I ain't begrudging it if it leaves the boy a bit better off. Lord, thar's many and many a night,when I was little and my stepfather kicked me out of doors without a bite, that I used to steal into somebody or other's cow-shed and snuggle for warmth into the straw—yes, and suck the udders of the cows for food, too. Oh, I've had a hard enough life, for all the way it looks now—and I'm not saying that if the choice was mine I'd go over it agin even as it stands to-day. We're set here for better or for worse, that's my way of thinking, and if thar's any harm comes of it Providence has got to take a share of the blame."
"Hardly the preacher's view of the matter, is it?"
"Maybe not; and I ain't got a quarrel with 'em, the Lord knows. I go to church like clockwork, and pay my pew-rent, too, which is more than some do that gabble the most about salvation. If I pay for the preacher's keep it's only fair that I should get some of the good that comes to him hereafter; that's how it looks to me; so I don't trouble my head much about the ins and the outs of getting saved or damned. I've never puled in this world, thank God, and let come what will, I ain't going to begin puling in the next. But to go back to whar I started from, it all makes in the end for that pretty little chap over yonder in the dining-room. Rather puny for his years now, but as sound as a nut, and he'll grow, he'll grow. When his mother—poor, worthless drab—gave birth to him and died, I told her it was the best day's work she'd ever done."
Carraway's humour rippled over. "It's easy to imagine what her answer must have been to such a pleasantry," he observed.
"Oh, she was a fool, that woman—a born fool!
Her answer was that it would be the best day for her only when I came to call it the worst. She hated me a long sight more than she hated the devil, and if she was to rise out of her grave to-day she'd probably start right in scrubbing for those darned Blakes."
"Ah!" said Carraway.
"It's the plain truth, but I don't visit it on the little lad. Why should I? He's got my name—I saw to that—and mark my word, he'll grow up yet to marry among the quality."
The secret was out at last—Fletcher's purpose was disclosed, and even in the strong light of his past misdeeds it showed not without a hint of pathos. The very renouncement of any personal ambition served to invest the racial one with a kind of grandeur.
"There's evidently an enviable career before him," said the lawyer at the end of a long pause, "and this brings me, by the way, to the question I wish to as—had your desire to see me any connection with the prospects of your grandson?"
"In a way, yes; though, to tell the truth, it has more to do with that young Blake's. He's been bothering me a good deal of late, and I mean to have it square with him before Bill Fletcher's a year older."
"No difficulty about your title to the estate, I presume?"
"Oh, Lord, no; that's all fair and square, suh. I bought the place, you know, when it went at auction jest a few years after the war. I bought and paid for it right down, and that settled things for good and all."
Carraway considered the fact for a moment. "If I remember correctly—I mean unless gossip went very far afield—the place brought exactly seven thousand dollars." His gaze plunged into the moonlight beyond the open window and followed the clear sweep of the distant fields. "Seven thousand dollars," he added softly; "and there's not a finer in Virginia."
"Thar was nobody to bid agin me, you see," explained Fletcher easily. "The old gentleman was as poor as Job's turkey then, besides going doty mighty fast."
"The common report was, I believe," pursued the lawyer, "that the old man himself did not know of the place being for sale until he heard the auctioneer's hammer on the lawn, and that his mind left him from the moment—this was, of course, mere idle talk."
"Oh, you'll hear anything," snorted Fletcher. "The old gentleman hadn't a red copper to his name, and if he couldn't pay the mortgages, how under heaven could he have bought in the place? As a plain man I put the question."
"But his friends? Where were his friends, I wonder? In his youth he was one of the most popular men in the State—a high liver and good toaster, you remember—and later on he stood well in the Confederate Government. That he should have fallen into abject poverty seems really incomprehensible."
Fletcher twisted in his chair. "Why, that was jest three years after the war, I tell you," he said with irritable emphasis; "he hadn't a friend this side of Jordan, I reckon, who could have raised fifty cents to save his soul. The quality were as bad off as thar own niggers.
"True—true," admitted Carraway; "but the surprising thing is—I don't hesitate to say—that you who had been overseer to the Blakes for twenty years should have been able in those destitute times and on the spot, as it were, to put down seven thousand dollars."
He faced the fact unflinchingly, dragging it from the long obscurity full into the red glare of the lamplight. Here was the main thing, he knew, in Fletcher's history—here was the supreme offense. For twenty years the man had been the trusted servant of his feeble employer, and when the final crash came he had risen with full hands from the wreck. The prodigal Blakes—burning the candle at both ends, people said—had squandered a double fortune before the war, and in an equally stupendous fashion Fletcher had amassed one.
"Oh, thar're ways and ways of putting by a penny," he now protested, "and I turned over a bit during the war, I may as well own up, though folks had only black looks for speculators then."
"We used to call them 'bloodsuckers,' I remember."
"Well, that's neither here nor thar, suh. When the place went for seven thousand I paid it down, and I've managed one way and another—and in spite of the pesky niggers—to make a pretty bit out of the tobacco crop, hard as times have been. The Hall is mine now, thar's no going agin that, and, so help me God, it'll belong to a William Fletcher long after I am dead."
"Ah, that brings us directly to the point."
Fletcher squared himself about in his chair while his pipe went out slowly.
"The point, if you'll have it straight," he said, "is jest this—I want the whole place—every inch of it—and I'll die or git it, as sure's my name's my own. Thar's still that old frame house and the piece of land tacked to it, whar the overseers used to live, cutting straight into the heart of my tobacco fields—in clear view of the Hall, too—right in the middle of my land, I tell you!"
"Oh, I see—I see," muttered Carraway; "that's the little farm in the midst of the estate which the old gentleman—bless his weak head and strong heart gave his wife's brother, Colonel Corbin, who came back crippled from the war. Yes, I remember now, there was a joke at the time about his saying that land was the cheapest present he could give."
"It was all his besotted foolishness, you know to think of a sane man deeding away seventy acres right in the heart of his tract of two thousand. He meant it for a joke, of course. Mr. Tucker or Colonel Corbin, if you choose, was like one of the family, but he was as sensitive as a kid about his wounds, and he wanted to live off somewhar, shut up by himself. Well, he's got enough folks about him now, the Lord knows. Thar's the old lady, and the two gals, and Mr. Christopher, to say nothing of Uncle Boaz and a whole troop of worthless niggers that are eating him out of house and home. Tom Spade has a deed of trust on the place for three hundred dollars; he told me so himself."
"So I understand; and all this is a serious inconvenience to you, I may suppose."
"Inconvenience! Blood and thunder! It takes the heart right out of my land, I tell you. Why, the very road I cut to save myself half a mile of mudholes came to a dead stop because Mr. Christopher wouldn't let it cross his blamed pasture."
Carraway thoughtfully regarded his finger nails. "Then, bless my soul!—seeing it's your private affair—what are you going to do about it?" he inquired.
"Git it. The devil knows how—I don't; but git it I will. I brought you down here to talk those fools over, and I mean you to do it. It's all spite, pure, rotten spite; that's what it is. Look here, I'll gladly give 'em three thousand dollars for that strip of land, and it wouldn't bring nine hundred, on my oath!"
"Have you made the offer?"
"Made it? Why, if I set foot on the tip edge of that land I'd have every lean hound in the pack snapping at my heels. As for that young rascal, he'd knock me down if I so much as scented the matter."
He rapped his pipe sharply on the wood of his chair and a little pile of ashes settled upon the floor. With a laugh, the other waved his hand in protest.
"So you prefer to make the proposition by proxy. My dear sir—I'm not a rubber ball."
"Oh, he won't hurt you. It would spoil the sport to punch anybody's head but mine, you know. Come, now, isn't it a fair offer I'm making?"
"It appears so, certainly—and I really do not see why he should wish to hold the place. It isn't worth much, I fancy, to anybody but the owner of the Hall, and with the three thousand clear he could probably get a much better one at a little distance—with the additional value of putting a few square miles between himself and you—whom, I may presume, he doesn't love."
"Oh, you may presume he hates me if you'll only work it," snorted Fletcher. "Go over thar boldly—no slinking, mind you—to-morrow morning, and talk them into reason. Lord, man, you ought to be able to do it—don't you know Greek?"
Carraway nodded. "Not that it ever availed me much in an argument," he confessed frankly.
"It's a good thing to stop a mouth with, anyway. Thar's many and many a time, I tell you, I've lost a bargain for the lack of a few rags of Latin or Greek. Drag it in; stuff it down 'em; gag thar mouths—it's better than all the swearing under heaven. Why, taking the Lord's name in vain ain't nothing to a line of poetry spurted of a sudden in one of them dead-and-gone languages. It's been done at me, suh, and I know how it works—that's why I've put the boy upstairs on 'em from the start. 'Tain't much matter whether he goes far in his own tongue or not, that's what I said, but dose him well with something his neighbours haven't learnt."
He rose with a lurch, laid his pipe on the mantel, and drew out his big silver watch.
"Great Jehosaphat! it's eleven and after," he exclaimed. "Well, it's time for us to turn in, I reckon, and dream of breakfast. If you'll hold the lamp while I bolt up, I'll show you to your room."
Carraway picked up the lamp, and, cautiously following his host into the darkened hall, waited until he had fastened the night-chains and shot the heavy bolts.
"If you want a drink of water thar's a bucket in the porch," said Fletcher, as he opened the back door and reached out into the moonlight. "Wait thar a second and I'll hand you the dipper."
He stepped out upon the porch, and a moment later Carraway heard a heavy stumble followed by a muttered oath.
"Why, blast the varmints! I've upset the boy's cage of white mice and they're skedaddling about my legs. Here! hold the lamp, will you—I'm squashing a couple of 'em under each of my hands."
Carraway, leaning out with the lamp, which drew a brilliant circle on the porch, saw Fletcher floundering helplessly upon his hands and knees in the midst of the fleeing family of mice.
"They're a plagued mess of beasts, that's what they are," he exclaimed, "but the little lad sets a heap of store by 'em, and when he comes down tomorrow he'll find that I got some of 'em back, anyway."
He fastened the cage and placed it carefully beneath the bench. Then, closing and bolting the door, he took the lamp from Carraway and motioned him up the dusky staircase to the spare chamber at the top.
CHAPTER V. The Wreck of the Blakes
When Christopher left Blake Hall, he swung vigorously in the twilight across the newly ploughed fields, until, at the end of a few minutes' walk, he reached the sunken road that branched off by the abandoned ice-pond. Here the bullfrogs were still croaking hoarsely, and far away over the gray-green rushes a dim moon was mounting the steep slope of bluish sky.
The air was fresh with the scent of the upturned earth, and the closing day refined into a tranquil beauty; but the young man, as he passed briskly, did not so much as draw a lengthened breath, and when presently the cry of a whip-poor-will floated from the old rail fence, he fell into a whistling mockery of the plaintive notes. The dogs at his heels started a rabbit once from the close cover of the underbrush, and he called them to order in a sharp, peremptory tone. Not until he reached the long, whitewashed gate opening before the frame house of the former overseers did he break the easy swing of his accustomed stride.
The house, a common country dwelling of the sort used by the poorer class of farmers, lost something of its angularity beneath the moonlight, and even the half-dried garments, spread after the day's washing on the bent old rose-bushes, shone in soft white patches amid the grass, which looked thick and fine under the heavy dew. In one corner of the yard there was a spreading peach-tree, on which the shriveled little peaches ripened out of season, and against the narrow porch sprawled a gray and crippled aspen, where a flock of turkeys had settled to roost along its twisted boughs.
In one of the lower rooms a lamp was burning, and as Christopher crunched heavily along the pebbled path, a woman with a piece of sewing in her hand came into the hall and spoke his name.
"Christopher, you are late."
Her voice was deep and musical, with a richness of volume which raised deluding hopes of an impassioned beauty in the speaker—who, as she crossed the illumined square of the window-frame, showed as a tall, thin woman of forty years, with squinting eyes, and a face whose misshapen features stood out like the hasty drawing for a grotesque. When she reached him Christopher turned from the porch, and they walked together slowly out into the moonlight, passing under the aspen where the turkeys stirred and fluttered in their sleep.
"Has her cat come home, Cynthia?" were the young man's first anxious words.
"About sunset. Uncle Boaz found her over at Aunt Daphne's, hunting mice under the joists. Mother had fretted terribly over the loss."
"Is she easier now?"
"Much more so, but she still asks for the port. We pretend that Uncle Boaz has mislaid the key of the wine-cellar. She upbraided him, and he bore it so patiently, poor old soul!"
Christopher quickly reached into the deep pocket of his overalls and drew out the scanty wages of his last three days' labour.
"Send this by somebody down to Tompkins," he said, "and get the wine he ordered. He refuses to sell on credit any longer, so I had to find the money."
She looked up, startled.
"Oh, Christopher, you have worked for Fletcher?"
Tears shone in her eyes and her mouth quivered. "Oh, Christopher!" she repeated, and the emotional quality in her voice rang strong and true. He fell back, angered, while the hand she had stretched out dropped limply to her side.
"For God's sake, don't snivel," he retorted harshly. "Send the money and give her the wine, but dole it out like a miser, for where the next will come from is more than I can tell."
"The pay for my sewing is due in three days," said Cynthia, raising her roughened hand on which the needle-scars showed even in the moonlight. "Mother has worried so to-day that I couldn't work except at odd moments, but I can easily manage to sit up to-night and get it done. She thinks I'm embroidering an ottoman, you see, and this evening she asked to feel the silks."
He uttered a savage exclamation.
"Oh, I gave her some ravellings from an old tidy," she hastened to assure him. "She played with them awhile and knew no better, as I told her the colours one by one. Afterward she planned all kinds of samplers and fire-screens that I might work. Her own knitting has wearied her of late, so we haven't been obliged to buy the yarn."
"She doesn't suspect, you think?"
Cynthia shook her head. "After fifteen years of deception there's no danger of my telling the truth to-day. I only wish I could," she added, with that patient dignity which is the outward expression of complete renouncement. When she lifted her tragic face the tears on her cheeks softened the painful hollows, as the moonbeams, playing over her gown of patched and faded silk, revived for a moment the freshness of its discoloured flowers.
"The truth would be the death of her," said the young man, in a bitter passion of anxiety. "Tell her that Fletcher owns the Hall, and that for fifteen years she has lived, blind and paralysed, in the overseer's house! Why, I'd rather stick a knife into her heart myself!"
"Her terrible pride would kill her—yes, you're right. We'll keep it up to the end at any cost."
He turned to her with a sudden terror in his face. "She isn't worse, is she?"
"Worse? Oh, no; I only meant the cost to us, the cost of never speaking the truth within the house."
"Well, I'm not afraid of lying, God knows," he answered, in the tone of one from whom a burden has been removed. "I'm only wondering how much longer I'll be able to afford the luxury."
"But we're no worse off than usual, that's one comfort. Mother is quite happy now since Beulah has been found, and the only added worry is that Aunt Dinah is laid up in her cabin and we've had to send her soup. Uncle Isam has come to see you, by the way. I believe he wants you to give him some advice about his little hut up in the woods, and to look up his birth in the servants' age-book, too. He lives five miles away, you know, and works across the river at Farrar's Mills."
"Uncle Isam!" exclaimed Christopher, wonderingly; "why, what do I know about the man? I haven't laid eyes on him for the last ten years."
"But he wants help now, so of course he's come to you, and as he's walked all the distance—equally of course—he'll stay to supper. Mother has her young chicken, and there's bacon and cornbread for the rest of us, so I hope the poor man won't go back hungry. Ever since Aunt Polly's chimney blew down she has had to fry the middling in the kitchen, and mother complains so of the smell. She can't understand why we have it three times a day, and when I told her that Uncle Tucker acquired the habit in the army, she remarked that it was very inconsiderate of him to insist upon gratifying so extraordinary a taste."
Christopher laughed shortly.
"Well, it's a muck of a world," he declared cheerfully, taking off his coarse harvest hat and running his hand through his clustering fair hair. In the mellow light the almost brutal strength of his jaw was softened, and his sunburned face paled to the beauty of some ancient ivory carving. Cynthia, gazing up at him, caught her breath with a sob.
"How big you are, and strong! How fit for any life in the world but this!"
"Don't whimper," he responded roughly, adding, after a moment, "Precious fit for anything but the stable or the tobacco field! Why, I couldn't so much as write a decently spelled letter to save my soul. A darky asked me yesterday to read a postbill for him down at the store, and I had to skip a big word in the first line."
He made his confession defiantly, with a certain boorish pride in his ignorance and his degradation.
"My dear, my dear, I wanted to teach you—I will teach you now. We will read together."
"And let mother and Uncle Tucker plough the field, and plant the crop, and cut the wood. No, it won't answer; your learning would do me no good, and I don't want it—I told you that when you first took me from my study and put me to do all the chores upon the place."
"I take you! Oh, Christopher, what could we do? Uncle Tucker was a hopeless cripple, there wasn't a servant strong enough to spade the garden, and there were only Lila and you and I."
"And I was ten. Well, I'm not blaming you, and I've done what I was forced to—but keep your confounded books out of my sight, that's all I ask. Is that mother calling?"
Cynthia bent her ear. "I thought Lila was with her, but I'll go at once. Be sure to change your clothes, dear, before she touches you."
"Hadn't I better chop a little kindling-wood before supper?"
"No—no, not to-night. Go and dress, while I send Uncle Boaz for the wine."
She entered the house with a hurried step, and Christopher, after an instant's hesitation, passed to the back, and, taking off his clumsy boots, crept softly up the creaking staircase to his little garret room in the loft.
Ten minutes later he came down again, wearing a decent suit of country-made clothes, with the dust washed from his face, and his hair smoothly brushed across his forehead. In the front hall he took a white rosebud from a little vase of Bohemian glass and pinned it carefully in the lapel of his coat. Then, before entering, he stood for a moment silent upon the threshold of the lamplighted room.
In a massive Elizabethan chair of blackened oak a stately old lady was sitting straight and stiff, with her useless legs stretched out upon an elaborately embroidered ottoman. She wore a dress of rich black brocade, made very full in the skirt, and sleeves after an earlier fashion, and her beautiful snow-white hair was piled over a high cushion and ornamented by a cap of fine thread lace. In her face, which she turned at the first footstep with a pitiable, blind look, there were the faint traces of a proud, though almost extinguished, beauty—traces which were visible in the impetuous flash of her sightless eyes, in the noble arch of her brows, and in the transparent quality of her now yellowed skin, which still kept the look of rare porcelain held against the sunlight. On a dainty, rose-decked tray beside her chair there were the half of a broiled chicken, a thin glass of port, and a plate of buttered waffles; and near her high footstool a big yellow cat was busily lapping a saucer of new milk.
As Christopher went up to her, she stretched out her hand and touched his face with her sensitive fingers. "Oh, if I could only see you," she said, a little peevishly. "It is twenty years since I looked at you, and now you are taller than your father was, you say. I can feel that your hair is light, like his and like Lila's, too, since you are twins."
A pretty, fragile woman, who was wrapping a shawl about the old lady's feet, rose to her full height and passed behind the Elizabethan chair." Just a shade lighter than mine, mother," she responded; "the sun makes a difference, you know; he is in the sun so much without a hat." As she stood with her delicate hands clasped above the fancifully carved grotesques upon the chair-back, her beauty shone like a lamp against the smoke-stained walls.
"Ah, if you could but have seen his father when he was young, Lila," sighed her mother, falling into one of the easy reveries of old age. "I met him at a fancy ball, you know, where he went as Achilles in full Grecian dress. Oh! the sight he was, my dear, one of the few fair men among us, and taller even than old Colonel Fitzhugh, who was considered one of the finest figures of his time. That was a wild night for me, Christopher, as I've told you often before—it was love at first sight on both sides, and so marked were your father's attentions that they were the talk of the ball. Edward Morris—the greatest wit of his day, you know—remarked at supper that the weak point of Achilles was proved at last to be not his heel, but his heart."
She laughed with pleasure at the memory, and returned in a half-hearted fashion to her plate of buttered waffles. "Have you been riding again, Christopher?" she asked after a moment, as if remembering a grievance. "I haven't had so much as a word from you to-day, but when one is chained to a chair like this it is useless to ask even to be thought of amid your pleasures."
"I always think of you, mother."
"Well, I'm glad to hear it, my dear, though I'm sure I should never imagine that you do. Have you heard, by the way, that Boaz lost the key of the winecellar, and that I had to go two whole days without my port? I declare, he is getting so careless that I'm afraid we'll have to put another butler over him."
"Lawd, ole miss, you ain' gwine do dat, is you?" anxiously questioned Uncle Boaz as he filled her glass.
She lifted the wine to her lips, her stern face softening. Like many a high-spirited woman doomed to perpetual inaction, her dominion over her servants had grown to represent the larger share of life.
"Then be more careful in future, Boaz," she cautioned. "Tell me, Lila, what has become of Nathan, the son of Phyllis? He used to be a very bright little darkey twenty years ago, and I always intended putting him in the dining-room, but things escape me so. His mother, Phyllis, I remember, got some ridiculous idea about freedom in her head, and ran away with the Yankee soldiers before we whipped them."
Lila's face flushed, for since the war Nathan had grown into one of the most respectable of freedmen, but Uncle Boaz, with a glib tongue, started valiantly to her support.
"Go 'way, ole miss; dat ar Natan is de mos' ornery un er de hull bunch," he declared. "Wen he comes inter my dinin'-'oom, out I'se gwine, an' days sho."
The old lady passed a hand slowly across her brow. "I can't remember—I can't remember," she murmured; "but I dare say you're right, Boaz—and that reminds me that this bottle of port is not so good as the last. Have you tried it, Christopher?"
"Not yet, mother. Where did you find it, Uncle Boaz?"
"Hit's des de same, suh," protested Uncle Boaz. "Dey wuz bofe un um layin' right side by side, des like dey 'uz bo'n blood kin, en I done dus' de cobwebs off'n um wid de same duster, dat I is."
"Well, well, that will do. Now go in to supper, children, and send Docia to take my tray. Dear me, I do wish that Tucker could be persuaded to give up that vulgar bacon. I'm not so unreasonable, I hope, as to expect a man to make any sacrifices in this world—that's the woman's part, and I've tried to take my share of it—but to conceive of a passion for a thing like bacon—I declare is quite beyond me."
"Come, now, Lucy, don't begin to meddle with my whims," protested the cheerful tones of Tucker, as he entered on his crutches, one of which was strapped to the stump of his right arm. "Allow me my dissipations, my dear, and I'll not interfere with yours."
"Dissipations!" promptly took up the old lady, from the hearth. "Why, if it were such a gentlemanly thing as a dissipation, Tucker, I shouldn't say a word—not a single word. A taste for wine is entirely proper, I'm sure, and even a little intoxication is permissible on occasions—such as christenings, weddings, and Christmas Eve gatherings. Your father used to say, Christopher, that the proof of a gentleman was in the way he held his wine. But to fall a deliberate victim to so low-born a vice as a love of bacon is something that no member of our family has ever done before."
"That's true, Lucy," pleasantly assented Tucker; "but then, you see, no member of our family had ever fought three years for his State—to say nothing of losing a leg and an arm in her service."
His fine face was ploughed with the marks of suffering, but the heartiness had not left his voice, and his smile still shone bright and strong. From a proud position as the straightest shot and the gayest liver of his day, he had been reduced at a single blow to the couch of a hopeless cripple. Poverty had come a little later, but the second shock had only served to steady his nerves from the vibration of the first, and the courage which had drooped within him for a time was revived in the form of a rare and gentle humour. Nothing was so terrible but Tucker could get a laugh out of it, people said—not knowing that since he had learned to smile at his own ghastly failure it was an easy matter to turn the jest on universal joy or woe.
The old lady's humour melted at his words, and she hastened to offer proof of her contrition. "You're perfectly right, brother," she said; "and I know I'm an ungrateful creature, so you needn't take the trouble to tell me. As long as you do me the honour to live beneath my roof, you shall eat the whole hog or none to your heart's content."
Then, as Docia, a large black woman, with brass hoops in her ears, appeared to bear away the supper tray, Mrs. Blake folded her hands and settled herself for a nap upon her cushions, while the yellow cat purred blissfully on her knees.
Beyond the adjoining bedroom, through which Christopher passed, a rude plank platform led to a long, unceiled room which served as kitchen and dining-room in one. Here a cheerful blaze made merry about an ancient crane, on which a coffeeboiler swung slowly back and forth with a bubbling noise. In the red firelight a plain pine table was spread with a scant supper of cornbread and bacon and a cracked Wedgewood pitcher filled with buttermilk. There was no silver; the china consisted of some odd, broken pieces of old willow-ware; and beyond a bunch of damask roses stuck in a quaint glass vase, there was no visible attempt to lighten the effect of extreme poverty. An aged Negress, in a dress of linsey-woolsey which resembled a patchwork quilt, was pouring hot, thin coffee into a row of cups with chipped or missing saucers.
Cynthia was already at the table, and when Christopher came in she served him with an anxious haste like that of a stricken mother. To Tucker and herself the coarse fare was unbearable even after the custom of fifteen years, and time had not lessened the surprise with which they watched the young man's healthful enjoyment of his food. Even Lila, whose glowing face in its nimbus of curls lent an almost festive air to her end of the white pine board, ate with a heartiness which Cynthia, with her outgrown standard for her sex, could not but find a trifle vulgar. The elder sister had been born to a different heritage —to one of restricted views and mincing manners for a woman—and, despite herself, she could but drift aimlessly on the widening current of the times.
"Christopher, will you have some coffee—it is stronger now?" she asked presently, reaching for his emptied cup.
"Dis yer stuff ain' no cawfy," grumbled Aunt Pony, taking the boiler from the crane; "hit ain' nuttin' but dishwater, I don' cyar who done made hit." Then, as the door opened to admit Uncle Isam with a bucket from the spring, she divided her scorn equally between him and the coffee-pot.
"You needn't be a-castin' er you nets into dese yer pains," she observed cynically.
Uncle Isam, a dried old Negro of seventy years, shambled in patiently and placed the bucket carefully upon the stones, to be shrilly scolded by Aunt Polly for spilling a few drops on the floor. "I reckon you is steddyin' ter outdo Marse Noah," she remarked with scorn.
"Howdy, Marse Christopher? Howdy, Marse Tuck?" Uncle Isam inquired politely, as he seated himself in a low chair on the hearth and dropped his clasped hands between his open knees.
Christopher nodded carelessly. "Glad to see you, Isam," Tucker cordially responded. "Times have changed since you used to live over here."
"Days so, suh, dot's so. Times dey's done change, but I ain't—I'se des de same. Dat's de tribble wid dis yer worl'; w'en hit change yo' fortune hit don' look ter changin' yo' skin es well."
"That's true; but you're doing all right, I hope?"
"I dunno, Marse Tuck," replied Uncle Isam, coughing as a sudden spurt of smoke issued from the old stone chimney. "I dunno 'bout dat. Times dey's right peart, but I ain't. De vittles dey's ready ter do dar tu'n, but de belly, hit ain't."
"What—are you sick?" asked Cynthia, with interest, rising from the table.
Uncle Isam sighed. "I'se got a tur'able peskey feelin', Miss Cynthy, days de gospel trufe," he returned. "I dunno whur hit's de lungs er de liver, but one un um done got moughty sassy ter de yuther 'en he done flung de reins right loose. Hit looks pow'ful like dey wuz gwine ter run twel dey bofe drap down daid, so I done come all dis way atter a dose er dem bitters ole miss use ter gin us befo' de wah."
"Well, I never!" said Cynthia, laughing. "I believe he means the brown bitters mother used to make for chills and fever. I'm very sorry, Uncle Isam, but we haven't any. We don't keep it any longer."
Leaning over his gnarled palms, the old man shook his head in sober reverie.
"Dar ain' nuttin' like dem bitters in dese yer days," he reflected sadly, "'caze de smell er dem use ter mos' knock you flat 'fo' you done taste 'em, en all de way ter de belly dey use ter keep a-wukin' fur dey livin'. Lawd! Lawd! I'se done bought de biggest bottle er sto' stuff in de sto', en hit slid right spang down 'fo' I got a grip er de taste er hit."
"I'll tell you how to mix it, " said Cynthia sympathetically. "It's very easy; I know Aunt Eve can brew it."
"Go 'way, Miss Cynthy; huccome you don' know better'n dat? Dar ain' no Eve. She's done gone."
"Gone! Is she dead?"
"Naw'm, she aint daid dat I knows—she's des gone.
Hit all come along er dem highfalutin' notions days struttin' roun' dese days 'bout prancin' up de chu'ch aisle en bein' mah'ed by de preacher, stedder des totin' all yo' belongin's f'om one cabin ter anurr, en roas'in' yo' ash-cake in de same pile er ashes. You see, me en Eve we hed done 'sperunce mah'age gwine n fifty years, but we ain' nuver 'sperunce de ceremony twel las' watermillion time."
"Why, Uncle Isam, did she leave you because of that? Here, draw up to the table and eat your supper, while I get down the age-book and find your birth."
She reached for a dusty account book on one of the kitchen shelves, and, bringing it to the table, began slowly turning the yellowed leaves. For more than two hundred years the births of all the Blake slaves had been entered in the big volume.
"You des wait, Miss Cynthy, you des wait twel I git dar," remonstrated Uncle Isam, as he stirred his coffee. "I ain' got no use fur dese yer newfangle fashions, dot's wat I tell de chillun w'en dey begin a-pesterin' me ter mah'y Eve—I ain' got no use fur dem no way hit's put—I ain' got no use fur dis yer struttin' up de aisle bus'ness, ner fur dis yer w'arin' er sto'-made shoes, ner fur dis yer leavin' er de hyar unwropped, needer. Hit looks pisonous tickly ter me, days wat I sez, but w'en dey keep up dey naggin' day in en day out, en I carn' git shunt er um, I hop right up en put on my Sunday bes' en go 'long wid 'em ter de chu'ch—me en Eve bofe a-mincin' des like peacocks. 'You des pay de preacher,' days wat I tell 'em, 'en I'se gwine do all de mah'yin' days ter be done'; en w'en de preacher done got thoo wid me en Eve, I stood right up in de chu'ch an axed ef dey wus any udder nigger 'ooman es 'ud like ter do a little mah'yin'? 'Hit's es easy ter mah'y a dozen es ter mah'y one,' I holler out."
"Oh, Uncle Isam! No wonder Aunt Eve was angry. Here we are—'Isam, son of Docia, born August 12, 18—."
"Lawd, Miss Cynthy, 'twan' me dat mek Eve mad—twuz de preacher, 'caze atter we got back ter de cabin en eat de watermillion ter de rin', she up en tied her bonnet on tight es a chestnut burr en made right fur de do'. De preacher done tote 'er, she sez, dat Eve 'uz in subjection ter her husban', en she'd let 'im see she warn' gwine be subjected unner no man, she warn't. 'Fo' de Lawd, Miss Cynthy, dat ar Eve sutney wuz a high-sperited 'ooman!"
"But, Uncle Isam, it was so silly. Why, she'd been married to you already for a lifetime."
"Dat's so, Miss Cynthy, dat's so, 'caze 'twuz dem ar wuds dat rile 'er mos'. She 'low she done been in subjection fur gwine on fifty years widout knowin' hit."
He finished his coffee at a gulp and leaned back in his chair.
"En now des fem me hyear how ole I is," he wound up sorrowfully.
"The twelfth of August, 18— (that's the date of your birth), makes you—let me see—you'll be seventy years old next summer. There, now, since you've found out what you wanted, you'd better spend the night with Uncle Boaz."
"Thanky, ma'am, but I mus' be gwine back agin," responded Uncle Isam, shuffling to his feet, "en ef you don' min', Marse Christopher, I'd like a wud wid you outside de do'."
Laughing, Christopher rose from his chair and, with a patriarchal dignity of manner, followed the old man into the moonlight.
CHAPTER VI. Carraway Plays Courtier
At twelve o'clock the next day, Carraway, walking in the June brightness along the road to the Blake cottage, came suddenly, at the bend of the old icepond, upon Maria Fletcher returning from a morning ride. The glow of summer was in her eyes, and though her face was still pale, she seemed to him a different creature from the grave, repressed girl of the night before. He noticed at once that she sat her horse superbly, and in her long black habit all the sinuous lines of her figure moved in rhythm with the rapid pace.
As she neared him, and apparently before she had noticed his approach, he saw her draw rein quickly, and, screened by the overhanging boughs of a blossoming chestnut, send her glance like a hooded falcon across the neighbouring field. Following the aim of her look, he saw Christopher Blake walking idly among the heavy furrows, watching, with the interest of a born agriculturist, the busy transplanting of Fletcher's crop. He still wore his jean clothes, which, hanging loosely upon his impressive figure, blended harmoniously with the dull-purple tones of the upturned soil. Beyond him there was a background of distant wood, still young in leaf, and his bared head, with the strong, sunburned line of his profile, stood out as distinctly as a portrait done in early Roman gold.
That Maria had seen in him some higher possibility than that of a field labourer was soon evident to Carraway, for her horse was still standing on the slight incline, and as he reached her side she turned with a frank question on her lips.
"Is that one of the labourers—the young giant by the fence?"
"Well, I dare say he labours, if that's what you mean. He's young Blake, you know."
"Young Blake?" She bent her brows, and it was clear that the name suggested only a trivial recollection to her mind. "There used to be some Blake children in the old overseer's house—is this one of them."
"Possibly; they live in the overseer's house."
She leaned over, fastening her heavy gauntlet. "They wouldn't play with me, I remember; I couldn't understand why. Once I carried my dolls over to their yard, and the boy set a pack of hounds on me. I screamed so that an old Negro ran out and drove them off, and all the time the boy stood by, laughing and calling me names. Is that he, do you think?"
"I dare say. It sounds like him."
"Is he so cruel?" she asked a little wistfully.
"I don't know about that—but he doesn't like your people. Your grandfather had some trouble with him a long time ago."
"And he wanted to punish me?—how cowardly."
"It does sound rather savage, but it isn't an ordinary case, you know. He's the kind of person to curse 'root and branch,' from all I hear, in the good old Biblical fashion."
"Oh, well, he's certainly very large, isn't he?"
"He's superb," said Carraway, with conviction.
"At a distance—so is that great pine over there," she lifted her whip and pointed across the field; then as Carraway made no answer, she smiled slightly and rode rapidly toward the Hall.
For a few minutes the lawyer stood where she had left him, watching in puzzled thought her swaying figure on the handsome horse. The girl fretted him, and yet he felt that he liked her almost in spite of himself—liked something fine and fearless he found in her dark eyes; liked, too, even while he sneered, her peculiar grace of manner. There was the making of a woman in her after all, he told himself, as he turned into the sunken road, where he saw Christopher already moving homeward. He had meant to catch up with him and join company on the way, but the young man covered ground so quickly with his great strides that at last Carraway, losing sight of him entirely, resigned himself to going leisurely about his errand.