THE ENTAILED HAT
PATTY CANNON'S TIMES
BY GEORGE ALFRED TOWNSEND
NEW YORK HARPER & BROTHERS, FRANKLIN SQUARE 1884
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1884, by
HARPER & BROTHERS,
In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
All rights reserved.
JUDGE GEORGE P. FISHER
HON. JOHN A. J. CRESWELL
LOVERS OF OLD TIMES
WELCOMERS OF THE NEW ERA
"Friends! trust not the heart of that man for whom Old Clothes are not venerable."—CARLYLE: Sartor Resartus
Once the author awoke to a painful reflection that he knew no place well, though his occupation had taken him to many, and that, after twenty-five years of describing localities and society, he would be identified with none.
"Where shall I begin to rove within confines?" he asked, feeling the vacant spaces in his nature: the want of all those birds, forest trees, household habits, weeds, instincts of the brooks, and tints and tones of the local species which lie in some neighborhood's compass, and complete the pastoral mind.
Numerous districts rose up and contended together, each attractive from some striking scene, or bold contrast, or lovely face; and wiser policy might have led his inclinations to one of these, redundant, perhaps, in wealth or literary appreciation; yet the heart began to turn, as in first love, or vagrancy almost as sweet, to the little, lowly region where his short childhood was lived, and where the unknown generations of his people darkened the sand—the peninsula between the Chesapeake and the Delaware.
Far down this peninsula lies the old town of Snow Hill, on the border of Virginia; there the pilgrim entered the court-house, and asked to see an early book of wills, and in it he turned to the name of a maternal ancestor, of whom grand tales had been told him by an aged relative. His breath was almost taken by finding the following provisions, dated February 12, 1800:
"I give and bequeath to my son, Ralph Milbourn, MY BEST HAT, TO HIM AND HIS ASSIGNEES FOREVER, and no more of my estate.
"I give to Thomas Milbourn my small iron kettle, my brandy still, all my hand-irons, my pot-rack, and fifteen pounds bond that he gave to my daughter, Grace Milbourn."
The next day a doctor took the author on his rounds through "the Forest," as a neighboring tract was almost too invidiously called, and through a deserted iron-furnace; village almost of the date of these wills.
Everywhere he went the Entailed Hat seemed, to the stranger in the land of his forefathers, to appear in the vistas, as if some odd, reverend, avoided being was wearing it down the defiles of time. Now like Hester Prynne wearing her Scarlet Letter, and now like Gaston in his Iron Mask, this being took both sexes and different characters, as the author weighed the probabilities of its existence. At last he began to know it, and started to portray it in a little tale.
The story broke from its confines as his own family generation had broken from that forest, and sought a larger hemisphere; yet, wherever the mystic Hat proceeded, his truant fancy had also been led by his mother's hand.
Often had she told him of old Patty Cannon and her kidnapper's den, and her death in the jail of his native town. He found the legend of that dreaded woman had strengthened instead of having faded with time, and her haunts preserved, and eye-witnesses of her deeds to be still living.
Hence, this romance has much local truth in it, and is not only the narration of an episode, but the story of a large region comprehending three state jurisdictions, and also of that period when modern life arose upon the ruins of old colonial caste.
I. TWO HAT WEARERS 1 II. JUDGE AND DAUGHTER 6 III. THE FORESTERS 15 IV. DISCOVERY OF THE HEIRLOOM 19 V. THE BOG-ORE TRACT 25 VI. THE CUSTISES RUINED 32 VII. JACK-O'-LANTERN IRON 40 VIII. THE HAT FINDS A RACK 45 IX. HA! HA! THE WOOING ON'T 69 X. MASTER IN THE KITCHEN 83 XI. DYING PRIDE 89 XII. PRINCESS ANNE FOLKS 100 XIII. SHADOW OF THE TILE 121 XIV. MESHACH'S HOME 129 XV. THE KIDNAPPER 154 XVI. BELL-CROWN MAN 164 XVII. SABBATH AND CANOE 179 XVIII. UNDER AN OLD BONNET 192 XIX. THE DUSKY LEVELS 210 XX. CASTE WITHOUT TONE 218 XXI. LONG SEPARATIONS 239 XXII. NANTICOKE PEOPLE 261 XXIII. TWIFORD'S ISLAND 269 XXIV. OLD CHIMNEYS 285 XXV. PATTY CANNON'S 298 XXVI. VAN DORN 318 XXVII. CANNON'S FERRY 335 XXVIII. PACIFICATION 357 XXIX. BEGINNING OF THE RAID 360 XXX. AFRICA 365 XXXI. PEACH BLUSH 373 XXXII. GARTER-SNAKES 391 XXXIII. HONEYMOON 405 XXXIV. THE ORDEAL 411 XXXV. COWGILL HOUSE 424 XXXVI. TWO WHIGS 433 XXXVII. SPIRIT OF THE PAST 441 XXXVIII. VIRGIE'S FLIGHT 456 XXXIX. VIRGIE'S FLIGHT—CONTINUED 468 XL. HULDA BELEAGUERED 486 XLI. AUNT PATTY'S LAST TRICK 496 XLII. BEAKS 510 XLIII. PLEASURE DRAINED 515 XLIV. THE DEATH OF PATTY CANNON 524 XLV. THE JUDGE REMARRIED 542 XLVI. THE CURSE OF THE HAT 554 XLVII. FAILURE AND RESTITUTION 558
* * * * *
A picture of Joe Johnson's Kidnapper's Tavern, as it stood in the year 1883, is given on the title-page.
THE ENTAILED HAT.
TWO HAT WEARERS.
Princess Anne, as its royal name implies, is an old seat of justice, and gentle-minded town on the Eastern Shore. The ancient county of Somerset having been divided many years before the revolutionary war, and its courts separated, the original court-house faded from the world, and the forest pines have concealed its site. Two new towns arose, and flourish yet, around the original records gathered into their plain brick offices, and he would be a forgetful visitor in Princess Anne who would not say it had the better society. He would get assurances of this from "the best people" living there; and yet more solemn assurances from the two venerable churches, Presbyterian and Episcopalian, whose grave-stones, upright or recumbent, or in family rows, say, in epitaphs Latinized, poetical, or pious, "We belonged to the society of Princess Anne." That, at least, is the impression left on the visitor as he wanders amid their myrtle and creeper, or receives, on the wide, loamy streets, the bows of the lawyers and their clients.
There were but two eccentric men living in Princess Anne in the early half of our century, and both of them were identified by their hats.
The first was Jack Wonnell, a poor fellow of some remote origin who had once attended an auction, and bought a quarter gross of beaver hats. Although that happened years before our story opens, and the fashions had changed, Jack produced a new hat from the stock no oftener than when he had well worn its predecessor, and, at the rate of two hats a year, was very slowly extinguishing the store. Like most people who frequent auctions, he was not provident, except in hats, and presented a startling appearance in his patched and shrunken raiment when he mounted a bright, new tile, and took to the sidewalk. His name had become, in all grades of society, "Bell-crown."
The other eccentric citizen was the subject of a real mystery, and even more burlesque. He wore a hat, apparently more than a century old, of a tall, steeple crown, and stiff, wavy brim, and nearly twice as high as the cylinders or high hats of these days. It had been rubbed and recovered and cleaned and straightened, until its grotesque appearance was infinitely increased. If the wearer had walked out of the court of King James I. directly into our times and presence, he could not have produced a more singular effect. He did not wear this hat on every occasion, nor every day, but always on Sabbaths and holidays, on funeral or corporate celebrations, on certain English church days, and whenever he wore the remainder of his extra suit, which was likewise of the genteel-shabby kind, and terminated by greenish gaiters, nearly the counterpart, in color, of the hat. To daily business he wore a cheap, common broadbrim, but sometimes, for several days, on freak or unknown method, he wore this steeple hat, and strangers in the place generally got an opportunity to see it.
Meshach Milburn, or "Steeple-top," was a penurious, grasping, hardly social man of neighborhood origin, but of a family generally unsuccessful and undistinguished, which had been said to be dying out for so many years that it seemed to be always a remnant, yet never quite gone. He alone of the Milburns had lifted himself out of the forest region of Somerset, and settled in the town, and, by silence, frugality, hard bargaining, and, finally, by money-lending, had become a person of unknown means—himself almost unknown. He was, ostensibly, a merchant or storekeeper, and did deal in various kinds of things, keeping no clerk or attendant but a negro named Samson, who knew as little about his mind and affections as the rest of the town. Samson's business was to clean and produce the mysterious hat, which he knew to be required every time he saw his master shave.
As soon as the lather-cup and hone were agitated, Samson, without inquiry, went into a big green chest in the bedroom over the old wooden store, and drew out of a leather hat-box the steeple-crown, where Meshach Milburn himself always sacredly replaced it. Then "Samson Hat," as the boys called him, exercised his brush vigorously, and put the queer old head-gear in as formal shape as possible, and he silently attended to its rehabilitation through the medium of the village hatter, never leaving the shop until the tile had been repaired, and suffering none whatever to handle it except the mechanic. In addition to this, Samson cooked his master's food, and performed rough work around the store, but had no other known qualification for a confidential servant except his bodily power.
He was now old, probably sixty, but still a most formidable pugilist; and he had caught, running afoot, the last wild deer in the county. Though not a drinking man Samson Hat never let a year pass without having a personal battle with some young, willing, and powerful negro. His physical and mental system seemed to require some such periodical indulgence, and he measured every negro who came to town solely in the light of his prowess. At the appearance of some Herculean or clean-chested athlete, Samson's eye would kindle, his smile start up, and his friendly salutation would be: "You're a good man! 'Most as good as me!" He was never whipped, rumor said, but by an inoffensive black class-leader whom he challenged and compelled to fight.
"Befo' God, man, I never see you befo'! I'se jined de church! I kint fight! I never didn't do it!"
"Can't help it, brother!" answered Samson. "You're too good a man to go froo Somerset County. Square off or you'll ketch it!"
"Den if I must I must! de Lord forgive me!" and after a tremendous battle the class-leader came off nearly conqueror.
Whenever Samson indulged his gladiatorial propensities he disappeared into the forest whence he came, and being a free man of mental independence equal to his nerve, he merely waited in his lonely cabin until Meshach Milburn sent him word to return. Then silently the old negro resumed his place, looked contrition, took the few bitter, overbearing words of his master silently, and brushed the ancient hat.
Meshach kept him respectably dressed, but paid him no wages; the negro had what he wanted, but wanted little; on more than one occasion the court had imposed penalties on Samson's breaches of the peace, and he lay in jail, unsolicitous and proud, until Meshach Milburn paid the fine, which he did grudgingly; for money was Meshach's sole pursuit, and he spent nothing upon himself.
Without a vice, it appeared that Meshach Milburn had not an emotion, hardly a virtue. He had neither pity nor curiosity, visitors nor friends, professions nor apologies. Two or three times he had been summoned on a jury, when he put on his best suit and his steeple-crown, and formally went through his task. He attended the Episcopal worship every Sunday and great holiday, wearing inevitably the ancient tile, which often of itself drew audience more than the sermon. He gave a very small sum of money and took a cheap pew, and read from his prayer-book many admonitions he did not follow.
He was not litigious, but there was no evading the perfectness of his contracts. His searching and large hazel eyes, almost proud and quite unkindly, and his Indian-like hair, were the leading elements of a face not large, but appearing so, as if the buried will of some long frivolous family had been restored and concentrated in this man and had given a bilious power to his brows and jaws and glances.
His eccentricity had no apparent harmony with anything else nor any especial sensibility about it. The boys hooted his hat, and the little girls often joined in, crying "Steeple-top! He's got it on! Meshach's loose!" But he paid no attention to anybody, until once, at court time, some carousing fellows hired Jack Wonnell to walk up to Meshach Milburn and ask to swap a new bell-crown for the old decrepit steeple-top. Looking at Wonnell sternly in the face, Meshach hissed, "You miserable vagrant! Nature meant you to go bareheaded. Beware when you speak to me again!"
"I was afraid of him," said Jack Wonnell, afterwards. "He seemed to have a loaded pistol in each eye."
No other incident, beyond indiscriminate ridicule, was recorded of this hat, except once, when a group of little children in front of Judge Custis's house began to whisper and titter, and one, bolder than the rest, the Judge's daughter, gravely walked up to the unsocial man; it was the first of May, and he was in his best suit:
"Sir," she said, "may I put a rose in your old hat?"
The harsh man looked down at the little queenly child, standing straight and slender, with an expression on her face of composure and courtesy. Then he looked up and over the Judge's residence to see if any mischievous or presuming person had prompted this act. No one was in sight, and the other children had run away.
"Why do you offer me a flower?" he said, but with no tenderness.
"Because I thought such a very old hat might improve with a rose."
He hesitated a minute. The little girl, as if well-born, received his strong stare steadily. He took off the venerable old head-gear, and put it in the pretty maid's hand. She fixed a white rose to it, and then he placed the hat and rose again on his head and took a small piece of gold from his pocket.
"Will you take this?"
"My father will not let me, sir!"
Meshach Milburn replaced the coin and said nothing else, but walked down the streets, amid more than the usual simpering, and the weather-beaten door of the little rickety storehouse closed behind him.
JUDGE AND DAUGHTER.
Judge Custis was the most important man in the county. He belonged to the oldest colonial family of distinction, the Custises of Northampton, whose fortune, beginning with King Charles II. and his tavern credits in Rotterdam, ended in endowing Colonel George Washington with a widow's mite. The Judge at Princess Anne was the most handsome man, the father of the finest family of sons and daughters, the best in estate, most various in knowledge, and the most convivial of Custises.
In that region of the Eastern Shore there is so little diversity of productions, the ocean and the loam alone contributing to man, that Judge Custis had an exaggerated reputation as a mineralogist.
He had begun to manufacture iron out of the bog ores found in the swamps and hummocks of a neighboring district, and, with the tastes of a landholding and slaveholding family, had erected around his furnace a considerable town, his own residence as proprietor conspicuous in the midst. There he spent a large part of the time, and not always in the company of his family, entertaining friends from the distant cities, enjoying the luxuries of terrapin, duck, and wines, and, as rumor said in the forest, all the pleasures of a Russian or German nobleman on a secluded estate.
He could lie down on the ground with the barefooted foresters, equal and familiar with them, and carry off their suffrages for the State Senate or the Assembly. In Princess Anne he was more discriminating, rising in that society to his family stature, and surrounded by alliances which demanded what is called "bearing." In short, he was the head of the community, and his wealth, originally considerable, had been augmented by marriage, while his credit extended to Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Not long after the occurrence of his young daughter, Vesta, placing the rose in Meshach Milburn's mysterious hat, Judge Custis said to his lady at the breakfast-table:
"That man has been allowed to shut himself in, like a dog, too long. He owes something to this community. I'll go down to his kennel, under pretence of wanting a loan—and I do need some money for the furnace!"
He took his cane after breakfast and passed out of his large mansion, and down the sidewalk of the level street. There were, as usually, some negroes around Milburn's small, weather-stained store, and Samson Hat, among them, shook hands with the Judge, not a particle disturbed at the latter's condescension.
"Judge," said Samson, looking that large, portly gentleman over, "you'se a good man yet. But de flesh is a little soft in yo' muscle, Judge."
"Ah! Samson," answered Custis, "there's one old fellow that is wrastling you."
"Time?" said the negro; "we can't fight him, sho! Dat's a fack! But I'm good as any man in Somerset now."
"Except my daughter's boy, the class-leader from Talbot."
"Is dat boy in yo' family," exclaimed Samson, kindling up. "I'll walk dar if he'll give me another throw."
The Judge passed into the wide-open door of Meshach Milburn's store. A few negroes and poor whites were at the counter, and Meshach was measuring whiskey out to them by the cheap dram in exchange for coonskins and eggs. He looked up, just a trifle surprised at the principal man's advent, and merely said, without nodding:
Judge Custis never flinched from anybody, but his intelligence recognized in Meshach's eyes a kind of nature he had not yet met, though he was of universal acquaintance. It was not hostility, nor welcome, nor indifference. It was not exactly spirit. As nearly as the Judge could formulate it, the expression was habitual self-reliance, and if not habitual suspicion, the feeling most near it, which comes from conscious unpopularity.
"Mr. Milburn," said Judge Custis, "when you are at leisure let me have a few words with you."
The storekeeper turned to the poor folks in his little area and remarked to them bluntly:
"You can come back in ten minutes."
They all went out without further command. Milburn closed the door. The Judge moved a chair and sat down.
"Milburn," he said, dropping the formal "mister," "they tell me you lend money, and that you charge well for it. I am a borrower sometimes, and I believe in keeping interest at home in our own community. Will you discount my note at legal interest?"
"Never," replied Meshach.
"Then," said the Judge, smiling, "you'll put me to some inconvenience."
"That's more than legal interest," answered Milburn, sturdily. "You'll pay the legal interest where you go, and the inconvenience of going will cost something too. If you add your expenses as liberally as you incur them when you go to Baltimore, to legal interest, you are always paying a good shave."
"Where you have risks," suggested the Judge, "there is some reason for a heavy discount, but my property will enrich this county and all the land you hold mortgages on."
"Bog ore!" muttered the money-lender. "I never lent money on that kind of risk. I must read upon it! They say manufacturing requires mechanical talent. How much do you want?"
"Secured upon the furnace?"
Meshach computed on a piece of paper, and the Judge, with easy curiosity, studied his singular face and figure.
He was rather short and chunky, not weighing more than one hundred and thirty pounds, with long, fine fingers of such tracery and separate action that every finger seemed to have a mind and function of its own. Looking at his hands only, one would have said: "There is here a pianist, a penman, a woman of definite skill, or a man of peculiar delicacy." All the fingers were well produced, as if the hand instead of the face was meant to be the mind's exponent and reveal its portrait there.
Yet the face of Meshach Milburn, if more repellent, was uncommon.
The effects of one long diet and one climate, invariable, from generation to generation, and both low and uninvigorating, had brought to nearly aboriginal form and lines his cheek-bones, hair, and resinous brown eyes. From the cheek-bones up he looked like an Indian, and expressed a stolid power and swarthiness. Below, there dropped a large face, in proportion, with nothing noticeable about it except the nose, which was so straight, prominent, and complete, and its nostrils so sensitive, that only the nose upon his face seemed to be good company for his hands. When he confronted one, with his head thrown back a little, his brown eyes staring inquiry, and his nose almost sentient, the effect was that of a hostile savage just burst from the woods.
That was his condition indeed.
"Look at him in the eyes," said the town-bred, "he's all forester!"
"But look at his hand," added some few observant ones.
Ah! who had ever shaken that hand?
It was now extended to the Judge and he took from its womanly fingers the terms of the loan. Judge Custis was surprised at the moderation of Meshach, and he looked up cheerfully into that ever sentinel face on which might have been printed "qui vive?"
"It's not the goodness of the security," said Meshach, "I make it low to you, socially!"
The Custis pride started with a flush to the Judge's eyes, to have this ostracised and hooted Shylock intimate that their relations could be more than a prince's to a pawnbroker. But the Judge was a politician, with an adaptable mind and address.
"Speaking of social things, Milburn," he said, carelessly, "our town is not so large that we don't all see each other sometimes. Why do you wear that forlorn, unsightly hat?"
"Why do you wear the name Custis?"
"Oh, I inherited that!"
"And I inherited my hat."
There was a pause for a minute, but before the Judge could tell whether it was an angry or an awkward pause, the storekeeper said:
"Judge Custis, I concede that you are the best bred man in Princess Anne. Where did you get authority to question another person about any decent article of his attire?"
"I stand corrected, Milburn," said the Judge. "Good feeling for you more than curiosity made me suggest it. And I may also remark to you, sir, that when you lend me money you will always do it commercially and not socially."
"Very well," remarked Meshach Milburn, "and if I ever enter your door, I will then take off my hat."
* * * * *
The next morning Meshach Milburn surprised Samson Hat by saying: "Boy, when you have another fight and make yourself a barbarian again, remember to bring back, from Nassawongo furnace, about a peck of the bog ores!"
* * * * *
The years moved on without much change in Princess Anne. The little Manokin river brought up oysters from the bay, and carried off the corn and produce. The great brick academy at neighboring "Lower Trappe" boarded and educated the brightest youths of the best families on the Peninsula; and these perceived, as the annual summers brought their fulness, what portion of their beauty remained with Vesta Custis. She was like Helen of Troy, a subject of homage and dispute in childhood, and became a woman, in men's consideration, almost imperceptibly. Sent to Baltimore to be educated, her return was followed by suitors—not youthful admirers only, but mature ones—and the young men of the Peninsula remarked with chagrin: "None of us have a chance! Some great city nabob will get her."
But the academy boys and visitors, and the townspeople, had one common opportunity to see her and to hear her—when she sang, every Sabbath and church day, in the Episcopal church.
Her voice was the natural expression of her beauty—sweet, powerful, free, and easily trained. A divine bird seemed hidden in the old church when this noble yet tender voice broke forth; but they who turned to see the singer who had made such Paradise, looked almost on Eve herself.
She was rather slight, tall, and growing fuller slowly every year, like one in whom growth was early, yet long, and who would wholly mature not until near middle life. Her head, however, was perfection, even in girlhood, not less by its proportions than its carriage: her graceful figure bore it like the slender setting, holding up the first splendor of the peach; a head of vital and spiritual beauty, where purity and luxuriance, woman and mind, dwelt in harmony and joy. As she seemed ever to be ripening, so she seemed never to have been a child, but, with faculties and sense clear and unintimidated, she was never wanting in modesty, nor accused of want of self-possession. Judge Custis made her his reliance and pride; she never reproved his errors, nor treated them familiarly, but settled the household by a consent which all paid to her character alone. More than once she had appeared at the furnace mansion when the Judge's long absence had awakened some jealousy or distrust:
"Father, please go home with me! I want you to drive me back."
The easy, self-indulgent Judge would look a slight protest, but at the soft, spirited command; "Come, sir! you can't stay here any more," dismissed his companions, and took his place at the head of Princess Anne society.
Vesta was almost a brunette, with the rich colors of her type—eyebrows like the raven's wing, ripe, red lips, and hair whose darkness and length, released from the crown into which she wound it, might have spun her garments. Her eyes were of a steel-blue, in which the lights had the effect of black. She was dark with sky breaking through, like the rich dusk and twilights over the Chesapeake.
People wondered that, with such beauty, ease, and accomplishments she was not proud; but her pride was too ethereal to be seen. It was not the vain consciousness of gifts and endowments, but the serene sense of worthiness, of unimpaired health, honor, and descent, which made her kind and thoughtful to a degree only less than piety. Grateful for her social rank and parentage, she adorned but did not forget them. The suitors who came for her were weighed in this scale of perfect desert—to be sons of such parents and associates of her married sisters and sisters-in-law. Not one had survived the test, yet none knew where he failed.
"Vesta is too good for any of them," exclaimed the Judge, on more than one occasion. "When I get the furnace in such shape that it will run itself I will take my daughter to Europe and give her a musical education."
In truth, the Judge had expectations of his daughter; for the reputation he had attained as a manufacturer was not without its drawbacks. He maintained two establishments; he supported a large body of laborers and dependents, some of whom he had brought from distant places under contract; the experiment in which he had embarked was still an experiment, and he was subject to the knowledge and judgment of his manager, being himself rather the patron than the manufacturer at the works. Many days, when he was supposed to be testing the percentage and mixture of his ores, he was gunning off on the ocean bars, crabbing on Whollop's Beach, or hunting up questionable company among the forest girls, or around the oystermen's or wrecker's cabins. He had plenty of property and family endorsers, however, and seldom failed to have a satisfactory interview with Meshach Milburn, who was now assisting him, at least once a quarter, to keep both principal and interest at home.
The Judge had grown thicker with Meshach, but the storekeeper merely listened and assented, and took no pains to incur another criticism on his motives. Meshach wore his great hat, as ever, to church and on festive days, and it was still derided, and held to be the town wonder. Vesta Custis often saw the odd little man come into church while she was singing, and she fancied that his large, coarse ears were turned to receive the music she was making, and she faintly remembered that once she had held in her hands that wonderful hat with its copper buckle in the band, and stiff, wide brim, flowing in a wave. More than that she knew nothing, except that the wearer was an humble-born, grasping creature—a forester without social propensities, or, indeed, any human attachments. The negro who abode under his roof was beloved, compared to the sordid master, and all testimony concurred that Meshach Milburn deserved neither commiseration, friendship, nor recognition. Her father, however, indulgent in all things, said the money-lender had a good mind, and was no serf.
Milburn had ceased to deal with negroes or dispense drams. His wealth was now known to be more than considerable. He had ceased, also, to lend money on the surrounding farms, and rumors came across the bay that he was a holder of stocks and mortgages on the Western Shore, and in Baltimore and Pennsylvania. The little town of Princess Anne was full of speculations about him, and even his age was uncertain; Jack Wonnell had measured it by hats. Said Jack:
"I bought my bell-crowns the year ole Milburn's daddy and mammy died. They died of the bilious out yer in Nassawongo, within a few days of each other. Now, I wear two bell-crowns a year. I come out every Fourth of July and Christmas. 'Tother day I counted what was left, and I reckoned that Meshach couldn't be forty-five at the wust."
Vesta Custis was only twenty years old when the townsfolk thought she must be twenty-five, so long had she been the beauty of Somerset. Her mother had always looked with apprehension on the possible time when her daughter would marry and leave her; for Judge Custis had long ceased to have the full confidence of his lady, whose fortune he had embarked without return on ventures still in doubt, and he always waived the subject when it was broached, or remarked that no loss was possible in his hands while Mrs. Custis lived.
One Saturday afternoon in October Meshach Milburn drew out his razor, cup, and hone, and prepared to shave, albeit his beard was never more than harmless down. By a sort of capillary attraction Samson Hat divined his purpose, and, opening the big green chest, brought out the mysterious hat.
"Put it down!" commanded the money-lender. "Go out and hire me a carriage with two horses—two horses, do you mind!"
Samson dropped the hat in wonderment.
"Make yourself decent," added Meshach; "I want you to drive. Go with me, and keep with me: do you understand?"
When the negro departed, Meshach himself took up the tall, green, buckled hat, with the stiff, broad, piratical brim. He looked it over long and hard.
"Vanity, vanity!" he murmured, "vanity and habit! I dare not disown thee now, because they give thee ridicule, and without thee they would give me nothing but hate!"
The people around the tavern and court-house saw, with surprise too great for jeering, the note-shaver go past in a carriage, driven by his negro, and with two horses! Jack Wonnell took off his shining beaver to cheer. As the phenomenal team receded, the old cry ran, however, down the stilly street: "Steeple-top! He's got it on! Meshach's loose!"
The carriage proceeded out the forest road, and soon entered upon the sandy, pine-slashed region called Hard-scrabble, or Hardship.
Here the roads were sandy as the hummocks and hills in the rear of a sea beach, and the low, lean pines covered the swells and ridges, while in occasional level basins, where the stiff clay was exposed, some forester's unpainted hut sat black and smoking on the slope, without a window-pane, an ornament, or anything to relieve life from its monotony and isolation.
But where the rills ran off to the continuous swamps the leafage started up in splendrous versatility. The maple stood revealed in all its fair, light harmonies. The magnolia drooped its ivory tassels, and scented the forest with perfume. The kalmia and the alder gave undergrowth and brilliancy to the foliage. Hoary and green with precipitate old age, the cypress-trees stood in moisture, and drooped their venerable beards from angular branches, the bald cypress overhanging its evergreen kinsman, and looking down upon the swamp-woods in autumn, like some hermit artist on the rich pigments on his palette.
But nothing looked so noble as the sweet gum, which rose like a giant plume of yellow and orange, a chief in joyous finery, where the cypress was only a faded philosopher.
Beside such a tall gum-tree Samson Hat reined in, where a well-spring shone at the bottom of a hollow cypress. He borrowed a bucket from the hut across the road, and watered the horses.
"Marster," ventured the negro, "dey say your gran'daddy sot dis spring."
"Yes," said Milburn, "and built the cabin. Yonder he lies, on the knoll by that stump, up in the field: he and more of our wasted race."
"And yon woman is a Milburn," added the negro, socially. "I know her by de hands."
The barefoot woman living in the cabin—one room and a loft, and the floor but a few inches above the ground—cried out, impudently:
"If I could have two horses I'd buy a better hat!"
Milburn did not answer, but marked the poor, small corn ears ungathered on the fodderless stalks, the shrubs of peach-trees, of which the largest grew on his ancestors' graves, the little cart for one horse or ox, which was at once family carriage and farm wagon, and the few pigs and chickens of stunted breeds around the woman's feet.
"Drive on, boy," he exclaimed; "the worst of all is that these people are happy!"
"Dat's a fack, marster," laughed Samson Hat. "Dey wouldn't speak to you in Princess Anne. Dey think everybody's proud and rich dar."
"Here the sea once dashed its billows on a bar," said Meshach Milburn, reflectively. "That geology book relates it! From the North the hummocks recede in waves, where successive beaches were formed as the sea slowly retreated. Hardly deeper than a human grave they strike water, below the sand and gravel. Below the water they drink is nothing but black mud, made of coarse, decayed grass. No lime is in the soil. Not a mineral exists in all this low, wave-made peninsula, where my people were shipwrecked—except the wonderful bog ores."
The negro's genial, wondering nature broke out with comfortable assurance.
"Dat must be in de Bible," he said. "Marster, de Milburns been heah so long, dey must hab got shipwrecked wid ole Noah!"
"All families are shipwrecked," absently replied Meshach, "who cast their lot upon an unrewarding land, and growing poorer, darker, down, from generation to generation, can never leave it, and, at last, can never desire to go."
"Marster, dar is one got to go some ob dese days. It's me—pore ole Samson!"
"Ha! has some one set you on to demand your wages?"
"No, marster, I am old. It's you dat I'm troubled about! Dar's none to mend for you, cook for you, cure yo' sickness, or lay you in de grave."
No more was said until they passed the settled part of the forest and entered one of the many straight aisles of sky and sand among the pines, which had been opened on the great furnace tract of Judge Custis. He had here several thousand acres, and for miles the roadways were cleft towards the horizon. The moon rose behind them as they entered the furnace village, and they saw the lights twinkle through the open doors of many cottages and the furnace flames dart over the forbidding mill-pond, where in the depths grew the iron ore, like a vegetable creation, and above the surface, on splayed and conical mud-washed roots, the hundreds of strong cypresses towered from the water. Between the steep banks of dark-colored pines, taller than the forest growth, this furnace lake lay black and white and burning red as the shadows, or moonrise, or flames struck upon it, and the stained water foamed through the breast or dam where the ancient road crossed between pines, cypresses and gum-trees of commanding stature.
Tawny, slimy, chilly, and solemn, the pond repeated the forms of the groves it submerged; the shaggy shadows added depth and dread to the effect; some strange birds hooted as they dipped their wings in the surface, and, flying upward, seemed also sinking down. As Meshach felt the chill of that pond he drew down his hat and buttoned up his coat.
"The earliest fools who turned up the bog ores for wealth," he said, "released the miasmas which slew all the people roundabout. They killed all my family, but set me free."
DISCOVERY OF THE HEIRLOOM.
Judge Custis was in his bedroom, in the second story of the large, inn-like mansion at the middle of the village, and he was just recovering from the effects of a long wassail. In his peculiar nervous condition he started at the sound of wheels, and, drawing his curtains, looked out upon the long shadow of an advancing figure crowned with a steeple hat.
This human shadow strengthened and faded in the alternating light, until it was defined against his storehouse, his warehouse, his cabins, and the plain, and it seemed also against the wall of dense forest pines. Then footsteps ascended the stairs. His door opened and Meshach Milburn, with his holiday hat on his head, stood on the threshold; his eyes vigilant and bold as ever, and all his Indian nature to the front.
"My God, Milburn!" exclaimed the Judge, "odd as it is to see you here, I am relieved. Old Nick, I thought, was coming."
"Shall I come in?" asked Milburn.
"Yes; I'm sleeping off a little care and business. Let your man stay outside on the porch. Draw up a chair. It's money, I suppose, that brings you here?"
The money-lender carefully put his formidable hat upon a table, took a distant chair, pushed his gaitered feet out in front, and laid a large wallet or pocket-book on his lap. Then, addressing his whole attention to the host, he appeared never to wink while he remained.
"Judge Custis," he said, straightforwardly, "the first time you came to borrow money from me, you said that Nassawongo furnace would enrich this county and raise the value of my land."
"Yes, Milburn. It was a slow enterprise, but it's coming all right. I shipped a thousand tons last year."
"Judge Custis," continued the money-lender, "I told you, when you made the first loan, that I would investigate this ore. I did so years ago. Specimens were sent by me to Baltimore and tested there. Not content with that, I have studied the manufacture of iron for myself—the society of Princess Anne not grudging me plenty of solitude!—and I know that every ton of iron you make costs more than you get for it. The bog ore is easy to smelt; but it is corrupted by phosphate of iron and is barely marketable."
The Judge was sitting with eyes wide open, and paler than before.
"You have found that out?" he whispered. "I did not know it myself until within this year—so help me God!"
"I knew it before I made you the second loan."
"Why did you not tell me?"
"Because you forbade our relations to be anything but commercial. I was not bound to betray my knowledge."
"Why did you, then, from a commercial view, lend me large sums of money again and again?"
"Because," said the money-lender, coolly, "you had other security. You have a daughter!"
Judge Custis broke from the bed-covers and rushed upon Meshach Milburn.
"Heathen and devil!" he shouted, taking the money-lender by the throat, "do you dare to mention her as part of your mortgage?"
They struggled together until a powerful pair of hands pinioned the Judge, and bore him back to his bed. Samson Hat was the man.
"Judge!" he exclaimed, gentle, but firm, "you is a good man, but not as good as me. Cool off, Judge!"
"I expected this scene," said Meshach Milburn. "It could not have been avoided. I was bound in conscience and in common-sense to make you the only proposition which could save you from ruin. For, Judge Custis, you are a ruined man!"
Overcome with excitement and suspended stimulation, the old Judge fell back on his pillow and began to sob.
"Give him brandy," said Meshach Milburn, "here is the bottle! He needs it now."
The wretched gentleman eagerly drank the proffered draught from the negro's hands. His fury did not revive, and he covered his face with his palms and moaned piteously.
"Judge Custis," remarked Meshach Milburn, "if the apparent social distance between us could be lessened by any argument, I might make one. For the difference is in appearance only. The healthy flesh which gives you and yours stature and beauty is a matter of food alone. My stock has survived five generations of such diet as has bent the spines of the forest pigs and stunted the oxen. Money and family joy will give me children comely again. My life has been hard but pure."
The old Judge felt the last unconscious reflection.
"Yes," he uttered, solemnly, "no doubt Heaven marked me for some such degradation as this, when I yielded to low propensities, and sought my pleasure and companions in the huts of the forest!"
"You claim descent from the Stuart Restoration: I know the tale. A creditor of the two exiled royal brothers for sundry tavern loans and tipples drew for his obligation an office in far-off Virginia. Seizures, confiscations, the slave-trade, marriages—in short, the long game of advantage—built up the fortunes of the Custises, until they expired in a certain Judge, whose notes of hand a hard man, forest-born, held over the Judge's head on what seemed hard conditions, but conditions in which was every quality of mercy, except consideration for your pride."
The Judge made a laugh like a howl.
"Mercy?" he exclaimed, "you do not know what it is! To ensnare my innocent daughter in the damned meshes of your principal and interest! Call it malignity—the visitation of your unsocial wrath on man and an angel; but not mercy!"
"Then we will call it compensation," continued Meshach Milburn: "for twenty years I have denied myself everything; you denied yourself nothing. Your substance is wasted; renew it from the abundance of my thrift. It was not with an evil design that I made myself your creditor, although, as the years have rolled onward and solitude chilled my heart, that has always pined for human friendship, I could not but see the kindling glory of your daughter's beauty. Like the schoolboys, the married husbands—yes, like the slaves—I had to admire her. Then, unknowing how deeply you were involved, I found offered to me for sale the paper you had negotiated in Baltimore—paper, Judge Custis, dishonorably negotiated!"
The money-lender rose and walked to the sad man's bed, and held the hand, full of these notes, boldly over him.
"It was despair, Milburn!" moaned the Judge.
"And so was my resolution. Said I: 'This lofty gentleman would cheat me, his neighbor, who have suffered all the contumely of this good society, and on starveling opportunity have slowly recovered independence. Now he shall take my place in the forest, or I will wear my hat at the head of his family table.'"
"A dreadful revenge!" whispered Custis, with a shudder. "Such a hat is worse than a cloven foot. In God's name! whence came that ominous hat?"
Milburn took up the hat and held it before the lamplight, so that its shadow stood gigantic against the wall.
"Who would think," he said, sarcastically, "that a mere head-covering, elegant in its day, could make more hostility than an idle head? I will tell you the silly secret of it. When I came from the obscurity of the forest, sensitive, and anxious to make my way, and slowly gathered capital and knowledge, a person in New York directed a letter of inquiry to me. It told how a certain Milburn, a Puritan or English Commonwealth man, had risen to great distinction in that province, and had revolutionized its government and suffered the penalty of high-treason."
"True enough," said Judge Custis, pouring a second glass of brandy; "Milburn and Leisler were executed in New York during the lifetime of the first Custis. They anticipated the expulsion of James II., and were entrapped by their provincial enemies and made political martyrs."
"The inquirer," said Meshach, "who had obtained my address in the course of business, related, that after Milburn's death his brethren and their families had sailed to the Chesapeake, where the Protestants had successfully revolutionized for King William, and, making choice of poor lands, they had become obscure. He asked me if the court-house records made any registry of their wills."
"Of course you found them?"
"Yes. It was a revelation to me, and gave me the honorable sense of some origin and quality. I traced myself back to the earliest folios, at the close of the seventeenth century."
"Any property, Milburn?" asked the Judge, voluptuous and reanimated again.
"My great-grandfather had left his son nothing but a Hat."
"Not uncommon!" exclaimed Judge Custis. "Our early wills contain little but legacies of wearing apparel, household articles, bedding, pots and kettles, and the elements of civilization."
"The will on record said: 'I give to my eldest son, Meshach Milburn, my best Hat, and no more of my estate.'"
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the Judge, loudly. "Genteel to the last! A hat of fashion, no doubt, made in London; quite too ceremonious and topgallant for these colonies. He left it to his eldest son, en-tiledit, we may say. Ho! ho!"
"When my indignation was over, I took the same view you do, Judge Custis, that it was a bequest of dignity, not of burlesque; and I made some inquiries for that best Hat. It was a legend among my forest kin, had been seen by very old people, was celebrated in its day, and worn by my grandfather thankfully. He left it to my father, still a hat of reputation—"
"Still en-tiled to the oldest son! Ha, ha! Milburn."
"My father sold the hat to Charles Wilson Peale, who was native to our peninsula, and knew the ancient things existing here that would help him to form Peale's Museum during the last century. I found the hat in that museum, covering the mock-figure of Guy Fawkes!"
"Conspirator's hat; bravo!" exclaimed the Judge.
"It had been used for the heads of George Calvert and Shakespeare, but in time of religious excitements was proclaimed to be the true hat of Guy Fawkes. I reclaimed it, and brought it to Princess Anne, and in a vain moment put it on my head and walked into the street. It was assailed with halloos and ribaldry."
"It was another Shirt of Nessus, Milburn; it poisoned your life, eh?"
"Perhaps so," replied Milburn, with intensity. "They say what is one man's drink is another man's poison. You will accept that hat on the head of your son-in-law, or no more drink out of the Custis property!"
THE BOG-ORE TRACT.
Resolution of character and executive power had been trifled away by Judge Custis. The trader had concluded their interview with a decision and fierceness that left paralysis upon the gentleman's mind. He saw, in sad fancy, the execution served upon his furniture, the amazement of his wife, the pallor of his daughter, the indignation of his sons. He also shrank before the impending failure of his furnace and abandonment of the bog-ore tract, on which he had raised so much state and local fame; people would say: "Custis was a fool, and deceived himself, while old Steeple-top Milburn played upon the Custises' vanity, and turned them into the street."
"No doubt," thought the Judge, "that fellow, Milburn, can get anything when he gets my house. The poor folks' vote he may command, because he is of their class. He is a lender to many of the rich. Who could have suspected his intelligence? His address, too? He handled me as if I were a forester and he a judge. A very, very remarkable man!" finished Judge Custis, taking the last of the brandy.
He was interrupted by the entrance of Samson Hat.
"Where's your master, boy?" asked the Judge.
"He's gone up to de ole house, Judge, where his daddy and mammy died. It's de place where I hides after my fights."
"May the ague strike him there! Let the bilious sweat from the mill-pond be strong to-night, that, like Judas of old, his bowels may drop out! But, no," continued the irresolute man, "I have no right to hate him."
"Judge," softly said the old negro, "my marster is a sick man. He ain't happy like you an' me. He's 'bitious. He's lonely. Dat's enough to spile angels. But a gooder man I never knowed, 'cept in de onpious sperrit. He's proud as Lucifer. He's full of hate at Princess Anne and all de people. Your darter may git a better man, not a pyorer one."
"Purity goes a very little way," exclaimed the Judge, "on the male side of marriage contracts. It's always assumed, and never expected. You need not remember, Samson, that I expressed any anger at your master!"
"My whole heart, judge, is to see him happy. Hard as he is, dat man has power to make him loved. Your darter might go farder and fare wuss! I wish her no harm, God knows!"
The negro said an humble good-night, and the Judge lay down upon his bed to think of the dread alternatives of the coming week; but, voluptuous even in despair, he slept before he had come to any conclusion.
Samson Hat walked up the side of the mill-pond on a sandy road, divided from the water by a dense growth of pines. The bullfrogs and insects serenaded the forest; the furnace chimney smoked lurid on the midnight. At the distance of half a mile or more an old cabin, in decay, stood in a sandy field near the road; it had no door in the hollow doorway, no sash in the one gaping window; the step was broken leading to the sill, and some of the weather-boarding had rotted from the skeleton. The old end-chimney bore it toughly up, however, and the low brick props under the corners stood plumb. Within lay a single room with open beams, a sort of cupboard stairway projecting over the fireplace, and another door and window were in the rear. Before this fireplace sat Meshach Milburn on an old chair, fairly revealed by the light of some of the burning weather-boarding he had thrown upon the hearth. On the hearth was a little heap of the bog iron ore and a bottle.
"Come in, Samson!" he called. "Don't think me turned drunkard because I am taking this whiskey. I drink it to keep out the malaria, and partly as a communion cup; for to-night the barefooted ghosts who have drooped and withered here are with me in spirit."
"Dey was all good Milburns who lived heah, marster," said the negro. "Dey had hard times, but did no sin. Dey shook wid chills and fevers, not wid conscience."
"I shall shake with neither," said the money-lender. "Go up into the loft, and sleep till you are called. I want the horses early for Princess Anne!"
The negro obeyed without remark, and disappeared behind the cupboard-like door. Milburn sat before the fire, and looked into it long, while a procession of thoughts and phantoms passed before it.
He saw a poor family of independent Puritans setting sail at different dates from English seaports. Some were indentured servants, hoping for a career; others were avoiding the civil wars; others were small political malefactors, noisy against the oppressions of their hero, Cromwell, and conspirators against his power; and, thrown by him in English jails, were only delivered to be sold into slavery, driven through the streets of market-towns, placed on troop ships between the decks, among the horses, and set up at auction in Barbadoes, like the blacks; whence they in time continued onward westward. One, the fortunate possessor of some competence, sailed his own ship across the Atlantic, and delivered up to Massachusetts her governor and gentry. Another, incapable of being suppressed, though a servant, seized the destinies of an aristocratic colony, and held them for a while, until accumulating enemies bore him down, and wedlock and the gibbet followed close together. Poverty would not relinquish its gripe upon the race; they struggled up like clods upon the ploughshare, and fell back again into the furrow.
As Meshach Milburn thought of these things he took up a portion of the bog ore from the hearth.
"Here is iron," he said, thoughtfully, "true iron, which makes the blood red, moulds into infinite forms, nails houses together, binds wheels, and casts into cannon and ball. But this iron ran into a bog, formed low combinations, and had no other mould than twigs and leaves afforded. Its volcanic origin was forgotten when it ran with sand and gravel away from the mountain vein and upland ore along the low, alluvial bar, till, like an oyster, the iron is dredged from the stagnant pool, impure, inefficacious, corrupted. So is it with man, whose magnetic spirit follows the dull declivity to the barren sandbars of the world, and lodges there. I am of the bog ores; but that exists which will flux with me, clean me of rust, and transmit my better quality to posterity. O, youth, beauty, and station—lovely Vesta! for thee I will be iron!"
Milburn looked around the single room inquiringly. He placed his finger upon the crevices in the weather-boarding; he opened the little closet below the stairs, and a weasel dashed out and shot through the door; he ascended the steep, short stairs, and with a torch examined the black shingles, but nothing was there except a litter of young owls, whose parents had gone poaching. Then, returning, he searched on every open beam and rotting board, as if for writing.
"They could not write!" he thought. "Nothing is left to me, not even a sign, down a century and a half, to tell that I had parents!"
As he spoke he felt an object move behind him, and, looking back, the shadow of the Entailed Hat was dancing on the wall. As he threw his head back, so did it; as he retired from it, the hat enlarged, until the little room could hardly hold its shadow. Retiring again, he lifted it from his head with bitter courtesy, and the shadow did the same. The man and the shadow looked each at a peaked hat and stroked it.
"This is everything," exclaimed Milburn. "The hundred humble heads are at rest in the sand; one grave-stone would mock them all. But once the family brain expanded to a hat, and that survived the race. I am the Quaker who respects his hat, the Cardinal who is crowned with it; yes, and the dunce who must wear it in his corner!"
Then the picture of his parents arose upon his sight: a cheerful father, with two or three old slaves, ploughing in the deep sand, to drop some shrivelled grains of corn, or tinkering a disordered mill-wheel that moved a blacksmith's saw. Ever full of confidence in nothing which could increase, credulous and sanguine, tender and laborious, Milburn's sire nursed his forest patches as if they were presently to be rich plantations, and was ever "pricing" negroes, mules, tools, and implements, in expectation of buying them. Nothing could diminish his confidence but disease and old age. He heard of the great "improvement" on the Furnace tract, and took his obedient wife and brood there. As the laborers pulled out the tussocks and roots, encrusted with iron, from the swamp and creek, fever and ague came forth and smote them both.
How wretched that scene when, almost too haggard to move, father and mother, in this one bare room where Meshach sat, groaning amid their many offspring, saw death with weakness creep upon each other—death without priest or doctor, without residue or cleanliness—the death the million die in lowly huts, yet, oh, how hard!
"Haste, sonny, good boy," the frightened father had said, knowing not how ill he was, in his dependence on his wife; "take the horse, and ride into Snow Hill for the doctor. Poor mother is dreadful sick!"
Then, leaping upon the lean old horse, bare-backed and with a rope bridle, Meshach had pushed through the deep sand, bareheaded and barefooted, and almost crazy with excitement, until he entered the shining streets of the sandhilled town, and sensitively rushed into the doctor's office, crying, "Daddy and mammy is sick, at the Furnace!" and told his name, and wheeled, and fled.
But, as the boy rode home, more slowly, past the river full of splutter-docks, the yellow masts of vessels rising above the woods, the flat fields of corn everywhere bounded by forest, and the small white houses of the better farmers, and at last entered the murmurous, complaining woods, he saw but one thing—his mother.
Was she to disappear from the lonely clearing, and leave only the hut and its orphans? she, who kept heaven here below, and was the saints, the arts, the all-sufficient for her child? With her there could be no poverty; without her riches would be only more sand. With a little molasses she made Christmas kingly with a cake. She could name a little chicken "Meshach," and every egg it laid was a new toy. A mocking-bird caught in the swamp became one of the family by her kindness; would it ever sing again? The religion they knew was all of her. The poor slaves saw no difference in mistresses while she was theirs. In sickness she was in her sphere—health itself had come. And once, the tenderest thing in life, when his father and she had quarrelled, and the light of love being out made the darkness of poverty for the only time visible, Meshach saw her weeping, and he could not comfort her.
Then, blinded by tears, he lashed his nag along, and entered the low door. She was dead!
"Sonny, mammy's gone!" the wretched father groaned; the little children, huddling about the form, lifted their wail; the mocking-bird could find no note for this, and was hushed.
Milburn arose; the fire was low. He walked to the door, and there was a sign of day; the all-surrounding woods of pine were still dark, but on the sandy road and hummock-field some light was shining, like hopefulness against hope; the farm was ploughed no more; the ungrateful centuries were left behind and abandoned, like old wilderness battle-fields, so sterile that their great events remain ever unvisited.
"Ho! Samson, boy! It is time!"
"Yes, marster!" answered the negro in the loft.
As the negro gathered himself up and passed down the stairs, he saw Meshach Milburn before the fire, stirring the coals. Passing out, Samson stood a moment at the gate, and lounged up the road, not to lose his master. As he stood there, flames burst out of the old hut and glistened on the evergreen forest, lighting the tops of the mossy cypresses in the mill-pond, and revealing the forms of the sandy fields. Before he could start back Samson saw his master's figure go round and round the house, lighting the weather-boarding from place to place with a torch; and then the low figure, capped with the long hat, came up the road as if at mighty strides, so lengthened by the fire.
"No need of alarm, boy!" exclaimed the filial incendiary. "Henceforth my only ancestral hall is here!"
He held the ancient tile up in the light of the blaze.
"Ah, marster!" said the negro, "yo' hat will never give comfort like a home, fine as de hat may be, mean as de roof! De hat will never hold two heads, and dat makes happiness."
"The hat, at least," answered Milburn, bitterly, "will cover me where I go. Such rotted roofs as that was make captives of bright souls."
They looked on the fire in silence a few minutes.
"You have burnt me out, boss," said old Samson, finally. "I ain't got no place to go an' hide when I fights, now. It makes me feel solemn."
"Peace!" replied Meshach Milburn. "Now for the horses and Princess Anne!"
THE CUSTISES RUINED.
Vesta Custis, dressing in her chamber, heard early wheels upon the morning air, and looking through the blinds saw a double team coming up the road from Hardship.
"Mother," she said, "is that father coming, yonder? No, it is not his driver."
"Why, Vesta!" exclaimed Mrs. Custis, "that is old Milburn's man."
"Samson Hat? so it is. What is he doing with two horses?"
Here Vesta laughed aloud, and began to skip about in her long, slender, worked slippers, whose insteps would spare a mouse darting under.
"Mamma, it is Milburn himself, in a hack and span. See there; the steeple-top hat, copper buckle and all! Isn't he too funny for anything! But, dear me! he is staring right up at this window. Let us duck!"
Vesta's long, ivory-grained arms, divided from her beautiful shoulders only by a spray of lace, pulled her mother down.
"Don't be afraid, dear! he can see nothing but the blinds. Perhaps he is looking for the Judge."
Vesta rose again in her white morning-gown, like a stag rising from a snow-drift. A long, trembling movement, the result of tittering, passed down the graceful column of her back.
"He sits there like an Indian riding past in a show, mamma! Did you ever see such a hat?"
"I think it must be buggy by this time," said the mother; and both of them shook with laughter again. "Unless," added Mrs. Custis, "the bugs are starved out."
"Poor, lonely creature," said Vesta, "he can only wear such a hat from want of understanding."
"His understanding is good enough, dear. He has the green gaiters on."
They laughed again, and Vesta's hair, shaken down by her merriment, fell nearly to her slipper, like the skin of some coal-black beast, that had sprung down a poplar's trunk.
"Ah! well," exclaimed Vesta, as her maid entered and proceeded to wind up this satin cordage on her crown, "what men are in their minds, can woman know? Old ladies, not unfrequently, wear their old coal-scuttle bonnets long past the fashion, but it is from want. This man is his own master and not poor. His companion is a negro, and his taste a mouldy hat, old as America. How happy are we that it is not necessary to pry into such minds! A little refinement is the next blessing to religion."
"Your father's mind is a puzzle, too, Vesta. He has everything which these foresters lack,—education, society, standing, and comforts. But he returns to the forest, like an opossum, the moment your eye is off him. He can't be traced up like this man, by his hat. I think it's a shame on you, particularly. If he don't come home this day, I shall send for my brother and force an account of my property from Judge Custis!"
The wife sat down and began to cry.
"I'll take the carriage after breakfast, mamma, and seek him at the Furnace or wherever he may be. Those bog ores have given him a great deal of trouble."
"I wish I had never heard of bog ore," exclaimed Mrs. Custis. "When the money was in bank, there was no ore about it. He goes to the forest looking like a magistrate and a gentleman; he always comes back looking like a bog-trotter and a drunkard. There must be women in it!"
Here, in an impulse of weak rage, the poor lady got up and walked to her mirror and looked at her face. Apparently satisfied that such charms were trampled on, she dried her tears altogether, and resumed:
"Ginny, go out of the room! (to the neat mulatto lass). Vesta, my dear daughter, I would not cast a stain upon you for the world; but flesh and blood will cry out. If your father don't do better I will separate from him, and leave Princess Anne!"
The daughter's bright eyes were large and startled now, and their steel-blue tint grew plainer under her rich black eyebrows.
"I will do it, if I die, unless he reforms!"
Vesta stood with her lips parted, and her beautiful teeth just lacing the coral of the lip. She could say no more for a long moment. Rising as she spoke, with her head thrown back, and her mould the fuller and a pallor in her cheeks, she looked the Eve first hearing the Creator's rebuke.
"A separation in this family?" whispered Vesta. "It would scandalize all Maryland. It would break my heart."
"Darling daughter, my heart must be considered sometimes. I was something before I was a Custis. I am a woman, too."
Vesta, still pale, crossed to her mother's side and kissed her.
"Don't, don't, mamma, ever harbor a thought like that again. You, who have been so brave and patient longer than I have lived!"
"Ah, Vesta, it is the length of injury that wears us out! What if something should happen to us? None are so unfit to bear poverty as we."
"We cannot be poor," said the daughter, soothingly. "Don't you remember, mother, where it says: 'As thy day, so shall thy strength be'?".
"My child," Mrs. Custis replied, "your day is young. Life looks hopeful to you. I am growing old, and where is the arm on which I should be leaning? What are we but two women left? There is another passage on which I often think when we sit so often alone: 'Two women shall be grinding at the mill: the one shall be taken and the other left!' Is that you, or is it I? Listen, my child! it is time that you should feel the melancholy truth! Your father's habits have mastered him. He is beyond reclamation!"
Vesta was kneeling, and she slowly raised her head and looked at her mother, with her nostrils dilated. Mrs. Custis felt uneasy before the aroused mind of her child.
"Don't look at me so, Vesta," the poor lady pleaded. "I thought you ought to know it."
"How dare you say that of my father? Of Judge Custis?"
As they were in this suspense of feeling, wheels were heard. The daughter went to the window and looked down, and then returned to her mother's ear.
"Hush, mother, it is papa. Now, wash your eyes at the toilet. Let us meet him cheerfully. Never say again that he is beyond reclamation, while we can try!"
A kiss smoothed Mrs. Custis's countenance. Vesta was dressed for breakfast in a few moments, and descended to the library and was received in her father's arms. He held her there a long while, and held her close, and by little fits renewed his embrace, but she felt that his breath was feverish and his arms trembled. Looking up at him she saw, indeed, that he was flushed, yet haggard and careworn.
"Vessy," he spoke with a feeble attempt to smile, "I want a glass of brandy. Mine gave out at the Furnace, and the morning ride has weakened me. Where is the key?"
She looked at him with a half-glance, so that he might not suspect, as if to measure his need of stimulant. Then, without a word, she led the way to the dining-room and unlocked the liquor closet, and turned her back lest he might not drink his need from sensitiveness.
"Naughty man," said Vesta, standing off and looking at him when he was done. "I was going down for you to the Furnace after breakfast. We will have no more of this truantry. Mamma and I have set our feet down! You must come back from the Furnace every night, and go again in the morning, like other business men. Be very kind to mamma this morning, sir! She feels your neglect."
Vesta had already rung for the Judge's valet, who now appeared, drew off his boots, supplied his slippers and dressing-gown, and led the way to his bath. In a quarter of an hour he reappeared, looking better, and he irresolutely turned again towards the dining-room, smiling suggestively at Vesta.
"Not that way," spoke she. "Here is mamma, and we are ready for prayers. Here is the place in the Bible."
They all went to the family room, where the dressing-maids of Vesta and her mother were waiting for the usual morning prayers. Vesta placed the open Bible on her father's knee, and he began absently and stumblingly to read. It was in the book of Samuel, and seemed to be some old Jewish mythology. He suddenly came to a verse which arrested his sensibilities by its pathos:
"'And David sent messengers to Ish-bosheth, Saul's son, saying, Deliver me my wife Michal.... And Ish-bosheth sent, and took her from her husband, even from Phaltiel, the son of Laish. And her husband went with her along weeping behind her.... Then said Abner unto him: Go, return. And he returned.'"
Judge Custis saw at once the picture this compact history aroused. The inexorable David, perhaps, had married another's love. Occasion had arisen to embitter her kin, and they took her back and gave her in happiness to her pining lover. But, again, the man of correct habits triumphed over the sons of the king, and despatched Abner to tear his wife from her true husband's arms. Poor Phaltiel followed her weeping, until ordered to go back—and back he went, forever desolate.
The scene recalled the brutal demand of his creditor upon his child. The Judge's eyes silently o'erflowed, and he could not see.
Vesta had watched him closely, as her silent magistracy detected a great anxiety or illness in her father. Lest her mother might also notice it, she interposed in the lesson, as was her habit, by reading the Episcopal form of prayer, in which they all bent their heads. Once or twice, as she went on, she detected a suppressed sob, especially at the paragraph: "Thou who knowest the weakness and corruption of our nature, and the manifold temptations which we daily meet with, we humbly beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities and to give us the constant assistance of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be effectually restrained from sin and excited to our duty!"
They went to the breakfast-table, and the Judge's countenance was down. He bit off some toast and filled his mouth with tea, but could not swallow. A hand softly touched his elbow, and, looking there, he saw a wine-glass full of brandy softly glide to the spot. As he looked up and saw the rich, yearning face of his dark-eyed daughter tenderly consulting his weakness, his heart burst forth; he leaned his head upon the table and cried, between drink and grief:
"Darling, we are ruined!"
Mrs. Custis at once arose, and looked frightenedly at the Judge. Vesta as quickly turned to the servants and motioned them to go.
"No, let them hear it!" raved Judge Custis, perceiving the motion. "They are interested, like us. They must be sold, too. Faithful servants! Perhaps it may warn them to escape in time!"
The servants, bred like ladies, quietly left the room.
Mrs. Custis, growing paler, exclaimed:
"Daniel Custis, have you lost everything in that furnace?"
"And my money, too?"
Before the weak lady could fall Vesta's arm was around her, and her finger on the table-bell. Servants entered and Mrs. Custis was carried out, her daughter following.
When Vesta returned her father was walking up and down the floor with his long silk handkerchief in both hands, weeping bitterly, and speaking broken syllables. She looked at him a moment with all the might of a daughter, first called on to act alone in a great crisis. The feeling she was wont to hold towards him, of perfect pride, had received a blow in her mother's expression: "Your father's habits have mastered him beyond reclamation."
Could this be true; that he, the grand, the kind, the gentleman, was beneath the diver's reach, the plummet's sounding, where light could not pierce, nor Hope overtake? Her father, the first gentleman in Somerset, a drunkard, going ever downward towards the gutter, and no ray of heaven to beam upon his grave!
She saw his danger now: it was written on his face, where the image of God shone dim that had once been crowned there. Hair thinner, and very gray; the rich, dark eyes intimidated, as if manly confidence was gone; the skin no more the pure scroll of regular life written in the healthy fluid of the heart, but faded, yet spotted with alcohol; on the nose and lips signs of coarser sensuality; the large skeleton bent and the nervous temperament shattered. This father had been until this moment Vesta's angel. Now, there might not be an angel in the universe to fly to his rescue. Deep, dreadful humility descended into the daughter's spirit.
"God forgive me!" she thought, "how blind and how proud and sinful I have been!"
She walked over to her father tenderly and kissed him, and then, drawing his weaker inclination by hers, brought him to a sofa, placed a pillow for him, and made him stretch his once proud form there. Procuring a bowl of water, she washed his face free of tears with a napkin, and bathed it in cologne. The voluptuous nature of the Judge yielded to the perfume and the easy position, and he sobbed himself to sleep like an exhausted child.
Sitting by the sleeping bankrupt, watching his breast rise and fall, and hearing his coarse snoring, as if fiends within were snarling in rivalry for the possession of him, Vesta felt that the life which was unconscious there was the fountain of her own, and, loving no man else, she felt her heart like a goldfish of that fountain, go around and around it throbbingly.
Then first arose the wish, often in woman's life repeated, to have been born a man and know how to help her father. That suggested that she had brothers who ought to be summoned, and confer with their father; but now it occurred to her that every one of them had leaned upon him; and, though conscious that it was wicked, Vesta felt her pride rise against the thought that any being outside of that house, even a brother, should know of its disgrace.
What could she do? She thought of all her jewels, her riding mare, her watch, her father's own gifts, and then the thought perished that these could help him.
Could she not earn something by her voice, which had sung to such praises? Alas! that voice had lost the ingredient of hope, and she feared to unclose her lips lest it might come forth in agony, crying, "God, have mercy!"
"I have nothing," said Vesta to herself; "except love for these two martyrs, my father and mother. No, nothing can be done until he awakens and tells me the worst. Meantime it would be wicked for me to increase the agitation already here, and where I must be the comforter."
Mrs. Custis was in no situation to give annoyance for that day, as a sick-headache seized her and she kept her room. Infirm of will, purely social in her marriage relations, and never aiming higher than respectability, she missed the coarse mark of her husband who, with all his moral defections, probably was her moral equal, his vital standard higher, his tone a genial hypocrisy, and at bottom he was a democrat.
Mrs. Custis had no insight nor variability of charity; her mind, bounded by the municipal republic of Baltimore, which esteems itself the world, particularly among its mercantile aristocracy, who live like the old Venetian nobility among their flat lagoons, and do commerce chiefly with the Turk in the more torrid and instinctive Indies and South. Amiable, social, afraid of new ideas, frugal of money; if hospitable at the table, with a certain spiritedness that is seldom intellectual, but a beauty that powerfully attracts, till, by the limited sympathies beneath it, the husband from the outer world discerns how hopelessly slavery and caste sink into an old shipping society, the Baltimore that ruled the Chesapeake had no more perfected product than Mrs. Custis.
Her modesty and virtue were as natural as her prejudices; she believed that marriage was the close of female ambition, and marrying her children was the only innovation to be permitted. Certain accomplishments she thought due to woman, but none of them must become masculine in prosecution; a professional woman she shrank from as from an infidel or an abolitionist; reading was meritorious up to an orthodox point, but a passion for new books was dangerous, probably irreligious. To lose one's money was a crime; to lose another's money the unforgiven sin, because that was Baltimore public opinion, which she thought was the only opinion entitled to consideration. The old Scotch and Irish merchants there had made it the law that enterprise was only excusable by success, and that success only branded an innovator. A good standard of society, therefore, had barely permitted Judge Custis to take up the bog-ore manufacture, and, failing in it, his wife thought he was no better than a Jacobin.
On the Eastern Shore, where society was formed before Glasgow and Belfast had colonized upon the Chesapeake with their precise formulas of life, a gentler benevolence rose and descended upon the ground every day, like the evaporations of those prolific seas which manure the thin soil unfailingly. Religion and benevolence were depositions rather than dogmas there; moderate poverty was the not unwelcome expectation, wealth a subject of apprehensive scruples, kindness the law, pride the exception, and grinding avarice, like Meshach Milburn's, was the mark of the devil entering into the neighbor and the fellow-man.
Judge Custis was representative of his neighbors except in his Virginia voluptuousness; his neighbors were neither prudes nor hypocrites, and he respected them more than the arrogant race in the old land of Accomac and in the Virginia peninsulas, whose traits he had almost lost. Sometimes it seemed to him that the last of the cavalier stock was his daughter, Vesta. From him it had nearly departed, and his sense of moral shortcomings expanded his heart and made him tenderly pious to his kind, if not to God. He admired new-comers, new business modes, and Northern intruders and ideas, feeling that perhaps the last evidence of his aristocracy from nature was a chivalric resignation. The pine-trees were saying to him: "Ye shall go like the Indians, but be not inhospitable to your successors, and leave them your benediction, that the great bay and its rivers may be splendid with ships and men, though ye are perished forever." A perception of the energy of his countrymen, and a pride in it, without any mean reservation, though it might involve his personal humiliation, was Judge Custis's only remaining claim to heaven's magnanimity. Still, rich in human nature, he was beloved by his daughter with all her soul.
He awoke long after noon, in body refreshed, and a glass of milk and a plover broiled on toast were ready for him to eat, with some sprigs of new celery from the garden to feed his nerves. He made this small meal silently, and Vesta said, as the tray was removed:
"Now, papa, before we leave this room, you are to tell me the whole injury you have suffered, and what all of us can do to assist you; for if you had succeeded the reward would have been ours, and we must divide the pains of your misfortune with you without any regret. Courage, papa! and let me understand it."
The Judge feebly looked at Vesta, then searched his mind with his eyes downcast, and finally spoke:
"My child, I am the victim of good intentions and self-enjoyment. I am less than a scoundrel and worse than a fool. I am a fraud, and you must be made to see it, for I fear you have been proud of me."
"Oh, father, I have!" said Vesta, with an instant's convulsion. "You were my God."
"Let us throw away idolatry, my darling. It is the first of all the sins. How loud speaks the first commandment to us this moment: 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me'?"
"I have broken it," sobbed Vesta, "I loved you more than my Creator."
"Vesta," spoke the Judge, "you are the only thing of value in all my house. The work of nature in you is all that survives the long edifice of our pride. The treasure of your beauty and love still makes me rich to thieves, who lie in ambush all around us. We are in danger, we are pursued. O God! pity, pity the pure in heart!"
As the Judge, under his strong earnestness, so rare in him of late, threw wide his arms, and raised his brow in agony, Vesta felt her idolatry come back. He was so grand, standing there in his unaffected pain and helplessness, that he seemed to her some manly Prometheus, who had worked with fire and iron, to the exasperation of the jealous gods. Admiration dried her tears, and she forgot her father's references to herself.
"What is iron?" she asked. "Tell me why you wanted to make iron! If I can enter into your mind and sympathize with the hopes you have had, it will lift my soul from the ground. Papa, I should have asked for this lesson long ago."
The Judge strode up and down till she repeated the question, and had brought him to his seat. He collected his thoughts, and resumed his worldly tone as he proceeded, with his old cavalier volatility, to tell the tale of iron.
"I have duplicated loans," he said at last, "on the same properties, incurring, I fear, a stigma upon my family and character; as well as the ruin of our fortune."
Vesta arose with pale lips and a sinking heart.
"Oh, father," she whispered, in a frightened tone, "who knows this terrible secret!"
"Only one man," said the Judge, cowering down to the carpet, with his courage and volatility immediately gone, "old Meshach Milburn knows it all! He has purchased the duplicate notes of protest, and holds them with his own. He has me in his power, and hates me. He will expose me, unless I submit to an awful condition."
"What is it, father?"
The Judge looked up in terror, and, meeting Vesta's pale but steady gaze, hid his face and groaned:
"Oh! it is too disgraceful to tell. It will break your mother's heart."
"Tell me at once!" exclaimed Vesta, in a low and hollow tone. "What further disgrace can this monster inflict upon us than to expose our dishonor? Can he kill us more than that?"
"I know not how to tell you, Vessy. Spare me, my darling! My face I hide for shame."
There was a pause, while Vesta, with her mind expanded to touch every point of suggestion, stood looking down at her father, yet hardly seeing him. He did not move.
Vesta stooped and raised her father's face to find some solution of his mysterious evasion. He shut his eyes as if she burned him with her wondering look.
"Papa, look at me this instant! You shall not be a coward to me."
He broke from her hands and retreated to a window, looking at her, but with a timorous countenance.
"I wish you to go this moment and find your creditor, Mr. Milburn, and bring him to me. You must obey me, sir!"
The father raised his hands as if to protest, but before he could speak a shadow fell upon the window, and the figure of a small, swarthy man covered with a steeple-crowned hat advanced up the front steps.
"Saviour, have mercy!" murmured Judge Custis, "the wolf is at the door."
Vesta took her father in her arms, and kissed him once assuringly.
"Papa, go send a servant to open the door. Have Mr. Milburn shown into this room to await me. Do you go and engage my mother affectionately, and both of you remain in your chamber till I am ready to call you."
The proximity of the dreadful creditor had almost paralyzed Judge Custis, and he glided out like a ghost.
THE HAT FINDS A RACK.
Meshach Milburn had locked the store after writing some letters, and had taken the broad street for Judge Custis's gate. The news of his disappearance towards the Furnace, with an extravagant livery team, had spread among all the circle around the principal tavern, and they were discussing the motive and probabilities of the act, with that deep inner ignorance so characteristic of an instinctive society. Old Jimmy Phoebus, a huge man, with a broad face and small forehead, was called upon for his view.
"It's nothin' but a splurge," said Jimmy; "sooner or later everybody splurges—shows off! Meshach's jest spilin' with money and he must have a splurge—two hosses and a nigger. If it ain't a splurge I can't tell what ails him to save my life."
A general chorus went up of "Dogged if I kin tell to save my life!"
Levin Dennis, the terrapin-buyer, made a wild guess, as follows:
"Meshach, I reckon, is a goin' into the hoss business. He's a ben in everything else, and has tuk to hosses. If it tain't hosses, I can't tell to save my life!"
All the lesser intellects of the party executed a low chuckle, spun around half-way on their boot-heels and back again, and muttered: "Not to save my life!"
Jack Wonnell, wearing one of the new bell-crowns, and barefooted, and looking like a vagrant who had tried on a militia grenadier's imposing bearskin hat, let off this irrelevant addendum:
"Ole Milbun's gwyn to see a gal. Fust time a man changes his regler course wilently, it's a gal. I went into my bell-crowns to git a gal. Milbun's gwyn get a gal out yonda in forest. If that ain't it, can't tell to save m' life!"
The smaller fry, not being trained to suggestion, grinned, held their mouths agape, executed the revolution upon; one heel, and echoed: "Dogged ef a kin tell t' save m' life!".
"He's a comin', boys, whooep!" exclaimed Jimmy Phoebus. "Now we'll all take off our hats an' do it polite, for, by smoke! thar's goin' to be hokey-pokey of some kind or nuther in Prencess Anne!"
The smallish man in the Guy Fawkes hat and the old, ultra-genteel, greenish gaiters, walked towards them with his resinous bold eyes to the front, his nose informing him of what was in the air like any silken terrier's, and yet with a pallor of the skin as of a sick person's, and less than his daily expression of hostility to Princess Anne.
"He's got the ager," remarked Levin Dennis, "them's the shakes, comin' on him by to-morrey, ef I know tarrapin bubbles!"
The latter end only of the nearest approach to profanity current in that land was again heard, fluttering around: "to save my life!"
Jimmy Phoebus had the name of being descended from a Greek pirate, or patriot, who had settled on the Eastern Shore, and Phoebus looked it yet, with his rich brown complexion, broad head, and Mediterranean eyes. "Good-afternoon, Mr. Milburn!" spoke Jimmy, loud and careless.
"Good-afternoon, Mr. Phoebus. Gentlemen, good-afternoon!"
As he responded, with a voice hardly genial but placating, Milburn lifted his ancient and formidable hat, and in an instant seemed to come a century nearer to his neighbors. His stature was reduced, his unsociableness seemed modified; he now looked to be a smallish, friendless person, as if some ownerless dog had darted through the street, and heard a kind chirp at the tavern door, where his reception had been stones. His voice, with a little tremor in it, emboldened Levin Dennis also to speak:
"Look out for fevernager this month, Mr. Milburn!"
Meshach bowed his head, gliding along as if bashfully anxious to pass.
"Nice weather for drivin'!" added Jack Wonnell, having also taken off his own tile of frivolity, to feel the effect; but this remark was regarded by the group as too forward, and a low chorus ran round of "Jack Wonnell can't help bein' a fool to save his life!"
Milburn said to himself, passing on: "Are those voices kinder than usually, or am I more timid? What is it in the air that makes everything so acute, and my cheeks to tingle? Am I sick, or is it Love?"
The word frightened him, and the sand under his feet seemed to crack; a woodpecker in an old tree tapped as if it was the tree's old heart quickened by something; the houses all around looked like live objects, with their windows fixed upon his walk, like married folks' eyes. As he came in sight of Judge Custis's residence, so expressive of old respect and long intentions, the money-lender almost stopped, so mild and peacefully it looked at him—so undisturbed, while he was palpitating.
"Why this pain?" thought Milburn. "Am I afraid? That house is mine. Do I fear to enter my own? And yet it does not fear me. It has been there so long that it has no fears, and every window in it faces benignant to my coming. The three gables survey yonder forest landscape like three old magistrates on the bench, administering justice to a county where never till now was there a ravisher!"
The thought produced a moment's intellectual pride in him, like lawless power's uneasy paroxysm. "It is the Forest these gentles have to fear to-day!" he thought, resentfully, then stopped, with another image his word aroused:
"What has that forest ever felt of injury or hate, with every cabin-door unlatched, no robber feared by any there, the blossoms on the negro's peachtree, the ripe persimmons on the roadside, plenteous to every forester's child, and humility and affection making all richer, without a dollar in the world, than I, the richest upstart of the forest, compelled to buy affection, like an indifferent slave!"
A large dog at Custis's home, seeing him walk so slowly, came down the path to the gate, also walking slow, and showed neither animosity nor interest, except mechanically to walk behind him towards the door.
"The dog knows me," thought the quickened heart of Meshach, "from life-long seeing of me, but never wagged his tail at me in all that time. Could I acquire the heart even of this dog, though I might buy him? My debtor's step would still be most welcome to him, and he would eat my food in strangeness and fear."
Milburn walked up the steps, and sounded the substantial brass knocker. It struck four times, loud and deep, and the stillness that followed was louder yet, like the unknown thing, after sentence has been passed. He seemed to be there a very long time with his heart quite vacant, as if the debtor's knocker had scared every chatterer out of it, and yet his temples and ears were ringing. He was thinking of sounding the knocker again, when a lady's servant, partly white, rolled back the bolt, and bowed to his question whether the Judge was in.
He entered the broad hall of that distinguished residence, and taking the Entailed Hat from his head, hung it up at last, where better head-coverings had been wont to keep equal society, on a carved mahogany rack of colonial times. The venerable object, once there, gave a common look to everything, as Meshach thought, and deepened his personal sense of unworthiness. He tried to feel angry, but apprehension was too strong for passion even to be simulated.
"O, discriminating God!" he felt, within, "is it not enough to create us so unequal that we must also cringe in spirit, and acknowledge it! I expected to feel triumphant when I lodged my despised hat in this man's house, but I feel meaner than before."
The room, whose door was opened by the lady's maid, was the library, containing three cumbrous cases of books, and several portraits in oil, with deep, gilded frames, a map of Virginia and its northeastern environs, including all the peninsula south of the Choptank river and Cape Henlopen; and near the door was a tall clock, that a giant might stand in, solemnly cogging and waving time, and giving the monotony of everlasting evening to the place, which was increased by the flickering fire of wood on the tall brass fire-irons, before which some high-backed, wide, comfortable leather chairs were drawn, all worn to luxurious attitudes, as if each had been the skin of Judge Custis and his companions, recently evacuated.
A woman's rocking-chair was disposed among them, as though every other chair deferred to it. This was the first article to arrest Milburn's attention, so different, so suggestive, almost a thing of superstition, poised, like a woman's instinct and will, upon nothing firm, yet, like the sphere it moved upon, traversing a greater arc than a giant's seat would fill. Purity and conquest, power and welcome, seemed to abide within it, like the empty throne in Parliament.
Milburn, being left alone, touched the fairy rocker with his foot. It started so easily and so gracefully, that, when it died away, he pressed his lips to the top of it, nearest where her neck would be, and whispered aloud, with feeling, "God knows that kiss, at least, was pure!"
He looked at the portraits, and, though they were not inscribed, he guessed at them all, right or wrong, from the insight of local lore or envious interpretation.
"Yon saucy, greedy, superserviceable rogue," thought Meshach, "with wine and beef in his cheeks, and silver and harlotry in his eye, was the Irish tavern-keeper of Rotterdam, who kept a heavy score against the banished princes whom Cromwell's name ever made to swear and shiver, and they paid him in a distant office in Accomac, where they might never see him and his bills again, and there they let him steal most of the revenue, and, of course, his loyalty was in proportion to his booty. Many a time, no doubt, he was procurer for both royal brothers, Charles and James, making his tavern their stew, with Betty Killigrew, or Lucy Walters, or Katy Peg, or even Anne Hyde, the mother of a queen—of her who was the Princess Anne, godmother of our worshipful town here. I have not read in vain," concluded Meshach, "because my noble townsmen drove me to my cell!"
The next portrait was clothed in military uniform, with a higher type of manhood, shrewd and vigilant, but magisterial. "That should be Major-general John Custis," thought Milburn, looking at it, "son of John the tapster, and a marrying, shifty fellow, who first began greatness as a salt-boiler on these ocean islands, till his father's friend, Charles II., in a merry mood, made Henry Bennet, the king's bastard son's father-in-law, Earl of Arlington and lessee of Virginia. All the province for forty shillings a year rent! Those were pure, economical times, indeed, around the court. So salt-boiler John flunkeyed to Arlington's overseers, named his farm 'Arlington,' hunted and informed upon the followers of the Puritan rebel Bacon, then turned and fawned upon King William, too. His grandchildren, all well provided for, spread around this bay. So much for politics in a merchant's hands!"
The tone of Meshach's comment had somewhat raised his courage, and a sense of pleasurable interest in the warm room and genial surroundings led him to pass the time, which was of considerable length, quite contentedly, till Judge Custis was ready.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, the steeple-top hat was giving some silent astonishment to the house-servants, assembled to gaze upon it from the foot of the hall. The neat chamber-servant, Virgie, had carried the wondrous information to the colonnade that the dreadful creditor had come, and Roxy, the table waiter, had carried it from the colonnade to the kitchen, where the common calamity immediately produced a revolution against good manners.