THE LAW OF THE LAND
Of Miss Lady, whom it involved in mystery, and of John Eddring, gentleman of the South, who read its deeper meaning
The Mississippi Bubble The Way to the West
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
ARTHUR I. KELLER
TO R.E.B. TO T.A.D.
I Miss LADY II MULEY III THE VISITOR IV A QUESTION OF VALUATION V CERTAIN PROBLEMS VI THE DRUM VII THE BELL VIII THE VOLCANO IX ON ITS MAJESTY'S SERVICE X MISS LADY OF THE STAIR XI COLONEL CALVIN BLOUNT'S PROPOSAL XII A WOMAN SCORNED XIII JOHN DOE vs. Y.V.R.R. XIV NUMBER 4 XV THE PURSUIT XVI THE TRAVELING BAG XVII MISS LADY AND HENRY DECHERD XVIII MISFORTUNE
I THE MAKING OF THE WILDERNESS
I EDDRING, AGENT OF CLAIMS II THE OPINIONS OF CALVIN BLOUNT III REGARDING LOUISE LOISSON IV THE RELIGION OF JULES V DISCOVERY VI THE DANCER VII THE SUMMONS VIII THE STOLEN STEAMBOAT IX THE ACCUSER X THE VOYAGE XI THE WILDERNESS XII THE HOUSE OF HORROR XIII THE NIGHT IN THE FOREST XIV AT THE BIG HOUSE XV CERTAIN MOTIVES XVI THE NEW SHERIFF XVII THE LAW OF THE LAND XVIII MISS LADY AT THE BIG HOUSE XIX THREE LADIES LOUISE XX THE LID OF THE GRAVE XXI THE RED RIOT OF YOUTH XXII AMENDE HONORABLE
THE LAW OF THE LAND
Ah, but it was a sweet and wonderful thing to see Miss Lady dance, a strange and wondrous thing! She was so sweet, so strong, so full of grace, so like a bird in all her motions! Now here, now there, and back again, her feet scarce touching the floor, her loose skirt, held out between her dainty fingers, resembling wings, she swam through the air, up and down the room of the old plantation house, as though she were indeed the creature of an element wherein all was imponderable, light and free of hampering influences. Darting, nodding, beckoning, courtesying to something that she saw—it must have moved you to applause, had you seen Miss Lady dance! You might have been restrained by the feeling that this was almost too unreal, too unusual, this dance of the young girl, all alone, in front of the great mirror which faithfully gave back the passing, flying figure line for line, flush for flush, one bosom-heave for that of the other. Yet the tall white lilies in the corner saw; and the tall white birds, one on each side of the great cheval glass, saw also, but fluttered not; since a lily and a stork and a maiden may each be tall and white, and each may understand the other subtly.
Miss Lady stood at length, tall and white, her cheeks rosy withal, her blown brown hair pushed back a bit, one hand lightly resting on her bosom, looking—looking into the mirror, asking of it some question, getting, indeed, from it some answer—an answer embodying, perhaps, all that youth may mean, all that the morning may bring.
For now the sun of the South came creeping up apace, and saw Miss Lady as it peered in through the rose lattice whereon hung scores of fragrant blossoms. A gentle wind of morning stirred the lace curtains at the windows and touched Miss Lady's hair as she stood there, asking the answer of the mirror. It was morning in the great room, morning for the southern day, morning for the old plantation whose bell now jangled faintly and afar off—morning indeed for Miss Lady, who now had ceased in her self-absorbed dance. At this very moment, as she stood gazing into the mirror, with the sunlight and the roses thus at hand, one might indeed have sworn that it was morning for ever, over all the world!
Miss Lady stood eager, fascinated, before the glass; and in the presence of the tall flowers and the tall birds, saw something which stirred her, felt something which came in at the window out of the blue sky and from the red rose blossoms, on the warm south wind. Impulsively she flung out her arms to the figure in the glass. Perhaps she felt its beauty and its friendliness. And yet, an instant later, her arms relaxed and sank; she sighed, knowing not why she sighed.
Ah, Miss Lady, if only it could be for ever morning for us all! Nay, let us say not so. Let us say rather that this sweet picture of Miss Lady, doubled by the glass, remains to-day imperishably preserved in the old mirror—the picture of Miss Lady dancing as the bird flies, and then standing, plaintive and questioning, before her own image, loving it because it was beautiful and friendly, dreading it because she could not understand.
Miss Lady had forgotten that she was alone, and did not hear the step at the door, nor see the hand which presently pushed back the curtain. There stepped into the room, the tall, somewhat full figure of a lady who stood looking on with eyes at first surprised, then cynically amused. The intruder paused, laughing a low, well-fed, mellow laugh. On the moment she coughed in deprecation. Miss Lady sprang back, as does the wild deer startled in the forest. Her hands went to her cheeks, which burned in swift flame, thence to drop to her bosom, where her heart was beating in a confusion of throbs, struggling with the reversed current of the blood of all her tall young body.
"Mamma!" she cried. "You startled me." "So it seems," said the new- comer. "I beg your pardon. I did not mean to intrude upon your devotions."
She came forward and seated herself-a tall woman, a trifle full of figure now, but still vital of presence. Her figure, deep-chested, rounded and shapely, now began to carry about it a certain air of ease. The mouth, well-bowed and red, had a droop of the same significance. The eyes, deep, dark and shaded by strong brows, held depths not to be fathomed at a glance, but their first message was one of an open and ready self-indulgence. The costume, flowing, loose and easy, carried out the same thought; the piled black hair did not deny it; the smile upon the face, amused, half-cynical, confirmed it. Here was a woman of her own acquaintance with the world, you would have said. And in the next breath you must have asked how she could have been the mother of this tall girl, at whom she now smiled thus mockingly.
"I was just—I was—well, I was dancing, mamma," said Miss Lady. "It is so nice." This somewhat vaguely.
"Yes," said her mother; "why?"
"I do not know," said Miss Lady, frankly, and turning to her with sudden courage. "I was dancing. That is all."
"Yes, I know."
"Well, is it any crime, mamma, I should like to ask?" This with spirit, and with eyes showing themselves able to flash upon occasion.
"Not in the least, my dear. Indeed, I am not at all surprised. I knew it was coming."
"What was coming, mammal? What do you mean?"
"Why, that this was going to happen—that you were going to dance. It was nearly time."
"I do not know what you mean."
"It was always thus with the Ellisons," said the other woman. "All the Ellisons danced this way once in their lives. All the girls do so. They're very strange, these Ellison girls. They dance because they must, I suppose. It's as natural as breathing, for them. You can't help it. It's fate. But listen, child. It is time I took you more in hand. You will be marrying before long—"
"Mamma!" Miss Lady blushed indignantly. "How can you talk so? I don't know—I didn't—I shan't—"
"Tut, tut. Please don't. It is going to be a very warm day. I really can't go into any argument. Take my word, you will marry soon; or if you don't, you will reverse all the known horoscopes of the family. That, too, is the fate of the Ellison girls—certain marriage! Our only hope is in some miracle. It is time for me to take you in hand. Listen, Lady. Let me ask you to sit a trifle farther back upon that chair. So, that is better. Now, draw the skirt a little closer. That is well. Now, sit easily, keep your back from the chair; try to keep your feet concealed. Remember, Lady, you are a woman now, and there are certain rules, certain little things, which will help you so much, so much."
Mrs. Ellison sighed, then yawned, touching her white teeth with the tip of her fan. "Dear me, it certainly is going to be warm," she said at last. "Lady, dear, please run and get my book, won't you? You know your darling mamma is getting so—well, I won't say fat, God forbid! but so—really—well, thank you."
Miss Lady fled gladly and swiftly enough. For an instant she halted, uncertain, on the wide gallery, her face troubled, her attitude undecided. Then, in swift mutiny, she sprang down the steps and was off in open desertion. She fled down the garden walk, and presently was welcomed riotously by a score of dogs and puppies, long since her friends.
Left alone, the elder lady sat for a moment in thought. Her face now seemed harder in outline, more enigmatical. She gazed after the girl who left her, and into her eyes came a look which one must have called strangely unmaternal—a look not tender, but hard, calculating, cold.
"She is pretty," she murmured to herself half-aloud. "She is going to be very pretty—the prettiest of the family in generations, perhaps. Well-handled, that girl could marry anybody. I'll have to be careful she doesn't marry the wrong one. They're headstrong, these Ellisons. Still, I think I can handle this one of them. In fact, I must." She smiled gently and settled down into a half-reverie, purring to herself. "Dear me!" she resumed at length, starting up, "how warm it grows! Where has that girl gone? I do believe she has run away. Delphine! Ah-h-h-h, Delphine!"
There came no audible sound of steps, but presently there stood, just within the parted draperies, the figure of the servant thus called upon. Yet that title sat ill upon this tall young woman who now stood awaiting the orders of her mistress. Garbed as a servant she was, yet held herself rather as a queen. Her hair, black and luxuriant, was straight and strong, and, brushed back smoothly from her temples as it was, contrasted sharply with a skin just creamy enough to establish it as otherwise than pure white. Egyptian, or Greek, or of unknown race, this servant, Delphine, might have been; but had it not been for her station and surroundings, one could never have suspected in her the trace of negro blood. She stood now, a mellow-tinted statue of not quite yellow ivory, silent, turning upon her mistress eyes large, dark and inscrutable as those of a sphinx. One looking upon the two, as they thus confronted each other, must have called them a strange couple. Why they should be mistress and servant was not a matter to be determined upon a first light guess. Indeed, they seemed scarcely such. From dark eye to dark eye there seemed to pass a signal of covert understanding, a signal of doubt, or suspicion, or armed neutrality, yet of mutual comprehension.
"Delphine," said Mrs. Ellison, presently, "bring me a glass of wine. And from now on, Delphine, see to it that you watch that girl. Tell me what she does. There's very little restraint of any kind here on the plantation, and she is just the age—well, you must keep me informed. You may bring the decanter, Delphine. I really don't feel fit for breakfast."
In the warm sun of the southern morning the great plantation lay as though half-asleep, dozing and blinking at the advancing day. The plantation house, known in all the country-side as the Big House, rested calm and self-confident in the middle of a wide sweep of cleared lands, surrounded immediately by dark evergreens and the occasional primeval oaks spared in the original felling of the forest. Wide and rambling galleries of one height or another crawled here and there about the expanses of the building, and again paused, as though weary of the attempt to circumvent it. The strong white pillars, rising from the ground floor straight to the third story, shone white and stately, after that old southern fashion, that Grecian style, simplified and made suitable to provincial purses by those Adams brothers of old England who first set the fashion in early American architecture. White-coated, with wide, cool, green blinds, with ample and wide-doored halls and deep, low windows, the Big House, here in the heart of the warm South-land, was above all things suited to its environment. It was a home taking firm hold upon the soil, its wide roots reaching into traditions of more than one generation. Well toward the head of the vast Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, the richest region on the face of the whole earth, the Big House ruled over these wide acres as of immemorial right. Its owner, Colonel Calvin Blount, was a king, an American king, his right to rule based upon full proof of fitness.
In the heart of the only American part of America, the Big House, careless and confident, could afford to lie blinking at the sun, or at the broad acres which blinked back at it. It was all so safe and sure that there was no need for anxiety. Life here was as it had been for generations, even for the generation following the upheaval of the Civil War. Open-handed, generous, rich, lazily arrogant, kindly always, though upon occasions fiercely savage, this life took hold upon that of a hundred years ago. These strings of blacks, who now, answering the plantation bell, slowly crawled down the lane to the outlying fields, might still have been slaves. This lazy plow, tickling the opulent earth, might have been handled by a slave rather than by this hired servitor, whose quavering, plaintive song, broken mid-bar betimes, now came back across the warm distances which lay trembling in the rays of the advancing sun. These other dark-skinned servants, dawdling along the galleries, or passing here and yonder from the detached quarters of kitchen, and cook-room, and laundry and sleeping-rooms—they also humming musically at their work, too full of the sun and the certainty of comfort to need to hurry even with a song—all these might also have been tenants of an old-time estate, giving slow service in return for a life of carelessness and irresponsibility. This was in the South, in the Delta, the garden of the South, the garden of America; a country crude, primitive, undeveloped in modern ways, as one might say, yet by right entitled to its own assuredness. It asked nothing of all the world.
All this deep rich soil was given to the people of that land by Father Messasebe. Yards deep it lay, anciently rich, kissed by a sun which caused every growing thing to leap into swift fruition. The entire lesson of the scene was one of an absolute fecundity. The grass was deep and green and lush. The sweet peas and the roses and the morning-glories, and the honeysuckles on the lattice, hung ranks deep in blossoms. A hundred flocks of fowl ran clucking and chirping about the yard. Across the lawn a mother swine led her brood of squeaking and squealing young. A half-hundred puppies, toddlers or half-grown, romped about, unused fragments of the great hunting pack of the owner of this kingdom. Life, perhaps short, perhaps rude, perhaps swiftly done, yet after all life—this was the message of it all. The trees grew vast and tall. The corn, where the stalks could still be seen, grew stiff and strong as little trees. The cotton, through which the negroes rode, their black kinky heads level with the old shreds of ungathered bolls, showed plants rank and coarse enough to uphold a man's weight free of the ground. This sun and this soil—what might they not do in brooding fecundity? Growth, reproduction, the multifold—all this was written under that sky which now swept, deep and blue, flecked here and there with soft and fleecy clouds, over these fruitful acres hewn from the primeval forest.
The forest, the deep, vast forest of oak and ash and gum and ghostly sycamore; the forest, tangled with a thousand binding vines and briers, wattled and laced with rank blue cane—sure proof of a soil exhaustlessly rich—this ancient forest still stood, mysterious and forbidding, all about the edges of the great plantation. Here and there a tall white stump, fire-blackened at its foot, stood, even in fields long cultivated, showing how laborious and slow had been the whittling away of this jungle, which even now continually encroached and claimed its own. The rim of the woods, marked white by the deadened trees where the axes of the laborers were reclaiming yet other acres as the years rolled by, now showed in the morning sun distinctly, making a frame for the rich and restful picture of the Big House and its lands. Now and again overhead there swung slowly an occasional great black bird, its shadow not yet falling straight on the sunlit ground, as it would at midday, when the puppies of the pack would begin their daily pastime of chasing it across the fields.
This silent surrounding forest even yet held its ancient creatures— the swift and graceful deer, the soft-footed panther, the shambling black bear, the wild hog, the wolf, all manner of furred creatures, great store of noble wild fowl—all these thriving after the fecund fashion of this brooding land. It was a kingdom, this wild world, a realm in the wilderness; a kingdom fit for a bold man to govern, a man such as might have ruled in days long gone by. And indeed the Big House and its scarcely measured acres kept well their master as they had for many years. The table of this Delta baron was almost exclusively fed from these acres; scarce any item needful in his life required to be imported from the outer world. The government of America might have fallen; anarchy might have prevailed; a dozen states might have been taken over by a foreign foe; a score of states might have been overwhelmed by national calamity, and it all had scarce made a ripple here in this land, apart, rich, self-supporting and content. It had always been thus here.
But if this were a kingdom apart and self-sufficient, what meant this thing which, crossed the head of the plantation—this double line, tenacious and continuous, which shone upon the one hand dark, and upon the other, where the sun touched it, a cold gray in color? What meant this squat little building at the side of these rails which reached out straight as the flight of a bird across the clearing and vanished keenly in the forest wall? This was the road of the iron rails, the white man's perpetual path across the land. It clung close to the ground, at times almost sinking into the embankment now grown scarcely discernible among the concealing grass and weeds, although the track itself had been built but recently. This railroad sought to efface itself, even as the land sought to aid in its effacement, as though neither believed that this was lawful spot for the path of the iron rails. None the less, here was the railroad, ineradicable, epochal, bringing change; and, one might say, it made a blot upon this picture of the morning.
An observer standing upon the broad gallery, looking toward the eastward and the southward, might have seen two figures just emerging from the rim of the forest something like a mile away; and might then have seen them growing slowly more distinct as they plodded up the railway track toward the Big House. Presently these might have been discovered to be a man and a woman; the former tall, thin, dark and stooped; his companion, tall as himself, quite as thin, and almost as bent. The garb of the man was nondescript, neutral, loose; his hat dark and flapping. The woman wore a shapeless calico gown, and on her head was a long, telescopic sunbonnet of faded pink, from which she must perforce peer forward, looking neither to the right nor to the left.
The travelers, indeed, needed not to look to the right or the left, for the path of the iron rails led them directly on. Now and again clods of new-broken earth caused them to stumble as they hobbled loosely along. If the foot of either struck against the rail, its owner sprang aside, as though in fear, toward the middle of the track. Slowly and unevenly, with all the zigzags permissible within the confining inches of the irons, they came on up toward the squat little station-house. Thence they turned aside into the plantation path and, still stumbling and zigzagging, ambled up toward the house. They did not step to the gallery, did not knock at the door, or, indeed, give any evidences of their intentions, but seated themselves deliberately upon a pile of boards that lay near in the broad expanse of the front yard. Here they remained, silent and at rest, fitting well enough into the sleepy scene. No one in the house noticed them for a time, and they, tired by the walk, seemed content to rest under the shade of the evergreens before making known their errand. They sat speechless and content for some moments, until finally a mulatto house-servant, passing from one building to another, cast a look in their direction, and paused uncertainly in curiosity. The man on the board-pile saw her.
"Here, Jinny! Jinny!" he called, just loud enough to be heard, and not turning toward her more than half-way. "Come heah."
"Yassah," said the girl, and slowly approached.
"Get us a little melk, Jinny," said the speaker.
"We're plumb out o' melk down home."
"Yassah," said Jinny; and disappeared leisurely, to be gone perhaps half an hour.
There remained little sign of life on the board-pile, the bonnet tube pointing fixedly toward the railway station, the man now and then slowly shifting one leg across the other, but staring out at nothing, his lower lip drooping laxly. When the servant finally brought back the milk-pail and placed it beside him, he gave no word of thanks. The sunbonnet shifted to include the mulatto girl within its full vision, as the latter stood leaning her weight on one side-bent foot, idly wiping her hands upon her apron.
"Folks all well down to yo' place, Mistah Bowles?" said she, affably.
"Um-h-h." Silence then fell until Jinny again found speech.
"Old Bess, that's the Cunnel's favoright dawg, you-all know, she done have 'leven puppies las' night."
"Yassah. Cunnel, he's off down on the Sun-flowah."
"Yassah; got most all his dawgs wid 'im. We goin' to have b'ah meat now for sho',"—this with a wide grin.
"Reckon so," said the visitor. "When's Cunnel coming back, you reckon?"
"I dunno, suh, but he sho' won't come back lessen he gets a b'ah. If you-all could wait a while, yon-all could take back some b'ah meat, if you wantuh."
"Um-h-h," said the man, and fell again into silence. To all appearances, he was willing to wait here indefinitely, forgetful of the pail of milk, toward which the sun was now creeping ominously close. The way back home seemed long and weary at that moment. His lip drooped still more laxly, as he sat looking out vaguely.
Not so calm seemed his consort, she of the sun-bonnet. Eestored to some extent by her tarrying in the shade, she began to shift and hitch about uneasily upon the board-pile. At length she leaned a bit to one side, reached into a pocket and, taking out a snuff-stick and a parcel of its attendant compound, began to take a dip of snuff, after the habit of certain of the population of that region. This done, she turned with a swift jerk of the head, bringing to bear the tube of her bonnet in full force upon her lord and master.
"Jim Bowles," she said, "this heah is a shame! Hit's a plumb shame!"
There was no answer, save an uneasy hitch on the part of the person so addressed. He seemed to feel the focus of the sunbonnet boring into his system. The voice in the bonnet went on, shot straight toward him, so that he might not escape.
"Hit's a plumb shame," said Mrs. Bowles, again.
"I know it, I know it," said her husband at length, uneasily. "That is, about us having to walk up heah. That whut you mean?"
"Yassir, that's whut I do mean, an' you know it."
"Well, now, how kin I help it? We kain't take the only mewel we got and make the nigger stop wu'k. That ain't reasonable. Besides, you don't think Cunnel Blount is goin' to miss a pail o' melk now and then, do you?"
A snort of indignation greeted this supposition.
"Jim Bowles, you make me sick," replied his wife. "We kin get melk heah as long as we want to, o' co'se; but who wants to keep a-comin' up heah, three mile, for melk? It ain't right."
"Well, now, Sar' Ann, how kin I help it?" said Jim Bowles. "The cow is daid, an' I kain't help it, an' that's all about it. My God, woman!" this with sudden energy, "do you think I kin bring a cow to life that's been kilt by the old railroad kyahs? I ain't no 'vangelist."
"You kain't bring old Muley to life," said Sarah Ann Bowles, "but then—"
"Well, but then! But whut? Whut you goin' to do? I reckon you do whut you do, huh! You just walk the track and come heah after melk, I reckon, if you want it. You ought to be mighty glad I come along to keep you company. 'Tain't every man goin' to do that, I want to tell you. Now, it ain't my fault old Muley done got kilt."
"Ain't yo' fault!"
"No, it ain't my fault. Whut am I goin' to do? I kain't get no otheh cow right now, an' I done tol' you so. You reckon cows grows on bushes?"
"Grows on bushes!"
"Yes, or that they comes for nuthin'?"
"Comes for nuthin'!"
"Yes, Sar' Ann, that's whut I said. I tell you, it ain't so fur to come, ain't so fur up heah, if you take it easy; only three mile. An' Cunnel Blount'll give us melk as long as we want. I reckon he would give us a cow, too, if I ast him. I s'pose I could pay him out o' the next crop, if they wasn't so many things that has to be paid out'n the crop. It's too blame bad 'bout Muley." He scratched his head thoughtfully.
"Yes," responded his spouse, "Muley was a heap better cow than you'll ever git ag'in. Why, she give two quo'ts o' melk the very mawnin' she was kilt—two quo'ts. I reckon we didn't have to walk no three mile that mawnin', did we? An' she that kin' and gentle-like—oh, we ain't goin' to git no new cow like Muley, no time right soon, I want to tell you that, Jim Bowles."
"Well, well, I know all that," said her husband, conciliatingly, a trifle easier now that the sunbonnet was for the moment turned aside. "That's all true, mighty true. But what kin you do?"
"Do? Why, do somethin'! Somebody sho' ought to suffer for this heah. This new fangled railroad a-comin' through heah, a-killin' things, an' a-killin' folks! Why, Bud Sowers said just the other week he heard of three darkies gittin' kilt in one bunch down to Allenville. They standin' on the track, jes' talkin' an' visitin' like. Didn't notice nuthin'. Didn't notice the train a-comin'. 'Biff!' says Bud; an' thah was them darkies."
"Yes," said Mr. Bowles, "that's the way it was with Muley. She just walk up out'n the cane, an' stan' thah in the sun on the track, to sort o' look aroun' whah she could see free fer a little ways. Then, 'long comes the railroad train, an' biff! Thah's Muley!"
"An' she a good cow for us for fo'teen yeahs! It don't look exactly right, now, does it? It sho' don't"
"It's a outrage, that's whut it is," said Sar' Ann Bowles.
"Well, we got the railroad," said her husband, tentatively.
"Yes, we got the railroad," said Sar' Ann Bowles, savagely, "an' whut yearthly good is it? Who wants any railroad? Whut use have we-all got fer it? It comes through ouah farm, an' scares ouah mewel, an' it kills ouah cow; an' it's got me so's I'm afeared to set foot outsid'n ouah do', lessen it's goin' to kill me, too. Why, all the way up heah this mawnin', I was skeered every foot of the way, a-fear-in' that there ingine was goin' to come along an' kill us both!"
"Sho'! Sar' Ann," said her husband, with superiority. "It ain't time fer the train yit—leastwise I don't think it is." He looked about uneasily.
"That's all right, Jim Bowles. One of them ingines might come along 'most any time. It might creep up behin' you, then, biff! Thah's Jim Bowles! Whut use is the railroad, I'd like to know? I wouldn't be caught a-climbin' in one o' them thah kyars, not fer big money. Supposin' it run off the track?"
"Oh, well, now," said her husband, "maybe it don't, always."
"But supposin' it did?" The front of the telescope turned toward him suddenly, and so perfect was the focus this time that Mr. Bowles shifted his seat and took refuge upon another board at the other end of the board-pile, out of range, albeit directly in the ardent sunlight, which, warm as it was, did not seem to him so burning as the black eyes in the bonnet, or so troublous as the tongue which went on with its questions.
"Whut made you vote fer this heah railroad?" said Sarah Ann, following him mercilessly with the bonnet tube. "We didn't want no railroad. We never did have one, an' we never ought to a-had one. You listen to me, that railroad is goin' to ruin this country. Thah ain't a woman in these heah bottoms but would be skeered to have a baby grow up in her house. Supposin' you got a baby; nice little baby, never did harm no one. You a-cookin' or somethin'—out to the smoke- house like enough; baby alone fer about two minutes. Baby crawls out on to the railroad track. Along comes the ingine, an' biff! Thah's yo' baby!"
Mrs. Bowles shed tears at this picture which she had conjured up, and even her less imaginative consort became visibly affected, so that for a moment he half straightened up.
"Hit don't look quite right," said he, once more. "But, then, whut you goin' to do? Whut kin we do, woman?" he asked fiercely.
"Why, if the men in these heah parts was half men," said his wife, "I tell you whut they'd do. They'd git out and tear up every foot of this heah cussed railroad track, an' throw it back into the cane. That's whut they'd do."
"Sho' now, would you?" said Jim Bowles.
"Shore I would. You got to do it if things keeps on this-away."
"Well, we couldn't, lessen Cunnel Blount said it was all right, you know. The Cunnel was the friend of the road through these heah bottoms. He 'lowed it would help us all."
"Help? Help us? Huh! Like to know how it helps us, killin' ouah cow an' makin' us walk three mile of a hot mornin' to git a pail o' melk to make up some co'hn bread. You call that a help, do you, Jim Bowles? You may, but I don't an' I hain't a-goin' to. I got some sense, I reckon. Railroad! Help! Huh!"
Jim Bowles crept stealthily a little farther away on his own side of the board-pile, whither it seemed his wife could not quite so readily follow him with her transfixing gaze.
"Well, now, Sar' Ann," said he, "the Cunnel done tol' me hit was all right. He said some of ouah stock like enough git kilt, 'cause you know these heah bottoms is growed up so close like, with cane an' all that, that any sort of critters like to git out where it's open, so's they kin sort o' look around like, you know. Why, I done seen four deer trails whils' we was a-comin' up this mawnin', and I seen whah a b'ah had come out an' stood on the track. Now, as fer cows, an' as fer niggers, why, it stands to reason that some of them is shore goin' to git kilt, that's all."
"An' you men is goin' to stand that from the railroad? Why don't you make them pay for whut gits kilt?"
"Well, now, Sar' Ann," said her husband, conciliatorily, "that's just whut I was goin' to say. The time the fust man come down through heah to talk about buildin' the railroad, he done said, like I tol' you Cunnel Blount said, that we might git some stock kilt fer a little while, till things kind o' got used to it, you know; but he 'lowed that the railroad would sort o' pay for anything that got kilt like, you know."
"Pay! The railroad goin' to pay you!" Again the remorseless sunbonnet followed its victim and fixed him with its focus. "Pay you! I didn't notice no money layin' on the track where we come along this mawnin', did you? Yes, I reckon it's goin' to pay you, a whole heap!" The scorn of this utterance was limitless, and Jim Bowles felt his insignificance in the untenable position which he had assumed.
"Well, I dunno," said he, vaguely, and sighed softly; all of which irritated Mrs. Bowles to such an extent that she flounced suddenly around to get a better gaze upon her master. In this movement, her foot struck the pail of milk which had been sitting near, and overturned it.
"Jinny," she called out, "you, Jinny!"
"Yassam," replied Jinny, from some place on the gallery.
"Come heah," said Mrs. Bowles. "Git me another pail o' melk. I done spilled this one."
"Yassam," replied Jinny, and presently returned with the refilled vessel.
"Well, anyway," said Jim Bowles at length, rising and standing with hands in pockets, inside the edge of the shade line of the evergreens, "I heard that thah was a man come down through heah a few days ago. He was sort of takin' count o' the critters that done got kilt by the railroad kyahs."
"That so?" said Sarah Ann, somewhat mollified.
"I reckon so," said Jim Bowles. "I 'lowed I'd ast Cunnel Blount 'bout that sometime. 0' co'se it don't bring Muley back, but then—-"
"No, hit don't," said Sarah Ann, resuming her original position. "And our little Sim, he just loved that Muley cow, little Sim, he did," she mourned.
"Say, Jim Bowles, do you heah me?"—this with a sudden flirt of the sunbonnet in an agony of actual fear. "Why, Jim Bowles, do you know that ouah little Sim might be a-playin' out thah in front of ouah house, on to that railroad track, at this very minute? S'pose, s'posen—along comes that thah railroad train! Say, man, whut you standin' there in that thah shade fer? We got to go! We got to git home! Come right along this minute, er we may be too late."
And so, smitten by this sudden thought, they gathered themselves together as best they might and started toward the railroad for their return. Even as they did so there appeared upon the northern horizon a wreath of smoke rising above the forest. There was the far-off sound of a whistle, deadened by the heavy intervening vegetation; and presently, there puffed into view one of the railroad trains still new upon this region. Iconoclastic, modern, strenuous, it wabbled unevenly over the new-laid rails up to the station-house, where it paused for a few moments ere it resumed its wheezing way to the southward. The two visitors at the Big House gazed at it open-mouthed for a time, until all at once her former thought crossed the woman's mind. She turned upon her husband.
"Thah it goes! Thah it goes!" she cried. "Right on straight to ouah house! It kain't miss it! An' little Sim, he's sho' to be playin' out thah on the track. Oh, he's daid right this minute, he sho'ly is!"
Her speech exercised a certain force upon Jim Bowles. He stepped on the faster, tripped upon a clod and stumbled, spilling half the milk from the pail.
"Thah, now!" said he. "Thah hit goes ag'in. Done spilt the melk. Well, hit's too far back to the house now fer mo'. But, now, mebbe Sim wasn't playin' on the track."
"Mebbe he wasn't!" said Sarah Ann, scornfully. "Why, o' co'se he was."
"Well, if he was," said Jim Bowles, philosophically, "why, Sar' Ann, from whut I done notice about this yeah railroad train, why—it's too late, now."
He might perhaps have pursued this logical course of thought further, had not there occurred an incident which brought the conversation to a close. Looking up, the two saw approaching them across the lawn, evidently coming from the little railway station, and doubtless descended from this very train, the alert, quick-stepping figure of a man evidently a stranger to the place. Jim and Sarah Ann Bowles stepped to one side as he approached and lifted his hat with a pleasant smile.
"Good morning," said the stranger. "It's a fine day, isn't it? Can you tell me whether or not Colonel Blount is at home this morning?"
"Well, suh," said Jim Bowles, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "He ah, an' he ain't. He's home, o' co'se; that is, he hain't gone away no whah, to co'te er nothin'. But then ag'in, he's out huntin', gone afteh b'ah. I reckon he's likely to be in 'most any day now."
"'Most any day?"
"Yessah. You better go on up to the house. The Cunnel will be right glad to see you. You're a stranger in these parts, I reckon? I'd be glad to have you stop down to my house, but it's three mile down the track, an' we hatter walk. You'd be mo' comfo'table heah, I reckon. Walk on up, and tell 'em to give you a place to set. My woman an' me, I reckon we got to git home now, suh. It's somethin' might be mighty serious."
"Yas, indeed," murmured Mrs. Bowles, "we got to git along."
"Thank you," said the stranger. "I am very much obliged to you, indeed. I believe I will wait here for just a little while, as you say. Good morning, sir. Good morning, madam."
He turned and walked slowly up the path toward the house, as the others pursued their way to the railroad track, down which they presently were plodding on their homeward journey. There was at least a little milk left in the pail when finally they reached their log cabin, with its yard full of pigs and chickens. Eagerly they scanned the sides of the railway embankment as they drew near, looking for signs of what they feared to see. One need not describe the fierce joy with which Sarah Ann Bowles fell upon little Sim, who was presently discovered, safe and dirty, knocking about upon the kitchen floor in abundant company of puppies, cats and chickens. As to the reproaches which she heaped upon her husband in her happiness, it is likewise unnecessary to dwell thereupon.
"I knowed he would be kilt," said Sarah Ann.
"But he hain't," said her husband, triumphantly. And for one time in their married life there seemed to be no possible way in which she might contradict him, which fact for her constituted a situation somewhat difficult.
"Well, 'tain't yo' fault ef he hain't," said she at length. The rest of her revenge she took upon the person of little Sim, whom she alternately chastened and embraced, to the great and grieved surprise of the latter, who remained ignorant of any existing or pending relation upon his part with the methods or the instruments of modern progress.
The new-comer at the Big House was a well-looking figure as he advanced up the path toward the white-pillared galleries. In height just above middle stature, and of rather spare habit of body, alert, compact and vigorous, he carried himself with a half-military self- respect, redeemed from aggressiveness by an open candor of face and the pleasant, forthright gaze of kindly blue-gray eyes. In spite of a certain gravity of mien, his eyes seemed wont to smile upon occasion, as witnessed divers little wrinkles at the corners. He was smooth- shaven, except for a well-trimmed dark mustache; the latter offering a distinct contrast to the color of his hair, which, apparently not in full keeping with his years, was lightly sprinkled with gray. Yet his carriage was assuredly not that of middle age, and indeed, the total of his personality, neither young nor old, neither callow nor acerb, neither lightly unreserved nor too gravely severe, offered certain problems not capable of instant solution. A hurried observer might have guessed his age within ten years but might have been wrong upon either side, and might have had an equal difficulty in classifying his residence or occupation.
Whatever might be said of this stranger, it was evident that he was not ill at ease in this environment; for as he met coming around the corner an old colored man, who, with a rag in one hand and a bottle in the other, seemed intent upon some errand at the dog kennel beyond, the visitor paused not in query or salutation, but tossed his umbrella to the servant and at the same time handed him his traveling-bag. "Take care of these. Bill," said he.
Bill, for that was indeed his name, placed the bag and umbrella upon the gallery floor, and with the air of owning the place himself, invited the visitor to enter the Big House.
"The Cunnel's not to home, suh," said Bill. "But you bettah come in and seddown. I'll go call the folks."
"Never mind," said the visitor. "I reckon I'll just walk around a little outside. I hear Colonel Blount is off on a bear hunt."
"Yassah," said Bill. "An' when he goes he mostly gits b'ah. I'se right 'spondent dis time, though, 'deed I is, suh."
"What's the matter?"
"Why, you see, suh," replied Bill, leaning comfortably back against a gallery post, "it's dis-away. I'm just goin' out to fix up old Hec's foot. He's ouah bestest b'ah-dog, but he got so blame biggoty, las' time he was out, stuck his foot right intoe a b'ah's mouth. Now, Hec's lef' home, an' me lef home to 'ten' to Hec. How kin Cunnel Blount git ary b'ah 'dout me and Hec along? I'se right 'spondent, dat's whut I is."
"Well, now, that's too bad," said the stranger, with a smile.
"Too bad? I reckon it sho' is. Fer, if Cunnel Blount don't git no b'ah—look out den, I kin tell you."
"Gets his dander up, eh?"
"Dandah—dandah! You know him? Th'ain't no better boss, but ef he goes out huntin' b'ah an' don't get no b'ah—why, then th' ain't no reason goin' do foh him."
"Is Mrs. Blount at home, Bill?"
"Th'ain't no Mrs. Blount, and I don't reckon they neveh will be. Cunnel too busy huntin' b'ah to git married. They's two ladies heah, no relation o' him; they done come heah a yeah er so ago, and they- all keeps house fer the Cunnel. That's Mrs. Ellison and her dahteh, Miss Lady. She's a pow'ful fine gal, Miss Lady."
"I don't know them," said the visitor.
"No, sah," said Bill. "They ain't been heah long. Dese heah low-down niggers liken to steal the Cunnel blin', he away so much. One day, he gits right mad. 'Lows he goin' to advehtize fer a housekeepah-lady. Then Mas' Henry 'Cherd—he's gemman been livin' couple o' yeahs 'er so down to near Vicksburg, some'rs; he's out huntin' now with the Cunnel—why, Mas' 'Cherd he 'lows he knows whah thah's a lady, jus' the thing. Law! Cunnel didn't spec' no real lady, you know, jes' wantin' housekeepah. But long comes this heah lady, Mrs. Ellison, an' brings this heah young lady, too—real quality. 'Miss Lady' we-all calls her, right to once. Orto see Cunnel Cal Blount den! 'Now, I reckon I kin go huntin' peaceful,' says he. So dem two tuk holt. Been heah ever since. Mas' 'Cherd, he has in min' this heah yallah gal, Delpheem. Right soon, heah come Delpheem 'long too. Reckon she runs the kitchen all right. Anyways we's got white folks in the parlah, whah they allus orto be white folks."
"Well, you ought to thank your friend—what is his name—Ducherd— Decherd? Seems as though I had heard that name, below somewhere."
"Yas, Mas' Henry 'Cherd. We does thank him. He sut'nly done fix us all up wid women-folks. We couldn't no mo' git erlong 'dout Miss Lady now, 'n we could 'dout me, er the Cunnel. But, law! it don't make no diff'ence to Cunnel Blount who's heah or who ain't heah, he jest gotter hunt b'ah. You come 'long wid me, I could show you b'ah hides up stairs, b'ah hides on de roof, b'ah hides on de sheds, b'ah hides on de barn, and a tame b'ah hitched to the cotton-gin ovah thah."
"He seems to make a sort of specialty of bear, doesn't he? Got a pretty good pack, eh?"
"Pack? I should say we has! We got the bestest b'ah pack in Miss'ippi, er in de whole worl'. We sho' is fixed up fer huntin'. But, now, look heah, two three days ago the railroad kyahs done run ovah a fine colt whut de Cunnel was raisin' fer a saddle hoss—kilt it plumb daid. That riled him a heap. 'Damn the railroad kyahs,' sez he. An' den off he goes huntin', sort o' riled like. Now, ef he comes back, and ef he don't git no b'ah, why, you won't see old Bill 'round heah fer 'bout fo' days."
"You seem to know him pretty well."
"Know him? I orto. Raised wid him, an' lived heah all my life. Now, when you see Cunnel Blount come home, he'll come up 'long dat lane, him an' de dogs, an' dem no 'count niggers he done took 'long wid him; an' when he gits up to whah de lane crosses de railroad track, ef he come ridin' 'long easy like, now an' den tootin' his hawn to so'ht o' let us know he's a-comin'—ef he do dat-away, dat's all right,—dat's all right." Here the garrulous old servant shook his head. "But ef he don't—well den—"
"That's bad, if he doesn't, eh?"
"Yassah. Ef he don' come a-blowin' an' ef he do come a-singin', den look out! I allus did notice, ef Cunnel Blount 'gins to sing 'ligious hymns, somethin's wrong, and somethin' gwine ter drap. He hain't right easy ter git along wid when he's a-singin'. But if you'll 'scuse me, suh, I gotter take care o' old Hec. Jest make yourself to home, suh,—anyways you like."
The visitor contented himself with wandering about the yard, until at length he seated himself on the board-pile beneath the evergreen trees, and so sank into an idle reverie, his chin in his hand, and his eyes staring out across the wide field. His face, now in repose, seemed more meditative; indeed one might have called it almost mournful. The shoulders drooped a trifle, as though their owner for the time forgot to pull himself together. He sat thus for some time, and the sun was beginning to encroach upon his refuge, when suddenly he was aroused by the faint and far-off sound of a hunting horn. That the listener distinguished it at such a distance might have argued that he himself had known hound and saddle in his day; yet he readily caught the note of the short hunting horn universally used by the southern hunters, and recognized the assembly call for the hunting pack. As it came near, all the dogs that remained in the kennel yards heard it and raged to escape from their confinement. Old Bill came hobbling around the corner. Steps were heard on the gallery, and the visitor's face showed a slight uneasiness as he caught a glimpse of a certain spot now suddenly made alive by the flutter of a soft gown and the flash of a bunch of scarlet ribbons. Thither he gazed as directly as he might in these circumstances.
"Dat's her! dat's Miss Lady!" said Bill to his new friend, in a low voice. "Han'somest young lady in de hull Delta. Dey'll all be right glad ter see de Cunnel back. He's got a b'ah sho', fer he's comin' a- blowin'."
Bill's joy was not long-lived, for even as the little cavalcade came in view, a tall figure on a chestnut hunting horse riding well in advance, certain colored stragglers following, and the party-colored pack trotting or limping along on all sides, the music of the summoning horn suddenly ceased. Looking neither to the right nor to the left, the leader of the hunt rode on up the lane, sitting loose and careless in the saddle, his right hand steadying a short rifle across the saddle front. He rode thus until presently those at the Big House heard, softly rising on the morning air, the chant of an old church hymn: "On Jordan's strand I'll take my stand, An-n-n—"
"Oh, Lawd!" exclaimed Bill. "Dat's his very wustest chune." Saying which he dodged around the corner of the house.
A QUESTION OP VALUATION
Turning in from the lane at the yard gate, Colonel Calvin Blount and his retinue rode close up to the side door of the plantation house; but even here the master vouchsafed no salutation to those who awaited his coming. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, lean and muscular; yet so far from being thin and dark, he was spare rather from physical exercise than through gaunt habit of body; his complexion was ruddy and sun-colored, and the long mustache hanging across his jaws showed a deep mahogany-red. Western ranchman one might have called him, rather than southern planter. Scotch-Irish, generations back, perhaps, yet southern always, and by birth-right American, he might have been a war-lord of another land and day. No feudal baron ever dismounted with more assuredness at his own hall, to toss careless rein to a retainer. He stood now, tall and straight, a trifle rough-looking in his careless planter's dress, but every inch the master. A slight frown puckered up his forehead, giving to his face an added hint of sternness.
Behind this leading figure of the cavalcade came a younger man. In age perhaps at the mid thirties, tall, slender, with dark hair and eyes and with a dark mustache shading his upper lip, Henry Decherd, formerly of New Orleans, for a few years dweller in the Delta, sometime guest of Colonel Blount at the Big House plantation and companion of the hunt, made now a figure if not wholly eye-filling, at least handsome and distinguished. His dress was neat to the verge of foppishness, nor did it seem much disordered by the hardships of the chase. Upon his clean-cut face there sat a certain arrogance, as of one at least desirous of having his own way in his own sphere. Not an ill-looking man, upon the whole, was Henry Decherd, though his reddish-yellow eyes, a bit oblique in their setting, gave the impression alike of a certain touchiness of temper and an unpleasantly fox-like quality of character. There was an air not barren of self-consciousness as he threw himself out of the saddle, for it might have been seen that under his saddle, and not that of Colonel Blount, there rested the black and glossy hide of the great bear which had been the object of the chase. Decherd stood with his hand resting on the hide and gazed somewhat eagerly, one might have thought, toward the gallery whence came the flash of scarlet ribbons.
Colonel Blount busied himself with directions as to the horses and dogs. The latter came straggling along in groups or pairs or singles, some of them hobbling on three legs, many showing bitter wounds. The chase of the great bear had proved stern pastime for them. Of half a hundred hounds which had started, not two-thirds were back again, and many of these would be unfit for days for the resumption of their savage trade. None the less, as the master sounded again, loud and clear, the call for the assembly, all the dogs about the place, young and old, homekeepers and warriors, came pouring in with heads uplifted, each pealing out his sweet and mournful music. Colonel Blount spoke to dozens of them, calling each by its proper name.
"Here, Bill," he called to that worthy, who had now ventured to return from his hiding-place, "take them out to the yard and fix them up. Now, boys, go around to the kitchen and tell them to give you something to eat."
In the confusion of the disbandment of the hunt, the master of the Big House had as yet hardly found time to look about him, but now, as the conclave scattered, he found himself alone, and turning, discovered the occupant of the board-pile, who arose and advanced, offering his hand.
"This is Colonel Blount, I presume," said he.
"Yes, sir, that's my name. I beg your pardon, I'm sure, but I didn't know you were there. Come right on into the house and sit down, sir. Now, your name is—?"
"Eddring," said the new-comer. "John Eddring. I am just down on the morning train from the city."
"I'm right glad to see you, Mr. Eddring," said Colonel Blount, extending his hand. "It seems to me I ought to know your family. Over round Hillsboro, aren't you? Tell me, you're not the son of old Dan H. Eddring of the Tenth Mississippi in the war?"
"That was an uncle of mine."
"Is that so, is that so? Why, Dan H. Eddring was my father's friend. They slept and fought and ate together for four years, until my father was killed in the Wilderness."
"And my uncle before Richmond; John Eddring, my father, long before, at Ball's Bluff."
"I was in some of that fighting myself," said Colonel Blount, rubbing his chin. "I was a boy, just a boy. Well, it's all over now. Come on in. I'm mighty glad to see you." Yet the two, without plan, had now wandered over toward the shade of the evergreen, and presently they seated themselves on the board-pile.
"Well, Colonel Blount," said the visitor, "I reckon you must have had a good hunt."
"Yes, sir, there ain't a b'ah in the Delta can get away from those dogs. We run this fellow straight on end for ten miles; put him across the river twice, and all around the Black Bayou, but the dogs kept him hot all the time, I'm telling you, for more than five miles through the cane, clean beyond the bayou."
"Who got the shot, Colonel?" asked Eddring—a question apparently most unwelcome.
"Well, I ought to have had it," said Blount, with a frown of displeasure. "The fact is, I did take a flying chance from horseback, when the b'ah ran by in the cane half a mile back of where they killed him. Somehow I must have missed. A little while later I heard another shot, and found that young gentleman there, Mr. Decherd, had beat me in the ride. But man! you ought to have heard that pack for two hours through the woods. It certainly would have raised your hair straight up. You ever hunt b'ah, sir?"
"A little, once in a while, when I have the time."
"Well, you don't go away from here without having a good hunt. You just wait a day or so until my dogs get rested up."
"Thank you, Colonel, but I am afraid I can't stay. You see, I am down here on a matter of business."
"Business, eh?"—Well, a man that'll let business interfere with a b'ah hunt has got something wrong about him."
"Well, you see, a railroad man can't always choose," said his guest.
"Railroad man?" said Colonel Blount. A sudden gloom fell on his ruddy face. "Railroad man, eh? Well, I wish you was something else. Now, I helped get that railroad through this country—if it hadn't been for me, they never could have laid a mile of track through here. But now, do you know what they done did to me the other day, with their damned old railroad?"
"No, sir, I haven't heard."
"Well, I'll tell you—Bill! Oh, Bill! Go into the house and get me some ice; and go pick some mint and bring it here to this gentleman and me—Say, do you know what that railroad did? Why, it just killed the best filly on my plantation, my best running stock, too. Now, I was the man to help get that railroad through the Delta, and I—"
"Well, now, Colonel Blount," said the other, "the road isn't a bad sort of thing for you-all down here, after all. It relieves you of the river market and it gives you a double chance to get out your cotton. You don't have to haul your cotton twelve miles back to the boat any more. Here is your station right at your door, and you can load on the cars any day you want to."
"Oh, that's all right, that's all right. But this killing of my stock?"
"Well, that's so," said the other, facing the point and ruminatingly biting a splinter between his teeth. "It does look as if we had killed about everything loose in the whole Delta during the last month or so."
"Are you on this railroad?" asked Blount, suddenly.
"I reckon I'll have to admit that I am," said the other, smiling.
"Passenger agent, or something of that sort, I reckon? Well, let me tell you, you change your road. Say, there was a man down below here last week settling up claims—Bill! Ah-h, Bill! Where you gone?"
"Yes," said Eddring, "it certainly did seem that when we built this road every cow and every nigger, not to mention a lot of white folks, made a bee-line straight for our right-of-way. Why, sir, it was a solid line of cows and niggers from Memphis to New Orleans. How could you blame an engineer if he run into something once in a while? He couldn't help it."
"Yes. Now, do you know what this claim settler, this claim agent man did? Why, he paid a man down below here two stations—what do you think he paid him for as fine a heifer as ever eat cane? Why, fifteen dollars!"
"Yes, fifteen dollars."
"That looks like a heap of money for a heifer, doesn't it, Colonel Blount?"
"A heap of money? Why, no. Heap of money? Why, what you mean?"
"Heifers didn't bring that before the road came through. Why, you would have had to drive that heifer twenty-five miles before you could get a market, and then she wouldn't have brought over twelve dollars. Now, fifteen dollars, seems to me, is about right."
"Well, let the heifer go. But there was a cow killed three miles below here the other day. Neighbors of mine. I reckon that claim agent wouldn't want to allow any more than fifteen dollars for Jim Bowles' cow, neither."
"Well, never mind about the cow, either; but look here. A nigger lost his wife down there, killed by these steam cars—looks like the niggers get fascinated by them cars. But here's Bill coming at last. Now, Mr. Eddring, we'll just make a little julep. Tell me, how do you make a julep, sir?"
Eddring hitched a little nearer on the board-pile. "Well, Colonel Blount," said he, "in our family we used to have an old silver mug— sort of plain mug, you know, few flowers around the edge of it—been in the family for years. Now, you take a mug like that, and let it lie in the ice-box all the time, and when you take it out, it's sort of got a white frost all over it. Now, my old daddy, he would take this mug and put some fine ice into it,—not too fine. Then he'd take a little cut loaf sugar, in another glass, and he'd mash it up in a little water—not too much water—then he'd pour that in over the ice. Then he would pour some good corn whisky in till all the interstices of that ice were filled plumb up; then he'd put some mint—"
"Didn't smash the mint? Say, he didn't smash the mint, did he?" said Colonel Blount, eagerly, hitching over toward the speaker.
"Smash it? I should say not, sir! Sometimes, at certain seasons of the mint, he might just sort of take a twist at the leaf, to sort of release a little of the flavor, you know. You don't want to be rough with mint. Just twist it gently between the thumb and finger. Then you set it in nicely around the edge of the glass. Sometimes just a little powder of fine sugar around on top of the mint leaves, and then—"
"Sir," said Colonel Blount, gravely rising and taking off his hat, "you are welcome to my home!"
Eddring, with equal courtesy, arose and removed his own hat.
"For my part," resumed Blount, judicially, "I rather lean to a piece of cut glass, for the green and the crystal look mighty fine together. I don't always make them with any sugar on top of the mint. But, you know, just a circle of mint—not crushed—not crushed, mind you—just a green ring of fragrance, so that you can bury your nose in it and forget your troubles. Sir, allow me once more to shake your hand. I think I know a gentleman when I see one."
Oddly enough, this pleasant speech seemed to bring a shade of sadness to Eddring's face. "A gentleman?" said he, smiling slightly. "Well, don't shake hands with me yet, sir. I don't know. You see, I'm a railroad man, and I'm here on business."
"Damn it, sir, if it was only your description of a julep, if it was only your mention of that old family silver mug, devoted to that sacred purpose, sir, that would be your certificate of character here. Forget your business. Come down here and live with me. We'll go hunting b'ah together. Why, man, I'm mighty glad to make your acquaintance."
"But wait," said Eddring, "there may be two ways of looking at this."
"Well, there's only one way of looking at a julep," said Blount, "and that's down the mint. Now, I'll show you how we make them down here in the Sunflower country."
"But, as I was a-saying—" and here Blount set down the glasses midway in his compounding, and went on with his interrupted proposition; "now here was that nigger that lost his wife. Of course he had a whole flock of children. Now, what do you think that claim agent said he would pay that nigger for his wife?"
"Well, but what do you reckon?"
"Why, I reckon about fifteen dollars."
"That's it, that's it!" said Blount, slapping his hand upon the board until the glasses jingled. "That's just what he did offer; fifteen dollars! Not a damned cent more."
"Well, now, Colonel Blount," said Eddring, "you know there's a heap of mighty trifling niggers loose in this part of the world. You see, that fellow would marry again in a little while, and he might get a heap better woman next time. There's a lot of swapping wives among these niggers at best. Now, here's a man lost his wife decent and respectable, and there's nothing on earth a nigger likes better than a good funeral, even if it has to be his own wife. Now, how many nigger funerals are there that cost fifteen dollars? I'll bet you if that nigger had it to do over again he'd a heap rather be rid of her and have the fifteen dollars. Look at it! Fine funeral for one wife and something left over to get a bonnet for his new wife. I'll bet there isn't a nigger on your place that wouldn't jump at a chance like that."
Colonel Blount scratched his head. "You understand niggers all right, I'll admit," said he. "But, now, supposing it had been a white man?"
"Well, supposing it was?"
"We don't need to suppose. There was the same thing happened to a white family. Wife got killed—left three children."
"Oh, you mean that accident down at Shelby?"
"Yes, Mrs. Something-or-other, she was. Well, sir, damn me, if that infernal claim agent didn't have the face to offer fifteen dollars for her, too!"
"Looks almost like he played a fifteen dollar limit all the time, doesn't it?" said Eddring.
"It certainly does. It ain't right."
"Well, now, I heard about that woman. She was a tall, thin creature, with no liver left at all, and her chills came three times a week. She wouldn't work; she was red-headed and had only one straight eye; and as for a tongue—well, I only hope, Colonel Blount, that you and I will never have a chance to meet anything like that. Of course, I know she was killed. Her husband just hated her before she died, but blame me, just as soon as she was dead, he loved her more than if she was his sweetheart all over again. Now, that's how it goes. Say, I want to tell you, Colonel Blount, this road is plumb beneficent, if only for the fact that it develops human affection in such a way as this. Fifteen dollars! Why, I tell you, sir, fifteen dollars was more than enough for that woman!" He turned indignantly on the board-pile.
"I reckon," said Colonel Blount, "that you would say that about my neighbor Jim Bowles' cow?"
"Certainly. I know about that cow, too. She was twenty years old and on her last legs. Road kills her, and all at once she becomes a dream of heifer loveliness. I know."
"I reckon," said Colonel Blount, still more grimly, "I reckon if that damned claim agent was to come here, he would just about say that fifteen dollars was enough for my filly."
"I shouldn't wonder. Now, look here, Colonel Blount. You see, I'm a railroad man, and I'm able to see the other side of these things. We come down here with our railroad. We develop your country. We give you a market and we put two cents a pound on top of your cotton price. We fix it so that you can market your cotton at five dollars a bale cheaper than you used to. We double and treble the price of every acre of land within thirty miles of this road. And yet, if we kill a chance cow, we are held up for it. The sentiment against this road is something awful."
"Oh, well, all right," said Blount, "but that don't bring my filly back. You can't get Himyah blood every day in the week. That filly would have seen Churchill Downs in her day, if she had lived."
"Yes; and if she had, you would have had to back her, wouldn't you? You would have trained that filly and paid a couple of hundred for it. You would have fitted her at the track and paid several hundred more. You would have bet a couple of thousand, anyway, as a matter of principle, and, like enough, you'd have lost it. Now, if this road paid you fifteen dollars for that filly and saved you twenty-five hundred or three thousand into the bargain, how ought you to feel about it? Are you twenty-five hundred behind, or fifteen ahead?"
Colonel Calvin Blount had now feverishly finished his julep, and as the other stopped, he placed his glass beside him on the board-pile and swung a long leg across so that he sat directly facing his enigmatical guest. The latter, in the enthusiasm of his argument, swung into a similar position, and so they sat, both hammering on the board between them.
"Well, I would like to see that damned claim agent offer me fifteen dollars for that filly," said Blount. "I might take fifty, for the sake of the road; but fifteen—why, you see, it's not the money; I don't care fifteen cents for the fifteen dollars, but it's the principle of the thing. T'aint right."
"Well, what would you do?"
"Well, by God, sir, if I saw that claim agent—"
"Well, by God, sir, I'm that claim agent; and I do offer you fifteen dollars for that filly, right now!"
"Yes, sir, fifteen dollars."
Colonel Blount burst into a sudden song—"On Jor-dan's strand I'll take my stand!" he began.
"It's all she's worth," interrupted the claim agent.
Blount fairly gasped. "Do you mean to tell me," said he, in forced calm, "that you are this claim agent?"
"I have told you. That's the way I make my living. That's my duty."
"Your duty to give me fifteen dollars for a Himyah filly!"
"I said fifteen."
"And I said fifty."
"You don't get it."
"I don't, eh? Say, my friend,"—Blount pushed the glasses away, his choler rising at the temerity of this, the only man who in many a year had dared to confront him. "You look here. Write me a check for fifty; and write it now."
"I've heard about that filly," said the claim agent, "and I've come here ready to pay you for it. Here you are."
Blount glanced at the check. "Why, it's fifteen dollars," said he, "and I said fifty."
"But I said fifteen."
"Look here," said Blount, his calm becoming still more menacing, as with a sudden whip of his hand he reached behind him. Like a flash he pulled a long revolver from its holster. Eddring gazed into the round aperture of the muzzle and certain surrounding apertures of the cylinder. "Write me a check," said Blount, slowly, "and write it for fifty. I'll tear it up when I get it if I feel like it, but no man shall ever tell me that I took fifteen dollars for a Himyah filly. Now you write it."
He spoke slowly. His pistol hand rested on his knee, now suddenly drawn up. Both voice and pistol barrel were steady.
The eyes of the two met, and which was the braver man it had been hard to tell. Neither flinched. Eddring returned a gaze as direct as that which he received. The florid face back of the barrel held a gleam of half-admiration at witnessing his deliberation. The claim agent's eye did not falter.
"You said fifty dollars, Colonel Blount," said he, just a suggestion of a smile at the corner of his mouth. "Don't you think there has been a slight misunderstanding between us two? If you are so blamed particular, and really want a check for fifty, why, here it is." He busied himself a moment, and passed over a strip of paper. Even as he did so, the ire of Colonel Blount cooled as suddenly as it had gained warmth. A sudden contrition sat on his face, and he crowded the paper into his pocket with an air half shamefaced.
"Sir—Mr. Eddring," he began falteringly.
"Well, what do you want? You've got your check, and you've got the railroad. We've paid our little debt to you."
"Sir," said Blount. "My friend—why, sir, here is your julep."
"To hell with your julep, sir!"
"My friend," said Blount, flushing, "you serve me right. I am forgetting my duties as a gentleman. I ask you into my house."
"I'll see you damned first," said Eddring, hotly.
"Right!" cried Blount, exultingly. "You're right. You're one of the fighting Eddrings, just like your daddy and your uncle, sure as you're born! Why, sir, come on in. You wouldn't punish the son of your uncle's friend, your own daddy's friend, would you?"
But the ire of Eddring was now aroused. A certain smoldering fire, long with difficulty suppressed, began to flame in spite of him.
"Bring me out a plate," said he, bitterly, "and let me eat on the gallery. As you say, I am only a claim agent. Good God, man!" and then of a sudden his wrath arose still higher. His own hand made a swift motion. "Give me back that check," he said, and his extended hand presented a weapon held steady as though supported by the limb of a tree. "You didn't give me a fair show."
"Well, by the eternal!" half whispered Colonel Calvin Blount to himself. "Ain't he a fighting chicken?"
"Give it to me," demanded Eddring; and the other, astounded, humbled, reached into his pocket.
"I will give it to you, boy," said he, soberly, "and twenty like it, if you'll forget all this and come into my house. I'm mighty sorry. I don't want the money. You know that. I want you. Come on in, man." He handed back the slip of paper. "Come on in," he repeated.
"I will not, sir," said Eddring. "This was business, and you made it personal."
"Oh, business!" said Blount.
"Sir," said John Eddring, "the world never understands when a man has to choose between being a business man and a gentleman. It does not always come to just that, but you. see, a man has to do what he is paid to do. Can't you see it is a matter of duty? I can't afford to be a gentleman—"
"And you are so much one, my son," said Calvin Blount, grimly, "that you won't do anything but what you know is right. My friend, I won't ask you in again, not any more, right now. But when you can, come again, sir, some day. When you can come right easy and pleasant, my son, why, you know I want you."
John Eddring's hard-set jaw relaxed, trembled, and he dared not commit himself to speech. With a straight look into Colonel Blount's eyes, he turned away, and passed on down the path, Blount looking after him more than half-yearningly.
So intent, indeed, was the latter in his gaze upon the receding figure that he did not hear the swift rush of light feet on the gallery, nor turn until Miss Lady stood before him. The girl swept him a deep courtesy, spreading out the skirt of her biscuit-colored gown in mocking deference of posture.
"Please, Colonel Cal," said she, "since he can't hear the dinner bell, would he be good enough to tell whether or not he will come in and eat? Everything is growing cold; and I made the biscuits."
Calvin Blount put out his hand, and a softer shade came upon his face. "Oh, it's you, Miss Lady, is it?" said he. "Yes, I'm back home again. And you made the biscuits, eh?"
"You are back home," said Miss Lady, "all but your mind. I called to you several times. Who is that gentleman you are staring at? Why doesn't he come in and eat with us?"
Colonel Blount turned slowly as Miss Lady tugged at his arm. "Who is he?" he replied half-musingly. "Who is he? You tell me. He refused to eat in Calvin Blount's house; that's why he didn't come in, Miss Lady. He says he's the cow coroner on the Y. V. road, but I want to tell you, he's the finest fellow, and the nearest to a gentleman, that ever struck this country. That's what he is. I'm mighty troubled over his going away, Miss Lady, mighty troubled." And indeed his face gave warrant to these words, as with slow footsteps and frowning brow, he yielded to the pressure of the light hand on his arm, and turned toward the gallery steps.
After his midday meal, Colonel Calvin Blount, wandering aimlessly and none too well content about the yard, came across one of his servants, who was in the act of unrolling the fresh bear hide and spreading it out to dry. He kicked idly at a fold in the hide.
"Look here, Jim," he said suddenly, "Mr. Decherd killed this b'ah, didn't he?"
"Yassah," said Jim.
"And he shoots a rifle; and here are three holes—buckshot holes—in the hide. And you had a gun loaded with buckshot. Did you lend it to Mr. Decherd?"
"No, sah," said Jim, turning his head away.
"Look here, boy," said Blount. "There is no liar, black or white, can go out with my dogs; because my dogs don't lie and I don't. Now, tell me about this."
"Well, Cunnel," said the boy, half ready to blubber, "the b'ah was faihly a-chawin' ol' Fly up. He wus right at me, an' I ran up close so's not to hurt ol' Fly, and I done shot him."
"That's all right," said Colonel Blount. "How about the rest?"
"Well, sah, I had the b'ah mos' skinned, when up comes Mr. 'Cherd. 'That's my b'ah,' said he. 'Co'se it is,' says I. Then he 'lowed he'd give me two dollahs ef I said he was de man dat killed de b'ah."
Blount stared reflectively at a knot-hole in the side of the barn.
"Jim," said he, at length, "give me the two dollars. I'll take care of that." So saying, he swung on his heel and turned away.
The day was now far advanced, and the great white house had grown silent. As Blount entered, he met no one at first, but finally at the door of a half-darkened room midway of the hall, he heard the rustle of a gown and saw approaching him the not uncomely figure of the quasi-head of the menage, Mrs. Ellison. The latter moved slowly and easily forward, pausing at the doorway, where, so framed, she presented a picture attractive enough to arrest the attention of even a bear-hunting bachelor.
"I am glad to see you back, Colonel," said she. "I am always so uneasy when you are away;" she sighed.
Blount felt himself vaguely uncomfortable, but was not quite able to turn away.
"I was just in my room," said Mrs. Ellison, "as I heard you passing by. I had a little headache."
"That's too bad," said Colonel Blount, and turned again to go. The unspoken invitation of the other still restrained him. She leaned against the door, soft-eyed, her white hand waving an effective fan, an attractive, a seductive picture.
"Why don't you ever come in and sit down and talk to me for a minute?" said she, at length. "I scarcely see you at all any more."
Blount gathered an uneasy hint of something, he knew not what; yet he followed her back into the half-darkened room, and presently, seated near her, and wrapped in his own enthusiasms, forgot all but the bear chase, whose incidents he began eagerly to relate. His vis-a-vis sat looking at him with eyes which took in fully the careless strength of his tall and strong figure. For some time now her eyes had rested on this same figure, this man who had to do with work and the chase, with hardship and adventure, and never anything more gentle—this man who could not see!
"You must be more careful," said Mrs. Ellison. "But still, you are safely back, and I'm glad you had good luck."
"Well, I don't know what you would call good luck," said Blount. "The fact is, I had a little trouble, coming in."
"Trouble? In what way?"
"Well, it happened this way," said he, with a quick glance about him. "I don't like to mention such things, but I suppose you ought to know. This was about a couple of negroes back in the country a way. You know, I am a sort of deputy sheriff, and I was called on to do a little work with those same negroes. I suppose you know, ma'am, that those negroes used to run this whole state a few years ago, though they ain't studying so much about politics to-day."
"I know something of that," said Mrs. Ellison. "That was soon after the war, they tell me. But they gave that up long ago. They don't bother with politics now."
"No," resumed Blount. "They're not studying so much as they used to. Not long ago I had a number of northern philanthropists down here, who came down to look into the "conditions in this district." I said I'd show them everything they wanted; so I sent out for some of my field hands. I said to one of them, "Bill," said I, "these gentlemen want to ask you some questions. I suppose your name is William Henry Arnold, isn't it?" "Yassah," said Bill. "You was county supervisor here some years ago, wasn't you, Bill?' 'Yassah,' said Bill. I said, 'I beg your pardon, Mr. William Henry Arnold, but will you please step up here to my desk and write your name for these gentlemen?' 'Why, sho'! boss,' said he, 'you know I kain't write mah name.' 'That's all,' said I.
"'Now, gentlemen,' said I, 'exhibit number two is Mr. George Washington Sims. 'George,' said I, 'you used to be our county treasurer, didn't you?' He said he did. 'Who paid the taxes, then, George?' said I. 'Why, boss, you white folks paid most of 'um.' 'All right, Mr. George Washington Sims,' said I, 'you step up here and write your name for these gentlemen.' He just laughed. 'That'll do,' said I.
"'Exhibit number three,' said I to these northern philanthropists, 'is our late distinguished fellow citizen, Abednego Shadrach Jones. He was our county clerk down here a while back. 'Nego, who paid the taxes, time you was clerk?' He was right uncomfortable. 'Why, boss,' said he, 'you paid most of 'um, you an' the white folks in heah. No niggah man had nothin' to pay taxes on.'
"'You know that we white folks had to pay for the schools and bridges, and the county buildings—had to pay salaries—had to pay the county clerk and the janitor—had to pay everything?' I said to him. 'Yassah,' said Nego.
"'You were elected legally, and we white folks couldn't out-vote you, nohow?' 'Yassah,' said he. 'I s'pose we wus all 'lected legal 'nough. I dunno rightly, but dey all done tol' me dat wuz so.'
"'Nego,' said I, 'step up here to your boss' desk and write your name, just like you do when I give you credit for a bale of cotton.' Nego he steps up and he makes a mark, and a mighty poor mark at that. 'You can go,' I said to him.
"'Now, gentlemen,' said I to them, 'do you want exhibits number four and five and six?' And they allowed they didn't.
"There was one fellow in the lot who stepped up to me and took my hand. He was a Federal colonel in the war, but he said to me, 'Colonel Blount, I beg your pardon. You have made this plainer to me than I ever saw it before. It would be the ruin of this country if you gave over the control of your homes and property and let them be run by people like these. You have solved this problem for yourselves, and you ought to be left to solve it all the time. As for us folks from the North, we are a lot of ignorant meddlers; and as for me, I'm going home.'"
Blount fell silent, musing for a time. "Some folks say, 'Educate the negro,'" he resumed finally, "they say 'Uplift him.' They say 'Give him a chance.' So do I. I will give him more than a chance. I will let the negroes do all they can to help themselves, and I'll do the balance myself. But they can't rule me, until they are better than I am; and that's going to be a long while yet. Constitution or no constitution, government or no government, the black rule can't and don't go in the Delta! It wouldn't be right.
"Now, I'll tell you about those two poor fellows to-day," he continued. "There was Tom Sands, who works on a plantation about twelve miles from here. He has been getting drunk and beating his wife and scaring his children for about three months. Judge Williams had him up not long ago and bound him over to keep the peace, and when I last saw the judge he told me to take this negro up, if I was going by there any time, and bring him up and put him in jail for a while, until he got to behaving himself again. You know we have to do these things right along, to keep this country quiet.
"Well, when we were coming in from the hunt, we passed within a few miles of his cotton patch, and I rode over to see him. He was out in the field, and I found him and told him he had to come along. He refused to come. He swore at me—and he was not even a county surveyor in the old days! Then I ordered him in the name of the law to come along. He picked up a piece of fence rail and started at me. I had to get down off my horse to meet him. I own I struck him right hard. There was another boy, a big black negro, that must have come in here lately from some other part of the country, a big, stoop- shouldered fellow—well, he started for me, too. I took up the same piece of fence rail and knocked him down.
"I ought not to have told you this, ma'am," said Blount, rising. "But then, maybe it's just as well that I did. You never can tell what will come out of these things. We live over a black volcano in this country all the time. Now, I didn't bring in either one of my prisoners. I hoped that maybe they would take this fence rail argument as a sort of temporary equivalent to a term in jail. But to- morrow I'm going down in there and bring that Sands boy in. We never dare give an inch in a matter of this kind."
"Do you think they will make any trouble?" said Mrs. Ellison.
"Never you mind about the trouble part of it," said Blount, quietly. "I reckon he'll come in. I'm going to take a wagon this time. So that's the kind of luck we had on this b'ah hunt."
He arose to go, and left Mrs. Ellison sitting still in the shaded room, her fan now at rest, her eyes bent down thoughtfully, but her foot tapping at the floor. The incidents just related passed quickly from her mind. She remembered only that, as they talked, this man's eye had wandered from her own. He was occupied with problems of politics, of business, of sport, and was letting go that great game for a strong man, the game of love! She could scarce tell at the moment whether she most felt for him contempt or hatred—or something far different from either.
At length she arose and paced the room, swiftly as the press of strange events which were hurrying her along. Indeed, she might, without any great shrewdness, have found warning in certain things happening of late in and around the Big House; but Alice Ellison ever most loved her own fancy as counsel. The blacks might rise if they liked; Miss Lady might do as she listed, after all. Delphine and young Decherd might go their several ways; but as for her, and as for this man Calvin Blount—ah, well!
She yawned and stretched out her arms, feline, easy, graceful, and so at length sank into her easy chair, half purring as she shifted now and again to a more comfortable position.
John Eddring, the heat of his late encounter past, sat moodily staring out from the platform of the little station to which he had returned. He was angry with all the world, and angry with himself most of all. It had been his duty to deal amicably with a man of the position of Colonel Calvin Blount, yet how had he comported himself? Like a school-boy! But for that he might have been the accepted guest now, there at the Big House, instead of being the only man ever known to turn back upon its door. But for his sudden choler, he reflected, he might perhaps at this very moment be within seeing and speaking distance of this tall girl of the scarlet ribbons, the very same whose presence he had vaguely felt about the place all that morning, in the occasional sound of a distant song, or the rush of feet upon the gallery, or the whisk of skirts frequently heard. The memory of that picture clung fast and would not vanish. She was so very beautiful, he reflected. It had been pleasanter to sit at table in such company than thus here alone, hungry, like an outcast.
He felt his gaze, like that of a love-sick boy, turning again and again toward the spot where he had seen her last. The realization of this angered him. He rebuked himself sternly, as having been unworthy of himself, as having been light, as having been unmanly, in thus allowing himself to be influenced by a mere irrational fancy. He summoned his strength to banish this chimera, and then with sudden horror which sent his brow half-moist, he realized that his faculties did not obey, that he was thinking of the same picture, that his eyes were still coveting it, his heart—ah, could there be truth in these stories of sudden and uncontrollable impulses of the heart? The very whisper of it gave him terror. His brow grew moister. For him, John Eddring—what could the world hold for him but this one thing of duty?
Duty! He laughed at the thought. These two iron bands before his eyes irked his soul, binding him, as they did, hard and fast to another world full of unwelcome things. There came again and again to his mind this picture of the maid with the bright ribbons. He gazed at the distant spot beneath the evergreens where he had seen her. He could picture so distinctly her high-headed carriage, the straight gaze of her eyes, the glow on her cheeks; could restore so clearly the very sweep of the dark hair tumbled about her brow. Smitten of this sight, he would fain have had view again. Alas! it was as when, upon a crowded street, one gazes at the passing figure of him whose presence smites with the swift call of friendship—and turns, only to see this unknown friend swallowed up in the crowd for ever. Thus had passed the view of this young girl of the Big House; and there remained no sort of footing upon which he could base a hope of a better fortune. Henceforth he must count himself apart from all Big House affairs. He was an outcast, a pariah. Disgusted, he rose from his rude seat at the window ledge and walked up the platform. He found it too sunny, and returned to take a seat again upon a broken truck near by.