THE STORY OF KENNETT
TO MY FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS OF KENNETT:
I wish to dedicate this Story to you, not only because some of you inhabit the very houses, and till the very fields which I have given to the actors in it, but also because many of you will recognize certain of the latter, and are therefore able to judge whether they are drawn with the simple truth at which I have aimed. You are, naturally, the critics whom I have most cause to fear; but I do not inscribe these pages to you with the design of purchasing your favor. I beg you all to accept the fact as an acknowledgment of the many quiet and happy years I have spent among you; of the genial and pleasant relations into which I was born, and which have never diminished, even when I have returned to you from the farthest ends of the earth; and of the use (often unconsciously to you, I confess,) which I have drawn from your memories of former days, your habits of thought and of life.
I am aware that truth and fiction are so carefully woven together in this Story of Kennett, that you will sometimes be at a loss to disentangle them. The lovely pastoral landscapes which I know by heart, have been copied, field for field and tree for tree, and these you will immediately recognize. Many of you will have no difficulty in detecting the originals of Sandy Flash and Deb. Smith; a few will remember the noble horse which performed the service I have ascribed to Roger; and the descendants of a certain family will not have forgotten some of the pranks of Joe and Jake Fairthorn. Many more than these particulars are drawn from actual sources; but as I have employed them with a strict regard to the purposes of the Story, transferring dates and characters at my pleasure, you will often, I doubt not, attribute to invention that which I owe to family tradition. Herein, I must request that you will allow me to keep my own counsel; for the processes which led to the completed work extend through many previous years, and cannot readily be revealed. I will only say that every custom I have described is true to the time, though some of them are now obsolete; that I have used no peculiar word or phrase of the common dialect of the country which I have not myself heard; and further, that I owe the chief incidents of the last chapter, given to me on her death-bed, to the dear and noble woman whose character (not the circumstances of her life) I have endeavored to reproduce in that of Martha Deane.
The country life of our part of Pennsylvania retains more elements of its English origin than that of New England or Virginia. Until within a few years, the conservative influence of the Quakers was so powerful that it continued to shape the habits even of communities whose religious sentiment it failed to reach. Hence, whatever might be selected as incorrect of American life, in its broader sense, in these pages, is nevertheless locally true; and to this, at least, all of you, my Friends and Neighbors, can testify. In these days, when Fiction prefers to deal with abnormal characters and psychological problems more or less exceptional or morbid, the attempt to represent the elements of life in a simple, healthy, pastoral community, has been to me a source of uninterrupted enjoyment. May you read it with half the interest I have felt in writing it!
CHAPTER I. THE CHASE
CHAPTER II. WHO SHALL HAVE THE BRUSH?
CHAPTER III. MARY POTTER AND HER SON
CHAPTER IV. FORTUNE AND MISFORTUNE
CHAPTER V. GUESTS AT FAIRTHORN'S
CHAPTER VI. THE NEW GILBERT
CHAPTER VII. OLD KENNETT MEETING
CHAPTER VIII. AT DR. DEANE'S
CHAPTER IX. THE RAISING
CHAPTER X. THE RIVALS
CHAPTER XI. GUESTS AT POTTER'S
CHAPTER XII. THE EVENTS OF AN EVENING
CHAPTER XIII. TWO OLD MEN
CHAPTER XIV. DOUBTS AND SURMISES
CHAPTER XV. ALFRED BARTON BETWEEN TWO FIRES
CHAPTER XVI. MARTHA DEANE
CHAPTER XVII. CONSULTATIONS
CHAPTER XVIII. SANDY FLASH REAPPEARS
CHAPTER XIX. THE HUSKING FROLIC
CHAPTER XX. GILBERT ON THE ROAD TO CHESTER
CHAPTER XXI. ROGER REPAYS HIS MASTER
CHAPTER XXII. MARTHA DEANE TAKES A RESOLUTION
CHAPTER XXIII. A CROSS-EXAMINATION
CHAPTER XXIV. DEB. SMITH TAKES A RESOLUTION
CHAPTER XXV. TWO ATTEMPTS
CHAPTER XXVI. THE LAST OF SANDY FLASH
CHAPTER XXVII. GILBERT INDEPENDENT
CHAPTER XXVIII. MISS LAVENDER MAKES A GUESS
CHAPTER XXIX. MYSTERIOUS MOVEMENTS
CHAPTER XXX. THE FUNERAL
CHAPTER XXXI. THE WILL
CHAPTER XXXII. THE LOVERS
CHAPTER XXXIII. HUSBAND AND WIFE
CHAPTER XXXIV. THE WEDDING
At noon, on the first Saturday of March, 1796, there was an unusual stir at the old Barton farm-house, just across the creek to the eastward, as you leave Kennett Square by the Philadelphia stage-road. Any gathering of the people at Barton's was a most rare occurrence; yet, on that day and at that hour, whoever stood upon the porch of the corner house, in the village, could see horsemen approaching by all the four roads which there met. Some five or six had already dismounted at the Unicorn Tavern, and were refreshing themselves with stout glasses of "Old Rye," while their horses, tethered side by side to the pegs in the long hitching-bar, pawed and stamped impatiently. An eye familiar with the ways of the neighborhood might have surmised the nature of the occasion which called so many together, from the appearance and equipment of these horses. They were not heavy animals, with the marks of plough-collars on their broad shoulders, or the hair worn off their rumps by huge breech-straps; but light and clean-limbed, one or two of them showing signs of good blood, and all more carefully groomed than usual.
Evidently, there was no "vendue" at the Barton farmhouse; neither a funeral, nor a wedding, since male guests seemed to have been exclusively bidden. To be sure, Miss Betsy Lavender had been observed to issue from Dr. Deane's door, on the opposite side of the way, and turn into the path beyond the blacksmith's, which led down through the wood and over the creek to Barton's; but then, Miss Lavender was known to be handy at all times, and capable of doing all things, from laying out a corpse to spicing a wedding-cake. Often self-invited, but always welcome, very few social or domestic events could occur in four townships (East Marlborough, Kennett, Pennsbury, and New-Garden) without her presence; while her knowledge of farms, families, and genealogies extended up to Fallowfield on one side, and over to Birmingham on the other.
It was, therefore, a matter of course, whatever the present occasion might be, that Miss Lavender put on her broad gray beaver hat, and brown stuff cloak, and took the way to Barton's. The distance could easily be walked in five minutes, and the day was remarkably pleasant for the season. A fortnight of warm, clear weather had extracted the last fang of frost, and there was already green grass in the damp hollows. Bluebirds picked the last year's berries from the cedar-trees; buds were bursting on the swamp-willows; the alders were hung with tassels, and a powdery crimson bloom began to dust the bare twigs of the maple- trees. All these signs of an early spring Miss Lavender noted as she picked her way down the wooded bank. Once, indeed, she stopped, wet her forefinger with her tongue, and held it pointed in the air. There was very little breeze, but this natural weathercock revealed from what direction it came.
"Southwest!" she said, nodding her head—"Lucky!"
Having crossed the creek on a flat log, secured with stakes at either end, a few more paces brought her to the warm, gentle knoll, upon which stood the farm-house. Here, the wood ceased, and the creek, sweeping around to the eastward, embraced a quarter of a mile of rich bottomland, before entering the rocky dell below. It was a pleasant seat, and the age of the house denoted that one of the earliest settlers had been quick to perceive its advantages. A hundred years had already elapsed since the masons had run up those walls of rusty hornblende rock, and it was even said that the leaden window-sashes, with their diamond-shaped panes of greenish glass, had been brought over from England, in the days of William Penn. In fact, the ancient aspect of the place—the tall, massive chimney at the gable, the heavy, projecting eaves, and the holly-bush in a warm nook beside the front porch, had, nineteen years before, so forcibly reminded one of Howe's soldiers of his father's homestead in mid-England, that he was numbered among the missing after the Brandywine battle, and presently turned up as a hired hand on the Barton farm, where he still lived, year in and year out.
An open, grassy space, a hundred yards in breadth, intervened between the house and the barn, which was built against the slope of the knoll, so that the bridge to the threshing-floor was nearly level, and the stables below were sheltered from the north winds, and open to the winter sun. On the other side of the lane leading from the high-road stood a wagon-house and corn-crib—the latter empty, yet evidently, in spite of its emptiness, the principal source of attraction to the visitors. A score of men and boys peeped between the upright laths, and a dozen dogs howled and sprang around the smooth corner-posts upon which the structure rested. At the door stood old Giles, the military straggler already mentioned—now a grizzly, weather-beaten man of fifty—with a jolly grin on his face, and a short leather whip in his hand.
"Want to see him, Miss Betsy?" he asked, touching his mink-skin cap, as Miss Lavender crawled through the nearest panel of the lofty picket fence.
"See him?" she repeated. "Don't care if I do, afore goin' into th' house."
"Come up, then; out o' the way, Cato! Fan, take that, you slut! Don't be afeard, Miss Betsy; if folks kept 'em in the leash, as had ought to be done, I'd have less trouble. They're mortal eager, and no wonder. There!—a'n't he a sly-lookin' divel? If I'd a hoss, Miss Betsy, I'd foller with the best of 'em, and maybe you wouldn't have the brush?"
"Have the brush. Go along, Giles! He's an old one, and knows how to take care of it. Do keep off the dreadful dogs, and let me git down!" cried Miss Lavender, gathering her narrow petticoats about her legs, and surveying the struggling animals before her with some dismay.
Giles's whip only reached the nearest, and the excited pack rushed forward again after every repulse; but at this juncture a tall, smartly-dressed man came across the lane, kicked the hounds out of the way, and extended a helping hand to the lady.
"Ho, Mr. Alfred!" said she; "Much obliged. Miss Ann's havin' her hands full, I reckon?"
Without waiting for an answer, she slipped into the yard and along the front of the house, to the kitchen entrance, at the eastern end. There we will leave her, and return to the group of gentlemen.
Any one could see at a glance that Mr. Alfred Barton was the most important person present. His character of host gave him, of course, the right to control the order of the coming chase; but his size and swaggering air of strength, his new style of hat, the gloss of his blue coat, the cut of his buckskin breeches, and above all, the splendor of his tasselled top-boots, distinguished him from his more homely apparelled guests. His features were large and heavy: the full, wide lips betrayed a fondness for indulgence, and the small, uneasy eyes a capacity for concealing this and any other quality which needed concealment. They were hard and cold, generally more than half hidden under thick lids, and avoided, rather than sought, the glance of the man to whom he spoke. His hair, a mixture of red-brown and gray, descended, without a break, into bushy whiskers of the same color, and was cut shorter at the back of the head than was then customary. Something coarse and vulgar in his nature exhaled, like a powerful odor, through the assumed shell of a gentleman, which he tried to wear, and rendered the assumption useless.
A few guests, who had come from a distance, had just finished their dinner in the farm-house. Owing to causes which will hereafter be explained, they exhibited less than the usual plethoric satisfaction after the hospitality of the country, and were the first to welcome the appearance of a square black bottle, which went the rounds, with the observation: "Whet up for a start!"
Mr. Barton drew a heavy silver watch from his fob, and carefully holding it so that the handful of glittering seals could be seen by everybody, appeared to meditate.
"Five minutes to one," he said at last. "No use in waiting much longer; 't isn't good to keep the hounds fretting. Any signs of anybody else?"
The others, in response, turned towards the lane and highway. Some, with keen eyes, fancied they could detect a horseman through the wood. Presently Giles, from his perch at the door of the corn-crib, cried out:
"There's somebody a-comin' up the meadow. I don't know the hoss; rides like Gilbert Potter. Gilbert it is, blast me! new-mounted."
"Another plough-horse!" suggested Mr. Joel Ferris, a young Pennsbury buck, who, having recently come into a legacy of four thousand pounds, wished it to be forgotten that he had never ridden any but plough-horses until within the year.
The others laughed, some contemptuously, glancing at their own well-equipped animals the while, some constrainedly, for they knew the approaching guest, and felt a slight compunction in seeming to side with Mr. Ferris. Barton began to smile stiffly, but presently bit his lip and drew his brows together.
Pressing the handle of his riding-whip against his chin, he stared vacantly up the lane, muttering "We must wait, I suppose."
His lids were lifted in wonder the next moment; he seized Ferris by the arm, and exclaimed:—
"Whom have we here?"
All eyes turned in the same direction, descried a dashing horseman in the lane.
"Upon my soul I don't know," said Ferris. "Anybody expected from the Fagg's Manor way?"
"Not of my inviting," Barton answered.
The other guests professed their entire ignorance of the stranger, who, having by this time passed the bars, rode directly up to the group. He was a short, broad-shouldered man of nearly forty, with a red, freckled face, keen, snapping gray eyes, and a close, wide mouth. Thick, jet-black whiskers, eyebrows and pig-tail made the glance of those eyes, the gleam of his teeth, and the color of his skin where it was not reddened by the wind, quite dazzling. This violent and singular contrast gave his plain, common features an air of distinction. Although his mulberry coat was somewhat faded, it had a jaunty cut, and if his breeches were worn and stained, the short, muscular thighs and strong knees they covered, told of a practised horseman.
He rode a large bay gelding, poorly groomed, and apparently not remarkable for blood, but with no marks of harness on his rough coat.
"Good-day to you, gentlemen!" said the stranger, familiarly knocking the handle of his whip against his cocked hat. "Squire Barton, how do you do?"
"How do you do, sir?" responded Mr. Barton, instantly flattered by the title, to which he had no legitimate right. "I believe," he added, "you have the advantage of me."
A broad smile, or rather grin, spread over the stranger's face. His teeth flashed, and his eyes shot forth a bright, malicious ray. He hesitated a moment, ran rapidly over the faces of the others without perceptibly moving his head, and noting the general curiosity, said, at last:—
"I hardly expected to find an acquaintance in this neighborhood, but a chase makes quick fellowship. I happened to hear of it at the Anvil Tavern,—am on my way to the Rising Sun; so, you see, if the hunt goes down Tuffkenamon, as is likely, it's so much of a lift on the way."
"All right,—glad to have you join us. What did you say your name was?" inquired Mr. Barton.
"I didn't say what; it's Fortune,—a fortune left to me by my father, ha! ha! Don't care if I do"—
With the latter words, Fortune (as we must now call him) leaned down from his saddle, took the black bottle from the unresisting hands of Mr. Ferris, inverted it against his lips, and drank so long and luxuriously as to bring water into the mouths of the spectators. Then, wiping his mouth with the back of his freckled hand, he winked and nodded his head approvingly to Mr. Barton.
Meanwhile the other horseman had arrived from the meadow, after dismounting and letting down the bars, over which his horse stepped slowly and cautiously,—a circumstance which led some of the younger guests to exchange quiet, amused glances. Gilbert Potter, however, received a hearty greeting from all, including the host, though the latter, by an increased shyness in meeting his gaze, manifested some secret constraint.
"I was afraid I should have been too late," said Gilbert; "the old break in the hedge is stopped at last, so I came over the hill above, without thinking on the swampy bit, this side."
"Breaking your horse in to rough riding, eh?" said Mr. Ferris, touching a neighbor with his elbow.
Gilbert smiled good-humoredly, but said nothing, and a little laugh went around the circle. Mr. Fortune seemed to understand the matter in a flash. He looked at the brown, shaggy-maned animal, standing behind its owner, with its head down, and said, in a low, sharp tone: "I see—where did you get him?"
Gilbert returned the speaker's gaze a moment before he answered. "From a drover," he then said.
"By the Lord!"-ejaculated Mr. Barton, who had again conspicuously displayed his watch, "it's over half-past one. Look out for the hounds,—we must start, if we mean to do any riding this day!"
The owners of the hounds picked out their several animals and dragged them aside, in which operation they were uproariously assisted by the boys. The chase in Kennett, it must be confessed, was but a very faint shadow of the old English pastime. It had been kept up, in the neighborhood, from the force of habit in the Colonial times, and under the depression which the strong Quaker element among the people exercised upon all sports and recreations. The breed of hounds, not being restricted to close communion, had considerably degenerated, and few, even of the richer farmers, could afford to keep thoroughbred hunters for this exclusive object. Consequently all the features of the pastime had become rude and imperfect, and, although very respectable gentlemen still gave it their countenance, there was a growing suspicion that it was a questionable, if not demoralizing diversion. It would be more agreeable if we could invest the present occasion with a little more pomp and dignity; but we must describe the event precisely as it occurred.
The first to greet Gilbert were his old friends, Joe and Jake Fairthorn. These boys loudly lamented that their father had denied them the loan of his old gray mare, Bonnie; they could ride double on a gallop, they said; and wouldn't Gilbert take them along, one before and one behind him? But he laughed and shook his head.
"Well, we've got Watch, anyhow," said Joe, who thereupon began whispering very earnestly to Jake, as the latter seized the big family bull-dog by the collar. Gilbert foreboded mischief, and kept his eye upon the pair.
A scuffle was heard in the corn-crib, into which Giles had descended. The boys shuddered and chuckled in a state of delicious fear, which changed into a loud shout of triumph, as the soldier again made his appearance at the door, with the fox in his arms, and a fearless hand around its muzzle.
"By George! what a fine brush!" exclaimed Mr. Ferris.
A sneer, quickly disguised in a grin, ran over Fortune's face. The hounds howled and tugged; Giles stepped rapidly across the open space where the knoll sloped down to the meadow. It was a moment of intense expectation.
Just then, Joe and Jake Fairthorn let go their hold on the bull-dog's collar; but Gilbert Potter caught the animal at the second bound. The boys darted behind the corn-crib, scared less by Gilbert's brandished whip than by the wrath and astonishment in Mr. Barton's face.
"Cast him off, Giles!" the latter cried.
The fox, placed upon the ground, shot down the slope and through the fence into the meadow. Pausing then, as if first to assure himself of his liberty, he took a quick, keen survey of the ground before him, and then started off towards the left.
"He's making for the rocks!" cried Mr. Ferris; to which the stranger, who was now watching the animal with sharp interest, abruptly answered, "Hold your tongue!"
Within a hundred yards the fox turned to the right, and now, having apparently made up his mind to the course, struck away in a steady but not hurried trot. In a minute he had reached the outlying trees of the timber along the creek.
"He's a cool one, he is!" remarked Giles, admiringly.
By this time he was hidden by the barn from the sight of the hounds, and they were let loose. While they darted about in eager quest of the scent, the hunters mounted in haste. Presently an old dog gave tongue like a trumpet, the pack closed, and the horsemen followed. The boys kept pace with them over the meadow, Joe and Jake taking the lead, until the creek abruptly stopped their race, when they sat down upon the bank and cried bitterly, as the last of the hunters disappeared through the thickets on the further side.
It was not long before a high picket-fence confronted the riders. Mr. Ferris, with a look of dismay, dismounted. Fortune, Barton, and Gilbert Potter each threw off a heavy "rider," and leaped their horses over the rails. The others followed through the gaps thus made, and all swept across the field at full speed, guided by the ringing cry of the hounds.
When they reached the Wilmington road, the cry swerved again to the left, and most of the hunters, with Barton at their head, took the highway in order to reach the crossroad to New-Garden more conveniently. Gilbert and Fortune alone sprang into the opposite field, and kept a straight southwestern course for the other branch of Redley Creek. The field was divided by a stout thorn-hedge from the one beyond it, and the two horsemen, careering neck and neck, glanced at each other curiously as they approached this barrier. Their respective animals were transformed; the unkempt manes were curried by the wind, as they flew; their sleepy eyes were full of fire, and the splendid muscles, aroused to complete action, marked their hides with lines of beauty. There was no wavering in either; side by side they hung in flight above the hedge, and side by side struck the clean turf beyond.
Then Fortune turned his head, nodded approvingly to Gilbert, and muttered to himself: "He's a gallant fellow,—I'll not rob him of the brush." But he laughed a short, shrill, wicked laugh the next moment.
Before they reached the creek, the cry of the hounds ceased. They halted a moment on the bank, irresolute.
"He must have gone down towards the snuff-mill," said Gilbert, and was about to change his course.
"Stop," said the stranger; "if he has, we've lost him any way. Hark! hurrah!"
A deep bay rang from the westward, through the forest. Gilbert shouted: "The lime-quarry!" and dashed across the stream. A lane was soon reached, and as the valley opened, they saw the whole pack heading around the yellow mounds of earth which marked the locality of the quarry. At the same instant some one shouted in the rear, and they saw Mr. Alfred Barton, thundering after, and apparently bent on diminishing the distance between them.
A glance was sufficient to show that the fox had not taken refuge in the quarry, but was making a straight course up the centre of the valley. Here it was not so easy to follow. The fertile floor of Tuffkenamon, stripped of woods, was crossed by lines of compact hedge, and, moreover, the huntsmen were not free to tear and trample the springing wheat of the thrifty Quaker farmers. Nevertheless, one familiar with the ground could take advantage of a gap here and there, choose the connecting pasture-fields, and favor his course with a bit of road, when the chase swerved towards either side of the valley. Gilbert Potter soon took the lead, closely followed by Fortune. Mr. Barton was perhaps better mounted than either, but both horse and rider were heavier, and lost in the moist fields, while they gained rapidly where the turf was firm.
After a mile and a half of rather toilsome riding, all three were nearly abreast. The old tavern of the Hammer and Trowel was visible, at the foot of the northern hill; the hounds, in front, bayed in a straight line towards Avondale Woods,—but a long slip of undrained bog made its appearance. Neither gentleman spoke, for each was silently tasking his wits how to accomplish the passage most rapidly. The horses began to sink into the oozy soil: only a very practised eye could tell where the surface was firmest, and even this knowledge was but slight advantage.
Nimbly as a cat Gilbert sprang from the saddle, still holding the pummel in his right hand, touched his horse's flank with the whip, and bounded from one tussock to another. The sagacious animal seemed to understand and assist his manoeuvre. Hardly had he gained firm ground than he was in his seat again, while Mr. Barton was still plunging in the middle of the bog.
By the time he had reached the road, Gilbert shrewdly guessed where the chase would terminate. The idlers on the tavern-porch cheered him as he swept around the corner; the level highway rang to the galloping hoofs of his steed, and in fifteen minutes he had passed the long and lofty oak woods of Avondale. At the same moment, fox and hounds broke into full view, sweeping up the meadow on his left. The animal made a last desperate effort to gain a lair among the bushes and loose stones on the northern hill; but the hunter was there before him, the hounds were within reach, and one faltering moment decided his fate.
Gilbert sprang down among the frantic dogs, and saved the brush from the rapid dismemberment which had already befallen its owner. Even then, he could only assure its possession by sticking it into his hat and remounting his horse. When he looked around, no one was in sight, but the noise of hoofs was heard crashing through the wood.
Mr. Ferris, with some dozen others, either anxious to spare their horses or too timid to take the hedges in the valley, had kept the cross-road to New-Garden, whence a lane along the top of the southern hill led them into the Avondale Woods. They soon emerged, shouting and yelling, upon the meadow.
The chase was up; and Gilbert Potter, on his "plough horse," was the only huntsman in at the death.
WHO SHALL HAVE THE BRUSH?
Mr. Barton and Fortune, who seemed to have become wonderfully intimate during the half hour in which they had ridden together, arrived at the same time. The hunters, of whom a dozen were now assembled (some five or six inferior horses being still a mile in the rear), were all astounded, and some of them highly vexed, at the result of the chase. Gilbert's friends crowded about him, asking questions as to the course he had taken, and examining the horse, which had maliciously resumed its sleepy look, and stood with drooping head. The others had not sufficient tact to disguise their ill-humor, for they belonged to that class which, in all countries, possesses the least refinement—the uncultivated rich.
"The hunt started well, but it's a poor finish," said one of these.
"Never mind!" Mr. Ferris remarked; "such things come by chance."
These words struck the company to silence. A shock, felt rather than perceived, fell upon them, and they looked at each other with an expression of pain and embarrassment. Gilbert's face faded to a sallow paleness, and his eyes were fastened upon those of the speaker with a fierce and dangerous intensity. Mr. Ferris colored, turned away, and called to his hounds.
Fortune was too sharp an observer not to remark the disturbance. He cried out, and his words produced an instant, general sense of relief:—
"It's been a fine run, friends, and we can't do better than ride back to the Hammer and Trowel, and take a 'smaller'—or a 'bigger' for that matter—at my expense. You must let me pay my footing now, for I hope to ride with you many a time to come. Faith! If I don't happen to buy that place down by the Rising Sun, I'll try to find another, somewhere about New London or Westgrove, so that we can be nearer neighbors."
With that he grinned, rather than smiled; but although his manner would have struck a cool observer as being mocking instead of cordial, the invitation was accepted with great show of satisfaction, and the horsemen fell into pairs, forming a picturesque cavalcade as they passed under the tall, leafless oaks.
Gilbert Potter speedily recovered his self-possession, but his face was stern and his manner abstracted. Even the marked and careful kindness of his friends seemed secretly to annoy him, for it constantly suggested the something by which it had been prompted. Mr. Alfred Barton, however, whether under the influence of Fortune's friendship, or from a late suspicion of his duties as host of the day, not unkindly complimented the young man, and insisted on filling his glass. Gilbert could do no less than courteously accept the attention, but he shortly afterwards stole away from the noisy company, mounted his horse, and rode slowly towards Kennett Square.
As he thus rides, with his eyes abstractedly fixed before him, we will take the opportunity to observe him more closely. Slightly under-sized, compactly built, and with strongly-marked features, his twenty-four years have the effect of thirty. His short jacket and knee-breeches of gray velveteen cover a chest broad rather than deep, and reveal the fine, narrow loins and muscular thighs of a frame matured and hardened by labor. His hands, also, are hard and strong, but not ungraceful in form. His neck, not too short, is firmly planted, and the carriage of his head indicates patience and energy. Thick, dark hair enframes his square forehead, and straight, somewhat heavy brows. His eyes of soft dark-gray, are large, clear, and steady, and only change their expression under strong excitement. His nose is straight and short, his mouth a little too wide for beauty, and less firm now than it will be ten years hence, when the yearning tenderness shall have vanished from the corners of the lips; and the chin, in its broad curve, harmonizes with the square lines of the brow. Evidently a man whose youth has not been a holiday; who is reticent rather than demonstrative; who will be strong in his loves and long in his hates; and, without being of a despondent nature, can never become heartily sanguine.
The spring-day was raw and overcast, as it drew towards its close, and the rider's musings seemed to accord with the change in the sky. His face expressed a singular mixture of impatience, determined will, and unsatisfied desire. But where most other men would have sighed, or given way to some involuntary exclamation, he merely set his teeth, and tightened the grasp on his whip-handle.
He was not destined, however, to a solitary journey. Scarcely had he made three quarters of a mile, when, on approaching the junction of a wood-road which descended to the highway from a shallow little glen on the north, the sound of hoofs and voices met his ears. Two female figures appeared, slowly guiding their horses down the rough road. One, from her closely-fitting riding-habit of drab cloth, might have been a Quakeress, but for the feather (of the same sober color) in her beaver hat, and the rosette of dark red ribbon at her throat. The other, in bluish-gray, with a black beaver and no feather, rode a heavy old horse with a blind halter on his head, and held the stout leathern reins with a hand covered with a blue woollen mitten. She rode in advance, paying little heed to her seat, but rather twisting herself out of shape in the saddle in order to chatter to her companion in the rear.
"Do look where you are going, Sally!" cried the latter as the blinded horse turned aside from the road to drink at a little brook that oozed forth from under the dead leaves.
Thus appealed to, the other lady whirled around with a half-jump, and caught sight of Gilbert Potter and of her horse's head at the same instant.
"Whoa there, Bonnie!" she cried. "Why, Gilbert, where did you come from? Hold up your head, I say! Martha, here's Gilbert, with a brush in his hat! Don't be afraid, you beast; did you never smell a fox? Here, ride in between, Gilbert, and tell us all about it! No, not on that side, Martha; you can manage a horse better than I can!"
In her efforts to arrange the order of march, she drove her horse's head into Gilbert's back, and came near losing her balance. With amused screams, and bursts of laughter, and light, rattling exclamations, she finally succeeded in placing herself at his left hand, while her adroit and self-possessed companion quietly rode up to his right Then, dropping the reins on their horses' necks, the two ladies resigned themselves to conversation, as the three slowly jogged homewards abreast.
"Now, Gilbert!" exclaimed Miss Sally Fairthorn, after waiting a moment for him to speak; "did you really earn the brush, or beg it from one of them, on the way home?"
"Begging, you know, is my usual habit," he answered, mockingly.
"I know you're as proud as Lucifer, when you've a mind to be so. There!"
Gilbert was accustomed to the rattling tongue of his left-hand neighbor, and generally returned her as good as she gave. To-day, however, he was in no mood for repartee. He drew down his brows and made no answer to her charge.
"Where was the fox earthed?" asked the other lady, after a rapid glance at his face.
Martha Deane's voice was of that quality which compels an answer, and a courteous answer, from the surliest of mankind. It was not loud, it could scarcely be called musical; but every tone seemed to exhale freshness as of dew, and brightness as of morning. It was pure, slightly resonant; and all the accumulated sorrows of life could not have veiled its inherent gladness. It could never grow harsh, never be worn thin, or sound husky from weariness; its first characteristic would always be youth, and the joy of youth, though it came from the lips of age.
Doubtless Gilbert Potter did not analyze the charm which it exercised upon him; it was enough that he felt and submitted to it. A few quiet remarks sufficed to draw from him the story of the chase, in all its particulars, and the lively interest in Martha Deane's face, the boisterous glee of Sally Fairthorn, with his own lurking sense of triumph, soon swept every gloomy line from his visage. His mouth relaxed from its set compression, and wore a winning sweetness; his eyes shone softly-bright, and a nimble spirit of gayety gave grace to his movements.
"Fairly won, I must say!" exclaimed Miss Sally Fairthorn, when the narrative was finished. "And now, Gilbert, the brush?"
"Who's to have it, I mean. Did you never get one before, as you don't seem to understand?"
"Yes, I understand," said he, in an indifferent tone; "it may be had for the asking."
"Then it's mine!" cried Sally, urging her heavy horse against him and making a clutch at his cap. But he leaned as suddenly away, and shot a length ahead, out of her reach. Miss Deane's horse, a light, spirited animal, kept pace with his.
"Martha!" cried the disappointed damsel, "Martha! one of us must have it; ask him, you!"
"No," answered Martha, with her clear blue eyes fixed on Gilbert's face, "I will not ask."
He returned her gaze, and his eyes seemed to say: "Will you take it, knowing what the acceptance implies?"
She read the question correctly; but of this he was not sure. Neither, if it were so, could he trust himself to interpret the answer. Sally had already resumed her place on his left, and he saw that the mock strife would be instantly renewed. With a movement so sudden as to appear almost ungracious, he snatched the brush from his cap and extended it to Martha Deane, without saying a word.
If she hesitated, it was at least no longer than would be required in order to understand the action. Gilbert might either so interpret it, or suspect that she had understood the condition in his mind, and meant to signify the rejection thereof. The language of gestures is wonderfully rapid, and all that could be said by either, in this way, was over, and the brush in Martha Deane's hand, before Sally Fairthorn became aware of the transfer.
"Well-done, Martha!" she exclaimed: "Don't let him have it again! Do you know to whom he would have given it: an A. and a W., with the look of an X,—so!"
Thereupon Sally pulled off her mittens and crossed her forefingers, an action which her companions understood—in combination with the mysterious initials—to be the rude, primitive symbol of a squint.
Gilbert looked annoyed, but before he could reply, Sally let go the rein in order to put on her mittens, and the blinded mare quickly dropping her head, the rein slipped instantly to the animal's ears. The latter perceived her advantage, and began snuffing along the edges of the road in a deliberate search for spring grass. In vain Sally called and kicked; the mare provokingly preserved her independence. Finally, a piteous appeal to Gilbert, who had pretended not to notice the dilemma, and was a hundred yards in advance, was Sally's only resource. The two halted and enjoyed her comical helplessness.
"That's enough, Gilbert," said Martha Deane, presently, "go now and pick up the rein."
He rode back, picked it up, and handed it to Sally without speaking.
"Gilbert," she said, with a sudden demure change of tone, as they rode on to where Miss Deane was waiting, "come and take supper with us, at home. Martha has promised. You've hardly been to see us in a month."
"You know how much I have to do, Sally," he answered. "It isn't only that, to-day being a Saturday; but I've promised mother to be at home by dark, and fetch a quarter of tea from the store."
"When you've once promised, I know, oxen couldn't pull you the other way."
"I don't often see your mother, Gilbert," said Martha Deane; "she is well?"
"Thank you, Martha,—too well, and yet not well enough."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean," he answered, "that she does more than she has strength to do. If she had less she would be forced to undertake less; if she had more, she would be equal to her undertaking."
"I understand you now. But you should not allow her to go on in that way; you should"—
What Miss Deane would have said must remain unwritten. Gilbert's eyes were upon her, and held her own; perhaps a little more color came into her face, but she did not show the slightest embarrassment. A keen observer might have supposed that either a broken or an imperfect relation existed between the two, which the gentleman was trying to restore or complete without the aid of words; and that, furthermore, while the lady was the more skilful in the use of that silent language, neither rightly understood the other.
By this time they were ascending the hill from Redley Creek to Kennett Square. Martha Deane had thus far carried the brush carelessly in her right hand; she now rolled it into a coil and thrust it into a large velvet reticule which hung from the pommel of her saddle. A few dull orange streaks in the overcast sky, behind them, denoted sunset, and a raw, gloomy twilight crept up from the east.
"You'll not go with us?" Sally asked again, as they reached the corner, and the loungers on the porch of the Unicorn Tavern beyond, perceiving Gilbert, sprang from their seats to ask for news of the chase.
"Sally, I cannot!" he answered. "Good-night!"
Joe and Jake Fairthorn rushed up with a whoop, and before Gilbert could satisfy the curiosity of the tavern-idlers, the former sat behind Sally, on the old mare, with his face to her tail, while Jake, prevented by Miss Deane's riding-whip from attempting the same performance, capered behind the horses and kept up their spirits by flinging handfuls of sand.
Gilbert found another group in "the store"—farmers or their sons who had come in for a supply of groceries, or the weekly mail, and who sat in a sweltering atmosphere around the roaring stove. They, too, had heard of the chase, and he was obliged to give them as many details as possible while his quarter of tea was being weighed, after which he left them to supply the story from the narrative of Mr. Joel Ferris, who, a new-comer announced, had just alighted at the Unicorn, a little drunk, and in a very bad humor.
"Where's Barton?" Gilbert heard some one ask of Ferris, as he mounted.
"In his skin!" was the answer, "unless he's got into that fellow Fortune's. They're as thick as two pickpockets!"
Gilbert rode down the hill, and allowed his horse to plod leisurely across the muddy level, regardless of the deepening twilight.
He was powerfully moved by some suppressed emotion. The muscles of his lips twitched convulsively, and there was a hot surge and swell somewhere in his head, as of tears about to overrun their secret reservoir. But they failed to surprise him, this time. As the first drops fell from his dark eyelashes, he loosed the rein and gave the word to his horse. Over the ridge, along the crest, between dusky thorn-hedges, he swept at full gallop, and so, slowly sinking towards the fair valley which began to twinkle with the lights of scattered farms to the eastward, he soon reached the last steep descent, and saw the gray gleam of his own barn below him.
By this time his face was sternly set. He clinched his hands, and muttered to himself—
"It will almost kill me to ask, but I must know, and—and she must tell."
It was dark now. As he climbed again from the bottom of the hill towards the house, a figure on the summit was drawn indistinctly against the sky, unconscious that it was thus betrayed. But it vanished instantly, and then he groaned—
"God help me! I cannot ask."
MARY POTTER AND HER SON.
While Gilbert was dismounting at the gate leading into his barn-yard, he was suddenly accosted by a boyish voice:—
"Got back, have you?"
This was Sam, the "bound-boy,"—the son of a tenant on the old Carson place, who, in consideration of three months' schooling every winter, and a "freedom suit" at the age of seventeen, if he desired then to learn a trade, was duly made over by his father to Gilbert Potter. His position was something between that of a poor relation and a servant. He was one of the family, eating at the same table, sleeping, indeed, (for economy of house-work,) in the same bed with his master, and privileged to feel his full share of interest in domestic matters; but on the other hand bound to obedience and rigid service.
"Feed's in the trough," said he, taking hold of the bridle. "I'll fix him. Better go into th' house. Tea's wanted."
Feeling as sure that all the necessary evening's work was done as if he had performed it with his own hands, Gilbert silently followed the boy's familiar advice.
The house, built like most other old farm-houses in that part of the county, of hornblende stone, stood near the bottom of a rounded knoll, overhanging the deep, winding valley. It was two stories in height, the gable looking towards the road, and showing, just under the broad double chimney, a limestone slab, upon which were rudely carved the initials of the builder and his wife, and the date "1727." A low portico, overgrown with woodbine and trumpet-flower, ran along the front. In the narrow flower-bed, under it, the crocuses and daffodils were beginning to thrust up their blunt, green points. A walk of flag-stones separated them from the vegetable garden, which was bounded at the bottom by a mill-race, carrying half the water of the creek to the saw and grist mill on the other side of the road.
Although this road was the principal thoroughfare between Kennett Square and Wilmington, the house was so screened from the observation of travellers, both by the barn, and by some huge, spreading apple-trees which occupied the space between the garden and road, that its inmates seemed to live in absolute seclusion. Looking from the front door across a narrow green meadow, a wooded hill completely shut out all glimpse of the adjoining farms; while an angle of the valley, to the eastward, hid from sight the warm, fertile fields higher up the stream.
The place seemed lonelier than ever in the gloomy March twilight; or was it some other influence which caused Gilbert to pause on the flagged walk, and stand there, motionless, looking down into the meadow until a woman's shadow crossing the panes, was thrown upon the square of lighted earth at his feet? Then he turned and entered the kitchen.
The cloth was spread and the table set. A kettle, humming on a heap of fresh coals, and a squat little teapot of blue china, were waiting anxiously for the brown paper parcel which he placed upon the cloth. His mother was waiting also, in a high straight-backed rocking-chair, with her hands in her lap.
"You're tired waiting, mother, I suppose?" he said, as he hung his hat upon a nail over the heavy oak mantel-piece.
"No, not tired, Gilbert, but it's hungry you'll be. It won't take long for the tea to draw. Everything else has been ready this half-hour."
Gilbert threw himself upon the settle under the front window, and mechanically followed her with his eyes, as she carefully measured the precious herb, even stooping to pick up a leaf or two that had fallen from the spoon to the floor.
The resemblance between mother and son was very striking. Mary Potter had the same square forehead and level eyebrows, but her hair was darker than Gilbert's, and her eyes more deeply set. The fire of a lifelong pain smouldered in them, and the throes of some never-ending struggle had sharpened every line of cheek and brow, and taught her lips the close, hard compression, which those of her son were also beginning to learn. She was about forty-five years of age, but there was even now a weariness in her motions, as if her prime of strength were already past. She wore a short gown of brown flannel, with a plain linen stomacher, and a coarse apron, which she removed when the supper had been placed upon the table. A simple cap, with a narrow frill, covered her head.
The entire work of the household devolved upon her hands alone. Gilbert would have cheerfully taken a servant to assist her, but this she positively refused, seeming to court constant labor, especially during his absence from the house. Only when he was there would she take occasion to knit or sew. The kitchen was a marvel of neatness and order. The bread-trough and dresser-shelves were scoured almost to the whiteness of a napkin, and the rows of pewter-plates upon the latter flashed like silver sconces. To Gilbert's eyes, indeed, the effect was sometimes painful. He would have been satisfied with less laborious order, a less eager and unwearied thrift. To be sure, all this was in furtherance of a mutual purpose; but he mentally determined that when the purpose had been fulfilled, he would insist upon an easier and more cheerful arrangement. The stern aspect of life from which his nature craved escape met him oftenest at home.
Sam entered the kitchen barefooted, having left his shoes at the back door. The tea was drawn, and the three sat down to their supper of bacon, bread and butter, and apple-sauce. Gilbert and his mother ate and drank in silence, but Sam's curiosity was too lively to be restrained.
"I say, how did Roger go?" he asked.
Mary Potter looked up, as if expecting the question to be answered, and Gilbert said:—
"He took the lead, and kept it."
"O cracky!" exclaimed the delighted Sam.
"Then you think it's a good bargain, Gilbert. Was it a long chase? Was he well tried?"
"All right, mother. I could sell him for twenty dollars advance—even to Joel Ferris," he answered.
He then gave a sketch of the afternoon's adventures, to which his mother listened with a keen, steady interest. She compelled him to describe the stranger, Fortune, as minutely as possible, as if desirous of finding some form or event in her own memory to which he could be attached; but without result.
After supper Sam squatted upon a stool in the corner of the fireplace, and resumed his reading of "The Old English Baron," by the light of the burning back-log, pronouncing every word to himself in something between a whisper and a whistle. Gilbert took an account-book, a leaden inkstand, and a stumpy pen from a drawer under the window, and calculated silently and somewhat laboriously. His mother produced a clocked stocking of blue wool, and proceeded to turn the heel.
In half an hour's time, however, Sam's whispering ceased; his head nodded violently, and the book fell upon the hearth.
"I guess I'll go to bed," he said; and having thus conscientiously announced his intention, he trotted up the steep back-stairs on his hands and feet. In two minutes more, a creaking overhead announced that the act was accomplished.
Gilbert filliped the ink out of his pen into the fire, laid it in his book, and turned away from the table.
"Roger has bottom," he said at last, "and he's as strong as a lion. He and Fox will make a good team, and the roads will be solid in three days, if it don't rain."
"Why, you don't mean,"—she commenced.
"Yes, mother. You were not for buying him, I know, and you were right, inasmuch as there is always some risk. But it will make a difference of two barrels a load, besides having a horse at home. If I plough both for corn and oats next week,—and it will be all the better for corn, as the field next to Carson's is heavy,—I can begin hauling the week after, and we'll have the interest by the first of April, without borrowing a penny."
"That would be good,—very good, indeed," said she, dropping her knitting, and hesitating a moment before she continued; "only—only, Gilbert, I didn't expect you would be going so soon."
"The sooner I begin, mother, the sooner I shall finish."
"I know that, Gilbert,—I know that; but I'm always looking forward to the time when you won't be bound to go at all. Not that Sam and I can't manage awhile—but if the money was paid once"—
"There's less than six hundred now, altogether. It's a good deal to scrape together in a year's time, but if it can be done I will do it. Perhaps, then, you will let some help come into the house. I'm as anxious as you can be, mother. I'm not of a roving disposition, that you know; yet it isn't pleasant to me to see you slave as you do, and for that very reason, it's a comfort when I'm away, that you've one less to work for."
He spoke earnestly, turning his face full upon her.
"We've talked this over, often and often, but you never can make me see it in your way," he then added, in a gentler tone.
"Ay, Gilbert," she replied, somewhat bitterly, "I've had my thoughts. Maybe they were too fast; it seems so. I meant, and mean, to make a good home for you, and I'm happiest when I can do the most towards it. I want you to hold up your head and be beholden to no man. There are them in the neighborhood that were bound out as boys, and are now as good as the best."
"But they are not,"—burst from his lips, as the thought on which he so gloomily brooded sprang to the surface and took him by surprise. He checked his words by a powerful effort, and the blood forsook his face. Mary Potter placed her hand on her heart, and seemed to gasp for breath.
Gilbert could not bear to look upon her face. He turned away, placed his elbow on the table, and leaned his head upon his hand. It never occurred to him that the unfinished sentence might be otherwise completed. He knew that his thought was betrayed, and his heart was suddenly filled with a tumult of shame, pity, and fear.
For a minute there was silence. Only the long pendulum, swinging openly along the farther wall, ticked at each end of its vibration. Then Mary Potter drew a deep, weary breath, and spoke. Her voice was hollow and strange, and each word came as by a separate muscular effort.
"What are they not? What word was on your tongue, Gilbert?"
He could not answer. He could only shake his head, and bring forth a cowardly, evasive word,—"Nothing."
"But there is something! Oh, I knew it must come some time!" she cried, rather to herself than to him. "Listen to me, Gilbert! Has any one dared to say to your face that you are basely born?"
He felt, now, that no further evasion was possible; she had put into words the terrible question which he could not steel his own heart to ask. Perhaps it was better so,—better a sharp, intense pain than a dull perpetual ache. So he answered honestly now, but still kept his head turned away, as if there might be a kindness in avoiding her gaze.
"Not in so many words, mother," he said; "but there are ways, and ways of saying a thing; and the cruellest way is that which everybody understands, and I dare not. But I have long known what it meant. It is ten years, mother, since I have mentioned the word 'father' in your hearing."
Mary Potter leaned forward, hid her face in her hands, and rocked to and fro, as if tortured with insupportable pain. She stifled her sobs, but the tears gushed forth between her fingers.
"O my boy,—my boy!" she moaned. "Ten years?—and you believed it, all that time!"
He was silent. She leaned forward and grasped his arm.
"Did you,—do you believe it? Speak, Gilbert!"
When he did speak, his voice was singularly low and gentle. "Never mind, mother!" was all he could say. His head was still turned away from her, but she knew there were tears on his cheeks.
"Gilbert, it is a lie!" she exclaimed, with startling vehemence. "A lie,—A LIE! You are my lawful son, born in wedlock! There is no stain upon your name, of my giving, and I know there will be none of your own."
He turned towards her, his eyes shining and his lips parted in breathless joy and astonishment.
"Is it—is it true?" he whispered.
"True as there is a God in Heaven."
"Then, mother, give me my name! Now I ask you, for the first time, who was my father?"
She wrung her hands and moaned. The sight of her son's eager, expectant face, touched with a light which she had never before seen upon it, seemed to give her another and a different pang.
"That, too!" She murmured to herself.
"Gilbert," she then said, "have I always been a faithful mother to you? Have I been true and honest in word and deed? Have I done my best to help you in all right ways,—to make you comfortable, to spare you trouble? Have I ever,—I'll not say acted, for nobody's judgment is perfect,—but tried to act otherwise than as I thought it might be for your good?"
"You have done all that you could say, and more, mother."
"Then, my boy, is it too much for me to ask that you should believe my word,—that you should let it stand for the truth, without my giving proofs and testimonies? For, Gilbert, that I must ask of you, hard as it may seem. If you will only be content with the knowledge—: but then, you have felt the shame all this while; it was my fault, mine, and I ought to ask your forgiveness"—
"Mother—mother!" he interrupted, "don't talk that way! Yes—I believe you, without testimony. You never said, or thought, an untruth; and your explanation will be enough not only for me, but for the whole neighborhood, if all witnesses are dead or gone away. If you knew of the shameful report, why didn't you deny it at once? Why let it spread and be believed in?"
"Oh," she moaned again, "if my tongue was not tied—if my tongue was not tied! There was my fault, and what a punishment! Never—never was woman punished as I have been. Gilbert, whatever you do, bind yourself by no vow, except in the sight of men!"
"I do not understand you, mother," said he.
"No, and I dare not make myself understood. Don't ask me anything more! It's hard to shut my mouth, and bear everything in silence, but it cuts my very heart in twain to speak and not tell!"
Her distress was so evident, that Gilbert, perplexed and bewildered as her words left him, felt that he dared not press her further. He could not doubt the truth of her first assertion; but, alas! it availed only for his own private consciousness,—it took no stain from him, in the eyes of the world. Yet, now that the painful theme had been opened,—not less painful, it seemed, since the suspected dishonor did not exist,—he craved and decided to ask, enlightenment on one point.
"Mother," he said, after a pause, "I do not want to speak about this thing again. I believe you, and my greatest comfort in believing is for your sake, not for mine. I see, too, that you are bound in some way which I do not understand, so that we cannot be cleared from the blame that is put upon us. I don't mind that so much, either—for my own sake, and I will not ask for an explanation, since you say you dare not give it. But tell me one thing,—will it always be so? Are you bound forever, and will I never learn anything more? I can wait; but, mother, you know that these things work in a man's mind, and there will come a time when the knowledge of the worst thing that could be will seem better than no knowledge at all."
Her face brightened a little. "Thank you, Gilbert!" she said. "Yes; there will come a day when you shall know all,—when you and me shall have justice. I do not know how soon; I cannot guess. In the Lord's good time. I have nigh out-suffered my fault, I think, and the reward cannot be far off. A few weeks, perhaps,—yet, maybe, for oh, I am not allowed even to hope for it!—maybe a few years. It will all come to the light, after so long—so long—an eternity. If I had but known!"
"Come, we will say no more now. Surely I may wait a little while, when you have waited so long. I believe you, mother. Yes, I believe you; I am your lawful son."
She rose, placed her hands on his shoulders, and kissed him. Nothing more was said.
Gilbert raked the ashes over the smouldering embers on the hearth, lighted his mother's night-lamp, and after closing the chamber-door softly behind her, stole up-stairs to his own bed.
It was long past midnight before he slept.
FORTUNE AND MISFORTUNE.
On the same evening, a scene of a very different character occurred, in which certain personages of this history were actors. In order to describe it, we must return to the company of sportsmen whom Gilbert Potter left at the Hammer-and-Trowel Tavern, late in the afternoon.
No sooner had he departed than the sneers of the young bucks, who felt themselves humiliated by his unexpected success, became loud and frequent. Mr. Alfred Barton, who seemed to care little for the general dissatisfaction, was finally reproached with having introduced such an unfit personage at a gentleman's hunt; whereupon he turned impatiently, and retorted:
"There were no particular invitations sent out, as all of you know. Anybody that had a horse, and knew how to manage him, was welcome. Zounds! if you fellows are afraid to take hedges, am I to blame for that? A hunter's a hunter, though he's born on the wrong side of the marriage certificate."
"That's the talk, Squire!" cried Fortune, giving his friend a hearty slap between the shoulders. "I've seen riding in my day," he continued, "both down in Loudon and on the Eastern Shore—men born with spurs on their heels, and I tell you this Potter could hold his own, even with the Lees and the Tollivers. We took the hedge together, while you were making a round of I don't know how many miles on the road; and I never saw a thing neater done. If you thought there was anything unfair about him, why didn't you head him off?"
"Yes, damme," echoed Mr. Barton, bringing down his fist upon the bar, so that the glasses jumped, "why didn't you head him off?" Mr. Barton's face was suspiciously flushed, and he was more excited than the occasion justified.
There was no answer to the question, except that which none of the young bucks dared to make.
"Well, I've had about enough of this," said Mr. Joel Ferris, turning on his heel; "who's for home?"
"Me!" answered three or four, with more readiness than grammar. Some of the steadier young farmers, who had come for an afternoon's recreation, caring little who was first in at the death, sat awhile and exchanged opinions about crops and cattle; but Barton and Fortune kept together, whispering much, and occasionally bursting into fits of uproarious laughter. The former was so captivated by his new friend, that before he knew it every guest was gone. The landlord had lighted two or three tallow candles, and now approached with the question:
"Will you have supper, gentlemen?"
"That depends on what you've got," said Fortune.
This was not language to which the host was accustomed. His guests were also his fellow-citizens: if they patronized him, he accommodated them, and the account was balanced. His meals were as good as anybody's, though he thought it that shouldn't, and people so very particular might stay away. But he was a mild, amiable man, and Fortune's keen eye and dazzling teeth had a powerful effect upon him. He answered civilly, in spite of an inward protest:
"There's ham and eggs, and frizzled beef."
"Nothing could be better!" Fortune exclaimed, jumping up. "Come 'Squire—if I stay over Sunday with you, you must at least take supper at my expense."
Mr. Barton tried to recollect whether he had invited his friend to spend Sunday with him. It must be so, of course; only, he could not remember when he had spoken, or what words he had used. It would be very pleasant, he confessed, but for one thing; and how was he to get over the difficulty?
However, here they were, at the table, Fortune heaping his plate like a bountiful host, and talking so delightfully about horses and hounds, and drinking-bouts, and all those wild experiences which have such a charm for bachelors of forty-five or fifty, that it was impossible to determine in his mind what he should do.
After the supper, they charged themselves with a few additional potations, to keep off the chill of the night air, mounted their horses, and took the New-Garden road. A good deal of confidential whispering had preceded their departure.
"They're off on a lark," the landlord remarked to himself, as they rode away, "and it's a shame, in men of their age."
After riding a mile, they reached the cross-road on the left, which the hunters had followed, and Fortune, who was a little in advance, turned into it.
"After what I told you, 'Squire," said he, "you won't wonder that I know the country so well. Let us push on; it's not more than two miles. I would be very clear of showing you one of my nests, if you were not such a good fellow. But mum's the word, you know."
"Never fear," Barton answered, somewhat thickly; "I'm an old bird, Fortune."
"That you are! Men like you and me are not made of the same stuff as those young nincompoops; we can follow a trail without giving tongue at every jump."
Highly flattered, Barton rode nearer, and gave his friend an affectionate punch in the side. Fortune answered with an arm around his waist and a tight hug, and so they rode onward through the darkness.
They had advanced for somewhat more than a mile on the cross-road, and found themselves in a hollow, with tall, and added in a low, significant tone, "If you stir from this spot in less than one hour, you are a dead man."
Then he rode on, whistling "Money Musk" as he went. Once or twice he stopped, as if to listen, and Barton's heart ceased to beat; but by degrees the sound of his horse's hoofs died away. The silence that succeeded was full of terrors. Barton's horse became restive, and he would have dismounted and held him, but for the weakness in every joint which made him think that his body was falling asunder. Now and then a leaf rustled, or the scent of some animal, unperceived by his own nostrils, caused his horse to snort and stamp. The air was raw and sent a fearful chill through his blood. Moreover, how was he to measure the hour? His watch was gone; he might have guessed by the stars, but the sky was overcast. Fortune and Sandy Flash—for there were two individuals in his bewildered brain—would surely fulfil their threat if he stirred before the appointed time. What under heaven should he do?
Wait; that was all; and he waited until it seemed that morning must be near at hand. Then, turning his horse, he rode back very slowly towards the New-Garden road, and after many panics, to the Hammer-and-Trowel. There was still light in the bar-room; should the door open, he would be seen. He put spurs to his horse and dashed past. Once in motion, it seemed that he was pursued, and along Tuffkenamon went the race, until his horse, panting and exhausted, paused to drink at Redley Creek. They had gone to bed at the Unicorn; he drew a long breath, and felt that the danger was over. In five minutes more he was at home.
Putting his horse in the stable, he stole quietly to the house, pulled off his boots in the wood-shed, and entered by a back way through the kitchen. Here he warmed his chill frame before the hot ashes, and then very gently and cautiously felt his way to bed in the dark.
The next morning, being Sunday, the whole household, servants and all, slept an hour later than usual, as was then the country custom. Giles, the old soldier, was the first to appear. He made the fire in the kitchen, put on the water to boil, and then attended to the feeding of the cattle at the barn. When this was accomplished, he returned to the house and entered a bedroom adjoining the kitchen, on the ground-floor. Here slept "Old-man Barton," as he was generally called,—Alfred's father, by name Abiah, and now eighty-five years of age. For many years he had been a paralytic, and unable to walk, but the disease had not affected his business capacity. He was the hardest, shrewdest, and cunningest miser in the county. There was not a penny of the income and expenditure of the farm, for any year, which he could not account for,—not a date of a deed, bond, or note of hand, which he had ever given or received, that was not indelibly burnt upon his memory. No one, not even his sons, knew precisely how much he was worth. The old lawyer in Chester, who had charge of much of his investments, was as shrewd as himself, and when he made his annual visit, the first week in April, the doors were not only closed, but everybody was banished from hearing distance so long as he remained.
Giles assisted in washing and dressing the old man, then seated him in a rude arm-chair, resting on clumsy wooden castors, and poured out for him a small wine-glass full of raw brandy. Once or twice a year, usually after the payment of delayed interest, Giles received a share of the brandy; but he never learned to expect it. Then a long hickory staff was placed in the old man's hand, and his arm-chair was rolled into the kitchen, to a certain station between the fire and the southern window, where he would be out of the way of his daughter Ann, yet could measure with his eye every bit of lard she put into the frying-pan, and every spoonful of molasses that entered into the composition of her pies.
She had already set the table for breakfast. The bacon and sliced potatoes were frying in separate pans, and Ann herself was lifting the lid of the tin coffee-pot, to see whether the beverage had "come to a boil," when the old man entered, or, strictly speaking, was entered.
As his chair rolled into the light, the hideousness, not the grace and serenity of old age, was revealed. His white hair, thin and half-combed, straggled over the dark-red, purple-veined skin of his head; his cheeks were flabby bags of bristly, wrinkled leather; his mouth was a sunken, irregular slit, losing itself in the hanging folds at the corners, and even the life, gathered into his small, restless gray eyes, was half quenched under the red and heavy edges of the lids. The third and fourth fingers of his hands were crooked upon the skinny palms, beyond any power to open them.
When Ann—a gaunt spinster of fifty-five—had placed the coffee on the table, the old man looked around, and asked with a snarl: "Where's Alfred?"
"Not up yet, but you needn't wait, father."
"Wait?" was all he said, yet she understood the tone, and wheeled him to the table. As soon as his plate was filled, he bent forward over it, rested his elbows on the cloth, and commenced feeding himself with hands that trembled so violently that he could with great difficulty bring the food to his mouth. But he resented all offers of assistance, which implied any weakness beyond that of the infirmity which it was impossible for him to conceal. His meals were weary tasks, but he shook and jerked through them, and would have gone away hungry rather than acknowledge the infirmity of his great age.
Breakfast was nearly over before Alfred Barton made his appearance. No truant school-boy ever dreaded the master's eye as he dreaded to appear before his father that Sunday morning. His sleep had been broken and restless; the teeth of Sandy Flash had again grinned at him in nightmare-dreams, and when he came to put on his clothes, the sense of emptiness in his breast-pocket and watch-fob impressed him like a violent physical pain. His loss was bad enough, but the inability to conceal it caused him even greater distress.
Buttoning his coat over the double void, and trying to assume his usual air, he went down to the kitchen and commenced his breakfast. Whenever he looked up, he found his father's eyes fixed upon him, and before a word had been spoken, he felt that he had already betrayed something, and that the truth would follow, sooner or later. A wicked wish crossed his mind, but was instantly suppressed, for fear lest that, also, should be discovered.
After Ann had cleared the table, and retired to her own room in order to array herself in the black cloth gown which she had worn every Sunday for the past fifteen years, the old man said, or rather wheezed out the words,—
"Not to-day," said his son, "I've a sort of chill from yesterday." And he folded his arms and shivered very naturally.
"Did Ferris pay you?" the old man again asked.
"Where's the money?"
There was the question, and it must be faced. Alfred Barton worked the farm "on shares," and was held to a strict account by his father, not only for half of all the grain and produce sold, but of all the horses and cattle raised, as well as those which were bought on speculation. On his share he managed—thanks to the niggardly system enforced in the house—not only to gratify his vulgar taste for display, but even to lay aside small sums from time to time. It was a convenient arrangement, but might be annulled any time when the old man should choose, and Alfred knew that a prompt division of the profits would be his surest guarantee of permanence.
"I have not the money with me," he answered, desperately, after a pause, during which he felt his father's gaze travelling over him, from head to foot.
"Why not! You haven't spent it?" The latter question was a croaking shriek, which seemed to forebode, while it scarcely admitted, the possibility of such an enormity.
"I spent only four shillings, father, but—but—but the money's all gone!"
The crooked fingers clutched the hickory staff, as if eager to wield it; the sunken gray eyes shot forth angry fire, and the broken figure uncurved and straightened itself with a wrathful curiosity.
"Sandy Flash robbed me on the way home," said the son, and now that the truth was out, he seemed to pluck up a little courage.
"What, what, what!" chattered the old man, incredulously; "no lies, boy, no lies!"
The son unbuttoned his coat, and showed his empty watch-fob. Then he gave an account of the robbery, not strictly correct in all its details, but near enough for his father to know, without discovering inaccuracies at a later day. The hickory-stick was shaken once or twice during the recital, but it did not fall upon the culprit—though this correction (so the gossip of the neighborhood ran) had more than once been administered within the previous ten years. As Alfred Barton told his story, it was hardly a case for anger on the father's part, so he took his revenge in another way.
"This comes o' your races and your expensive company," he growled, after a few incoherent sniffs and snarls; "but I don't lose my half of the horse. No, no! I'm not paid till the money's been handed over. Twenty-five dollars, remember!—and soon, that I don't lose the use of it too long. As for your money and the watch, I've nothing to do with them. I've got along without a watch for eighty-five years, and I never wore as smart a coat as that in my born days. Young men understood how to save, in my time."
Secretly, however, the old man was flattered by his son's love of display, and enjoyed his swaggering air, although nothing would have induced him to confess the fact. His own father had come to Pennsylvania as a servant of one of the first settlers, and the reverence which he had felt, as a boy, for the members of the Quaker and farmer aristocracy of the neighborhood, had now developed into a late vanity to see his own family acknowledged as the equals of the descendants of the former. Alfred had long since discovered that when he happened to return home from the society of the Falconers, or the Caswells, or the Carsons, the old man was in an unusual good-humor. At such times, the son felt sure that he was put down for a large slice of the inheritance.
After turning the stick over and over in his skinny hands, and pressing the top of it against his toothless gums, the old man again spoke.
"See here, you're old enough now to lead a steady life. You might ha' had a farm o' your own, like Elisha, if you'd done as well. A very fair bit o' money he married,—very fair,—but I don't say you couldn't do as well, or, maybe, better."
"I've been thinking of that, myself," the son replied.
"Have you? Why don't you step up to her then? Ten thousand dollars aren't to be had every day, and you needn't expect to get it without the askin'! Where molasses is dropped, you'll always find more than one fly. Others than you have got their eyes on the girl."
The son's eyes opened tolerably wide when the old man began to speak, but a spark of intelligence presently flashed into them, and an expression of cunning ran over his face.
"Don't be anxious, daddy!" said he, with assumed playfulness; "she's not a girl to take the first that offers. She has a mind of her own,—with her the more haste the less speed. I know what I'm about; I have my top eye open, and when there's a good chance, you won't find me sneaking behind the wood-house."
"Well, well!" muttered the old man, "we'll see,—we'll see! A good family, too,—not that I care for that. My family's as good as the next. But if you let her slip, boy"—and here he brought down the end of his stick with a significant whack, upon the floor. "This I'll tell you," he added, without finishing the broken sentence, "that whether you're a rich man or a beggar, depends on yourself. The more you have, the more you'll get; remember that! Bring me my brandy!"
Alfred Barton knew the exact value of his father's words. Having already neglected, or, at least, failed to succeed, in regard to two matches which his father had proposed, he understood the risk to his inheritance which was implied by a third failure. And yet, looking at the subject soberly, there was not the slightest prospect of success. Martha Deane was the girl in the old man's mind, and an instinct, stronger than his vanity, told him that she never would, or could, be his wife. But, in spite of that, it must be his business to create a contrary impression, and keep it alive as long as possible,—perhaps until—until—
We all know what was in his mind. Until the old man should die.
GUESTS AT FAIRTHORN'S.
The Fairthorn farm was immediately north of Kennett Square. For the first mile towards Unionville, the rich rolling fields which any traveller may see, to this day, on either side of the road, belonged to it. The house stood on the right, in the hollow into which the road dips, on leaving the village. Originally a large cabin of hewn logs, it now rejoiced in a stately stone addition, overgrown with ivy up to the eaves, and a long porch in front, below which two mounds of box guarded the flight of stone steps leading down to the garden. The hill in the rear kept off the north wind, and this garden caught the earliest warmth of spring. Nowhere else in the neighborhood did the crocuses bloom so early, or the peas so soon appear above ground. The lack of order, the air of old neglect about the place, in nowise detracted from its warm, cosy character; it was a pleasant nook, and the relatives and friends of the family (whose name was Legion) always liked to visit there.
Several days had elapsed since the chase, and the eventful evening which followed it. It was baking-day, and the plump arms of Sally Fairthorn were floury-white up to the elbows. She was leaning over the dough-trough, plunging her fists furiously into the spongy mass, when she heard a step on the porch. Although her gown was pinned up, leaving half of her short, striped petticoat visible, and a blue and white spotted handkerchief concealed her dark hair, Sally did not stop to think of that. She rushed into the front room, just as a gaunt female figure passed the window, at the sight of which she clapped her hands so that the flour flew in a little white cloud, and two or three strips of dough peeled off her arms and fell upon the floor.
The front-door opened, and our old friend, Miss Betsy Lavender, walked into the room.
Any person, between Kildeer Hill and Hockessin, who did not know Miss Betsy, must have been an utter stranger to the country, or an idiot. She had a marvellous clairvoyant faculty for the approach of either Joy or Grief, and always turned up just at the moment when she was most wanted. Profession had she none; neither a permanent home, but for twenty years she had wandered hither and thither, in highly independent fashion, turning her hand to whatever seemed to require its cunning. A better housekeeper never might have lived, if she could have stuck to one spot; an admirable cook, nurse, seamstress, and spinner, she refused alike the high wages of wealthy farmers and the hands of poor widowers. She had a little money of her own, but never refused payment from those who were able to give it, in order that she might now and then make a present of her services to poorer friends. Her speech was blunt and rough, her ways odd and eccentric; her name was rarely mentioned without a laugh, but those who laughed at her esteemed her none the less. In those days of weekly posts and one newspaper, she was Politics, Art, Science, and Literature to many families.
In person, Miss Betsy Lavender was peculiar rather than attractive. She was nearly, if not quite fifty years of age, rather tall, and a little stoop-shouldered. Her face, at first sight, suggested that of a horse, with its long, ridged nose, loose lips and short chin. Her eyes were dull gray, set near together, and much sharper in their operation than a stranger would suppose. Over a high, narrow forehead she wore thin bands of tan-colored hair, somewhat grizzled, and forming a coil at the back of her head, barely strong enough to hold the teeth of an enormous tortoise-shell comb. Yet her grotesqueness had nothing repellant; it was a genial caricature, at which no one could take offence. "The very person I wanted to see!" cried Sally. "Father and mother are going up to Uncle John's this afternoon; Aunt Eliza has an old woman's quilting-party, and they'll stay all night, and however am I to manage Joe and Jake by myself? Martha's half promised to come, but not till after supper. It will all go right, since you are here; come into mother's room and take off your things!"
"Well," said Miss Betsy, with a snort, "that's to be my business, eh? I'll have my hands full; a pearter couple o' lads a'n't to be found this side o' Nottin'gam. They might ha' growed up wild on the Barrens, for all the manners they've got."
Sally knew that this criticism was true; also that Miss Betsy's task was no sinecure, and she therefore thought it best to change the subject.
"There!" said she, as Miss Betsy gave the thin rope of her back hair a fierce twist, and jammed her high comb inward and outward that the teeth might catch,—"there! now you'll do! Come into the kitchen and tell me the news, while I set my loaves to rise."
"Loaves to rise," echoed Miss Betsy, seating herself on a tall, rush-bottomed chair near the window. She had an incorrigible habit of repeating the last three words of the person with whom she spoke,—a habit which was sometimes mimicked good-humoredly, even by her best friends. Many persons, however, were flattered by it, as it seemed to denote an earnest attention to what they were saying. Between the two, there it was and there it would be, to the day of her death,—Miss Lavender's "keel-mark, [Footnote: Keel, a local term for red chalk.] as the farmers said of their sheep.
"Well," she resumed, after taking breath, "no news is good news, these days. Down Whitely Creek way, towards Strickersville, there's fever, they say; Richard Rudd talks o' buildin' higher up the hill,—you know it's low and swampy about the old house,—but Sarah, she says it'll be a mortal long ways to the spring-house, and so betwixt and between them I dunno how it'll turn out. Dear me! I was up at Aunt Buffin'ton's t' other day; she's lookin' poorly; her mother, I remember, went off in a decline, the same year the Tories burnt down their barn, and I'm afeard she's goin' the same way. But, yes! I guess there's one thing you'll like to hear. Old-man Barton is goin' to put up a new wagon-house, and Mark is to have the job."
"Law!" exclaimed Sally, "what's that to me?" But there was a decided smile on her face as she put another loaf into the pan, and, although her head was turned away, a pretty flush of color came up behind her ear, and betrayed itself to Miss Lavender's quick eye.
"Nothin' much, I reckon," the latter answered, in the most matter-of-fact way, "only I thought you might like to know it, Mark bein' a neighbor, like, and a right-down smart young fellow."
"Well, I am glad of it," said Sally, with sudden candor, "he's Martha's cousin."
"Martha's cousin,—and I shouldn't wonder if he'd be something more to her, some day."
"No, indeed! What are you thinking of, Betsy?" Sally turned around and faced her visitor, regardless that her soft brunette face showed a decided tinge of scarlet. At this instant clattering feet were heard, and Joe and Jake rushed into the kitchen. They greeted their old friend with boisterous demonstrations of joy.
"Now we'll have dough-nuts," cried Joe.
"No; 'lasses-wax!" said Jake. "Sally, where's mother? Dad's out at the wall, and Bonnie's jumpin' and prancin' like anything!"
"Go along!" exclaimed Sally, with a slap which, lost its force in the air, as Jake jumped away. Then they all left the kitchen together, and escorted the mother to the garden-wall by the road, which served the purpose of a horseblock. Farmer Fairthorn—a hale, ruddy, honest figure, in broad-brimmed hat, brown coat and knee-breeches—already sat upon the old mare, and the pillion behind his saddle awaited the coming burden. Mother Fairthorn, a cheery little woman, with dark eyes and round brunette face, like her daughter, wore the scoop bonnet and drab shawl of a Quakeress, as did many in the neighborhood who did not belong to the sect. Never were people better suited to each other than these two: they took the world as they found it, and whether the crops were poor or abundant, whether money came in or had to be borrowed, whether the roof leaked, or a broken pale let the sheep into the garden, they were alike easy of heart, contented and cheerful.
The mare, after various obstinate whirls, was finally brought near the wall; the old woman took her seat on the pillion, and after a parting admonition to Sally: "Rake the coals and cover 'em up, before going to bed, whatever you do!"—they went off, deliberately, up the hill.
"Miss Betsy," said Joe, with a very grave air, as they returned to the kitchen, "I want you to tell me one thing,—whether it's true or not. Sally says I'm a monkey."
"I'm a monkey," repeated the unconscious Miss Lavender, whereupon both boys burst into shrieks of laughter, and made their escape.
"Much dough-nuts they'll get from me," muttered the ruffled spinster, as she pinned up her sleeves and proceeded to help Sally. The work went on rapidly, and by the middle of the afternoon, the kitchen wore its normal aspect of homely neatness. Then came the hour or two of quiet and rest, nowhere in the world so grateful as in a country farm-house, to its mistress and her daughters, when all the rough work of the day is over, and only the lighter task of preparing supper yet remains. Then, when the sewing or knitting has been produced, the little painted-pine work-stand placed near the window, and a pleasant neighbor drops in to enliven the softer occupation with gossip, the country wife or girl finds her life a very happy and cheerful possession. No dresses are worn with so much pleasure as those then made; no books so enjoyed as those then read, a chapter or two at a time.
Sally Fairthorn, we must confess, was not in the habit of reading much. Her education had been limited. She had ciphered as far as Compound Interest, read Murray's "Sequel," and Goldsmith's "Rome," and could write a fair letter, without misspelling many words; but very few other girls in the neighborhood possessed greater accomplishments than these, and none of them felt, or even thought of, their deficiencies. There were no "missions" in those days; it was fifty or sixty years before the formation of the "Kennett Psychological Society," and "Pamela," "Rasselas," and "Joseph Andrews," were lent and borrowed, as at present "Consuelo," Buckle, Ruskin, and "Enoch Arden."
One single work of art had Sally created, and it now hung, stately in a frame of curled maple, in the chilly parlor. It was a sampler, containing the alphabet, both large and small, the names and dates of birth of both her parents, a harp and willow-tree, the twigs whereof were represented by parallel rows of "herring-bone" stitch, a sharp zigzag spray of rose-buds, and the following stanza, placed directly underneath the harp and willow:—
"By Babel's streams we Sat and Wept When Zion we thought on; For Grief thereof, we Hang our Harp The Willow Tree upon."
Across the bottom of the sampler was embroidered the inscription: "Done by Sarah Ann Fairthorn, May, 1792, in the 16th year of her age."
While Sally went up-stairs to her room, to put her hair into order, and tie a finer apron over her cloth gown, Miss Betsy Lavender was made the victim of a most painful experience.
Joe and Jake, who had been dodging around the house, half-coaxing and half-teasing the ancient maiden whom they both plagued and liked, had not been heard or seen for a while. Miss Betsy was knitting by the front window, waiting for Sally, when the door was hastily thrown open, and Joe appeared, panting, scared, and with an expression of horror upon his face.
"Oh, Miss Betsy!" was his breathless exclamation, "Jake! the cherry-tree!"
Dropping her work upon the floor, Miss Lavender hurried out of the house, with beating heart and trembling limbs, following Joe, who ran towards the field above the barn, where, near the fence, there stood a large and lofty cherry-tree. As she reached the fence she beheld Jake, lying motionless on his back, on the brown grass.
"The Lord have mercy!" she cried; her knees gave way, and she sank upon the ground in an angular heap. When, with a desperate groan, she lifted her head and looked through the lower rails, Jake was not to be seen. With a swift, convulsive effort she rose to her feet, just in time to catch a glimpse of the two young scamps whirling over the farther fence into the wood below.
She walked unsteadily back to the house. "It's given me such a turn," she said to Sally, after describing the trick, "that I dunno when I'll get over it."
Sally gave her some whiskey and sugar, which soon brought a vivid red to the tip of her chin and the region of her cheek-bones, after which she professed that she felt very comfortable. But the boys, frightened at the effect of their thoughtless prank, did not make their appearance. Joe, seeing Miss Betsy fall, thought she was dead, and the two hid themselves in a bed of dead leaves, beside a fallen log, not daring to venture home for supper. Sally said they should have none, and would have cleared the table; but Miss Betsy, whose kind heart had long since relented, went forth and brought them to light, promising that she would not tell their father, provided they "would never do such a wicked thing again." Their behavior, for the rest of the evening, was irreproachable.