BY THE SAME AUTHOR
"PHASES OF AN INFERIOR PLANET"
CROWNED MASTERPIECES OF MODERN FICTION
SPECIAL SUBSCRIPTION EDITION
The Voice of the People
NEW YORK, DOUBLEDAY PAGE & COMPANY, 1904
Copyright, 1900, by ELLEN GLASGOW
Published September, 1902
TO REBE GORDON GLASGOW
THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
FAIR WEATHER AT KINGSBOROUGH
The last day of Circuit Court was over at Kingsborough.
The jury had vanished from the semicircle of straight-backed chairs in the old court-house, the clerk had laid aside his pen along with his air of listless attention, and the judge was making his way through the straggling spectators to the sunken stone steps of the platform outside. As the crowd in the doorway parted slightly, a breeze passed into the room, scattering the odours of bad tobacco and farm-stained clothing. The sound of a cow-bell came through one of the small windows, from the green beyond, where a red-and-white cow was browsing among the buttercups.
"A fine day, gentlemen," said the judge, bowing to right and left. "A fine day."
He moved slowly, fanning himself absently with his white straw hat, pausing from time to time to exchange a word of greeting—secure in the affability of one who is not only a judge of man but a Bassett of Virginia. From his classic head to his ill-fitting boots he upheld the traditions of his office and his race.
On the stone platform, just beyond the entrance, he stopped to speak to a lawyer from a neighbouring county. Then, as a clump of men scattered at his approach, he waved them together with a bland, benedictory gesture which descended alike upon the high and the low, upon the rector of the old church up the street, in his rusty black, and upon the red-haired, raw-boned farmer with his streaming brow.
"Glad to see you out, sir," he said to the one, and to the other, "How are you, Burr? Time the crops were in the ground, isn't it?"
Burr mumbled a confused reply, wiping his neck laboriously on his red cotton handkerchief.
"The corn's been planted goin' on six weeks," he said more distinctly, ejecting his words between mouthfuls of tobacco juice as if they were pebbles which obstructed his speech. "I al'ays stick to plantin' yo' corn when the hickory leaf's as big as a squirrel's ear. If you don't, the luck's agin you."
"An' whar thar's growin' corn thar's a sight o' hoein'," put in an alert, nervous-looking countryman. "If I lay my hoe down for a spell, the weeds git so big I can't find the crop."
Amos Burr nodded with slow emphasis: "I never see land take so natural to weeds nohow as mine do," he said. "When you raise peanuts you're raisin' trouble."
He was a lean, overworked man, with knotted hands the colour of the soil he tilled and an inanely honest face, over which the freckles showed like splashes of mud freshly dried. As he spoke he gave his blue jean trousers an abrupt hitch at the belt.
"Dear me! Dear me!" returned the judge with absent-minded, habitual friendliness, smiling his rich, beneficent smile. Then, as he caught sight of a smaller red head beneath Burr's arm, he added: "You've a right-hand man coming on, I see. What's your name, my boy?"
The boy squirmed on his bare, brown feet and wriggled his head from beneath his father's arm. He did not answer, but he turned his bright eyes on the judge and flushed through all the freckles of his ugly little face.
"Nick—that is, Nicholas, sir," replied the elder Burr with an apologetic cough, due to the insignificance of the subject. "Yes, sir, he's leetle, but he's plum full of grit. He can beat any nigger I ever seed at the plough. He'd outplough me if he war a head taller."
"That will mend," remarked the lawyer from the neighbouring county with facetious intention. "A boy and a beanstalk will grow, you know. There's no helping it."
"Oh, he'll be a man soon enough," added the judge, his gaze passing over the large, red head to rest upon the small one, "and a farmer like his father before him, I suppose."
He was turning away when the child's voice checked him, and he paused.
"I—I'd ruther be a judge," said the boy.
He was leaning against the faded bricks of the old court-house, one sunburned hand playing nervously with the crumbling particles. His honest little face was as red as his hair.
The judge started.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, and he looked at the child with his kindly eyes. The boy was ugly, lean, and stunted in growth, browned by hot suns and powdered by the dust of country roads, but his eyes caught the gaze of the judge and held it.
Above his head, on the brick wall, a board was nailed, bearing in black marking the name of the white-sand street which stretched like a chalk-drawn line from the grass-grown battlefields to the pale old buildings of King's College. The street had been called in honour of a duke of Gloucester. It was now "Main" Street, and nothing more, though it was still wide and white and placidly impressed by the slow passage of Kingsborough feet. Beyond the court-house the breeze blew across the green, which was ablaze with buttercups. Beneath the warm wind the yellow heads assumed the effect of a brilliant tangle, spreading over the unploughed common, running astray in the grass-lined ditch that bordered the walk, hiding beneath dusty-leaved plants in unsuspected hollows, and breaking out again under the horses' hoofs in the sandy street.
"Ah!" exclaimed the judge, and a good-natured laugh ran round the group.
"Wall, I never!" ejaculated the elder Burr, but there was no surprise in his tone; it expressed rather the helplessness of paternity.
The boy faced them, pressing more firmly against the bricks.
"There ain't nothin' in peanut-raisin'," he said. "It's jest farmin' fur crows. I'd ruther be a judge."
The judge laughed and turned from him.
"Stick to the soil, my boy," he advised. "Stick to the soil. It is the best thing to do. But if you choose the second best, and I can help you, I will—I will, upon my word—Ah! General," to a jovial-faced, wide-girthed gentleman in a brown linen coat, "I'm glad to see you in town. Fine weather!"
He put on his hat, bowed again, and went on his way.
He passed slowly along in the spring sunshine, his feet crunching upon the gravel, his straight shadow falling upon the white level between coarse fringes of wire-grass. Far up the town, at the street's sudden end, where it was lost in diverging roads, there was visible, as through a film of bluish smoke, the verdigris-green foliage of King's College. Nearer at hand the solemn cruciform of the old church was steeped in shade, the high bell-tower dropping a veil of English ivy as it rose against the sky. Through the rusty iron gate of the graveyard the marble slabs glimmered beneath submerging grasses, long, pale, tremulous like reeds.
The grass-grown walk beside the low brick wall of the churchyard led on to the judge's own garden, a square enclosure, laid out in straight vegetable rows, marked off by variegated borders of flowering plants—heartsease, foxglove, and the red-lidded eyes of scarlet poppies. Beyond the feathery green of the asparagus bed there was a bush of flowering syringa, another at the beginning of the grass-trimmed walk, and yet another brushing the large white pillars of the square front porch—their slender sprays blown from sun to shade like fluttering streamers of cream-coloured ribbons. On the other side there were lilacs, stately and leafy and bare of bloom, save for a few ashen-hued bunches lingering late amid the heavy foliage. At the foot of the garden the wall was hidden in raspberry vines, weighty with ripening fruit.
The judge closed the gate after him and ascended the steps. It was not until he had crossed the wide hall and opened the door of his study that he heard the patter of bare feet, and turned to find that the boy had followed him.
For an instant he regarded the child blankly; then his hospitality asserted itself, and he waved him courteously into the room.
"Walk in, walk in, and take a seat. I am at your service."
He crossed to one of the tall windows, unfastening the heavy inside shutters, from which the white paint was fast peeling away. As they fell back a breeze filled the room, and the ivory faces of microphylla roses stared across the deep window-seat. The place was airy as a summer-house and odorous with the essence of roses distilled in the sunshine beyond. On the high plastered walls, above the book-shelves, rows of bygone Bassetts looked down on their departed possessions—stately and severe in the artificial severity of periwigs and starched ruffles. They looked down with immobile eyes and the placid monotony of past fashions, smiling always the same smile, staring always at the same spot of floor or furniture.
Below them the room was still hallowed by their touch. They asserted themselves in the quaint curves of the rosewood chairs, in the blue patterns upon the willow bowls, and in the choice lavender of the old Wedgwood. Their handiwork was visible in the laborious embroideries of the fire-screen near the empty grate, and the spinet in one unlighted corner still guarded their gay and amiable airs.
"Sit down," said the judge. "I am at your service."
He seated himself before his desk of hand-carved mahogany, pushing aside the papers that littered its baize-covered lid. In the half-gloom of the high-ceiled room his face assumed the look of a portrait in oils, and he seemed to have descended from his allotted square upon the plastered wall, to be but a boldly limned composite likeness of his race, awaiting the last touches and the gilded frame.
"What can I do for you?" he asked again, his tone preserving its unfailing courtesy. He had not made an uncivil remark since the close of the war—a line of conduct resulting less from what he felt to be due to others than from what he believed to be becoming in himself.
The boy shifted on his bare feet. In the old-timed setting of the furniture he was an alien—an anachronism—the intrusion of the hopelessly modern into the helplessly past. His hair made a rich spot in the colourless atmosphere, and it seemed to focus the incoming light from the unshuttered window, leaving the background in denser shadow.
The animation of his features jarred the serenity of the room. His profile showed gnome-like against the nodding heads of the microphylla roses.
"There ain't nothin' in peanut-raisin'," he said suddenly; "I—I'd ruther be a judge."
"My dear boy!" exclaimed the judge, and finished helplessly, "my dear boy—I—well—I—"
They were both silent. The regular droning of the old clock sounded distinctly in the stillness. The perfume of roses, mingling with the musty scent from the furniture, borrowed the quality of musk.
The child was breathing heavily. Suddenly he dug the dirty knuckles of one fist into his eyes.
"Don't cry," began the judge. "Please don't. Perhaps you would like to run out and play with my boy Tom?"
"I warn't cryin'," said the child. "It war a gnat."
His hand left his eyes and returned to his hat—a wide-brimmed harvest hat, with a shoestring tied tightly round the crown.
When the judge spoke again it was with seriousness.
"Nicholas—your name is Nicholas, isn't it?"
"How old are you?"
"Can you read?"
The child hesitated. "I—I can spell—some."
"Don't you know it is a serious thing to be a judge?"
"You must be a lawyer first."
"It is hard work."
"And sometimes it's no better than farming for crows."
The boy shook his head. "It's cleaner work, sir."
The judge laughed.
"I'm afraid you are obstinate, Nicholas," he said, and added: "Now, what do you want me to do for you? I can't make you a judge. It took me fifty years to make myself one—a third-rate one at that—"
"I—I'd l-i-k-e to take a bo-b-o-o-k," stammered the boy.
"Dear me!" said the judge irritably, "dear me!"
He frowned, his gaze skimming his well-filled shelves. He regretted suddenly that he had spoken to the child at the court-house. He would never be guilty of such an indiscretion again. Of what could he have been thinking? A book! Why didn't he ask for food—money—his best piece of fluted Royal Worcester?
Then a loud, boyish laugh rang in from the garden, and his face softened suddenly. In the sun-scorched, honest-eyed little figure before him he saw his own boy—the single child of his young wife, who was lying beneath a marble slab in the churchyard. Her face, mild and Madonna-like, glimmered against the pallid rose leaves in the deep window-seat.
He turned hastily away.
"Yes, yes," he answered, "I will lend you one. Read the titles carefully. Don't let the books fall. Never lay them face downwards—and don't turn down the leaves!"
The boy advanced timidly to the shelves between the southern windows. He ran his hands slowly along the lettered backs, his lips moving as he spelled out the names.
"The F-e-d-e-r-a-l-i-s-t," "B-l-a-c-k-s-t-o-n-e-'s C-o-m-m-e-n-t-a-r-i-e-s," "R-e-v-i-s-e-d Sta-tu-tes of the U-ni-ted Sta-tes."
The judge drew up to his desk and looked over his letters. Then he took up his pen and wrote several replies in his fine, flowing handwriting. He had forgotten the boy, when he felt a touch upon his arm.
"What is it?" he asked absently. "Ah, it is you? Yes, let me see. Why! you've got Sir Henry Maine!"
The boy was holding the book in both hands. As the judge laughed he flushed nervously and turned towards the door.
The judge leaned back in his chair, watching the small figure cross the room and disappear into the hall. He saw the tracks of dust which the boy's feet left upon the smooth, bare floor, but he was not thinking of them. Then, as the child went out upon the porch, he started up.
"Nicholas!" he called, "don't turn down the leaves!"
A facetious stranger once remarked that Kingsborough dozed through the present to dream of the past and found the future a nightmare. Had he been other than a stranger, he would, perhaps, have added that Kingsborough's proudest boast was that she had been and was not—a distinction giving her preeminence over certain cities whose charters were not received from royal grants—cities priding themselves not only upon a multiplicity of streets, but upon the more plebeian fact that the feet of their young men followed the offending thoroughfares to the undignified music of the march of progress.
But, whatever might be said of places that shall be nameless, it was otherwise with Kingsborough. Kingsborough was the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. She who had feasted royal governors, staked and lost upon Colonial races, and exploded like an ignited powder-horn in the cause of American independence, was still superbly conscious of the honours which had been hers. Her governors were no longer royal, nor did she feast them; her races were run by fleet-footed coloured urchins on the court-house green; her powder-magazine had evolved through differentiation from a stable into a church; but Kingsborough clung to her amiable habits. Travellers still arrived at the landing stage some several miles distant and were driven over all but impassable roads to the town. The eastern wall of the court-house still bore the sign "England Street," though the street had vanished beneath encroaching buttercups, and the implied loyalty had been found wanting. Kingsborough juries still sat in their original semicircle, with their backs to the judge and their faces, presumably, to the law; Kingsborough farmers still marketed their small truck in the street called after the Duke of Gloucester; and Kingsborough cows still roamed at will over the vaults in the churchyard. In time trivial changes would come to pass. Tourists would arrive with the railroad; the powder-magazine would turn from a church into a museum; gardens would decay and ancient elms would fall, but the farmers and the cows would not be missed from their accustomed haunts. On the hospitable thresholds of "general" stores battle-scarred veterans of the war between the States dealt in victorious reminiscences of vanquishment. They had fought well, they had fallen silently, and they had risen without bitterness. For the people of Kingsborough had opened their doors to wounded foes while the battle raged through their streets, succouring while they resisted. They lived easily and they died hard, but when death came they met it, not in grim Puritanism, but with a laugh upon the lips. They made a joy of life while it was possible, and when that ceased to be, they did the next best thing and made a friend of death. Long ago theirs had been the first part in Virginia, and, as they still believed, theirs had been also the centre of all things. Now the high places were laid low, and the greatness had passed as a trumpet that is blown. Kingsborough persisted still, but it persisted evasively, hovering, as it were, upon the outskirts of modern advancement. And the outside world took note only when it made tours to historic strongholds, or sent those of itself that were adjudged insane to the hospitable shelter of the asylum upon the hill.
It was afternoon, and Kingsborough was asleep.
Along the verdurous, gray lanes the houses seemed abandoned, shuttered, filled with shade. From the court-house green came the chime of cow-bells rising and falling in slow waves of sound. A spotted calf stood bleating in the crooked footpath, which traversed diagonally the waste of buttercups like a white seam in a cloth of gold. Against the arching sky rose the bell-tower of the grim old church, where the sparrows twittered in the melancholy gables and the startled face of the stationary clock stared blankly above the ivied walls. Farther away, at the end of a wavering lane, slanted the shadow of the insane asylum.
Across the green the houses were set in surrounding gardens like cards in bouquets of mixed blossoms. They were of frame for the most part, with shingled roofs and small, square windows hidden beneath climbing roses. On one of the long verandas a sleeping girl lay in a hammock, a gray cat at her feet. No sound came from the house behind her, but a breeze blew through the dim hall, fluttering the folds of her dress. Beyond the adjoining garden a lady in mourning entered a gate where honeysuckle grew, and above, on the low-dormered roof, a white pigeon sat preening its feathers. Up the main street, where a few sunken bricks of a vanished pavement were still visible, an old negro woman, sitting on the stone before her cabin, lighted her replenished pipe with a taper, and leaned back, smoking, in the doorway, her scarlet handkerchief making a spot of colour on the dull background.
The sun was still high when the judge came out upon his porch, a smile of indecision on his face and his hat in his hand. Pausing upon the topmost step, he cast an uncertain glance sideways at the walk leading past the church, and then looked straight ahead through the avenue of maples, which began at the smaller green facing the ancient site of the governor's palace and skirted the length of the larger one, which took its name from the court-house. At last he descended the steps with his leisurely tread, turning at the gate to throw a remonstrance to an old negro whose black face was framed in the library window.
"Now, Caesar, didn't I—"
"Lord, Marse George, dis yer washed-out blue bowl, wid de little white critters sprawlin' over it, done come ter pieces—"
"Now, Caesar, haven't I told you twenty times to let Delilah wash my Wedgwood?"
"Fo' de Lord, Marse George, I ain't breck hit. I uz des' hol'n it in bofe my han's same es I'se hol'n dis yer broom, w'en it come right ter part. I declar 'twarn my fault, Marse George, 'twarn nobody's fault 'cep'n hit's own."
The judge closed the gate and waved the face from the window.
"Go about your business, Caesar," he said, "and keep your hands off my china—"
Then his tone lost its asperity as he held out his hands to a pretty girl who was coming across the green.
"So you are back from school, Miss Juliet," he said gallantly. "I was telling your mother only yesterday that I didn't approve of sending our fairest products away from Kingsborough. It wasn't done in my day. Then the prettiest girls stayed at home and gave our young fellows a chance."
The girl shook her head until the blue ribbons on her straw hat fluttered in the wind, and blushed until her soft eyes were like forget-me-nots set in rose leaves. She possessed a serene, luminous beauty, which became intensified beneath the gaze of the beholder.
"I have come back for good, now," she answered in a serious sweetness of voice; "and I am out this afternoon looking up my Sunday-school class. The children have scattered sadly. You will let me have Tom again, won't you?"
"Have Tom! Why, you may have him every day and Sunday too—the lucky scamp! Ah, I only wish I were a boy again, with a soul worth saving and such a pair of eyes in search of it."
The girl dimpled into a smile and flushed to her low, white forehead, on which the soft hair was smoothly parted before it broke into sunny curls about the temples. She exhaled an atmosphere of gentleness mixed with a saintly coquetry, which produced an impression at once human and divine, such as one receives from the sight of a rose in a Bible or a curl in the hair of a saint. The judge looked at her warmly, sighing half happily, half regretfully.
"And to think that the young rogues don't realise their blessings," he said. "There's not one of them that wouldn't rather be off fishing than learn his catechism. Ah, in my day things were different—things were different."
"Were you very pious, sir?" asked the girl with a flash of laughter.
The judge shook his stick playfully.
"I can't tell tales," he answered, "but in my day we should have taken more than the catechism at your bidding, my dear. When your father was courting your mother—and she was like you, though she hadn't your eyes, or your face, for that matter—he went into her Bible class, though he was at least five and twenty and the others were small boys under ten. She was a sad flirt, and she led him a dance."
"He liked it," said the girl. "But, if you will give my message to Tom, I won't come in. I am looking for Dudley Webb, and I see his mother at her gate. Good-bye! Be sure and tell Tom to come Sunday."
She nodded brightly, lifted her muslin skirts, and recrossed the street. The judge watched her until the flutter of her white dress vanished down the lane of maples; then he turned to speak to the occupants of a carriage that had drawn up to the sidewalk.
The vehicle was of an old-fashioned make, bare of varnish, with rickety, mud-splashed wheels and rusty springs. It was drawn by an ill-matched pair of horses and driven by a lame coloured boy, who carried a peeled hickory branch for a whip.
"Ah, General Battle," said the judge to a stout gentleman with a red face and an expansive shirt front from which the collar had wilted away; "fine afternoon! Is that Eugenia?" to a little girl of seven or eight years, with a puppy of the pointer breed in her arms, and "How are you, Sampson?" to the coloured driver.
The three greeted him simultaneously, whereupon he leaned forward, resting his hand upon the side of the carriage.
"The young folks are growing up," he said. "I have just seen Juliet Burwell, and, on my life, she gets prettier every day. We shan't keep her long."
"Keep her!" replied the general vigorously, wiping his large face with a large pocket handkerchief. "Keep her! If I were thirty years younger, you shouldn't keep her a day—not a day, sir."
The little girl looked up gravely from the corner of the seat, tossing her short, dark plait from her shoulder. "What would you do with her, papa?" she asked. "We've got no place to put her at home."
The general threw back his great head and laughed till his wide girth shook like a bag of meal.
"Oh, you needn't worry, Eugie," he said. "I'm not the man I used to be. She wouldn't look at me. Bless your heart, she wouldn't look at me if I asked her—"
Eugenia clasped her puppy closer and turned her eyes upon her father's jovial face.
"I don't see how she could help it if you stood in front of her," she answered gravely, in a voice rich with the blending of negro intonations.
The general shook again until the carriage creaked on its rusty springs, and the coloured boy, Sampson, let the reins fall and joined in the hilarity.
"She won't let me so much as look at a girl!" exclaimed the general delightedly, stooping to recover the brown linen lap robe which had slipped from his knees. "She's as jealous as if I were twenty and had a score of sweethearts."
The little girl did not reply, but she flushed angrily. "Don't, precious," she said to the puppy, who was licking her cheek with his warm, red tongue.
"What have you named him, Eugie?" asked the judge, changing the subject with that gracious tact which was mindful of the least emergency. "He is nicely marked, I see."
"I call him Jim," replied Eugenia. She spoke gravely, and the gravity contrasted oddly with the animation of her features. "But his real name is James Burwell Battle. Bernard and I christened him in the spring-house—so he'll go to heaven."
"Cap'n Burwell gave him to her, you know," explained the general, who laughed whenever his daughter spoke, as if the fact of her talking at all was a source of amazement to him, "and she hasn't let go of him since she got him. By the way, Judge, you have a first-rate garden spot. I hear your asparagus is the finest in town. Ours is very poor this year. I must have a new bed made before next season. Ah, what is it, daughter?"
"You've forgotten to buy the sugar," said Eugenia, "and Aunt Chris can't put up her preserves. And you told me to remind you of the whip—"
"Bless your heart, so I did. Sampson lost that whip a month ago, and I've never remembered it yet. Well, good-day—good-day."
The judge raised his hat with a stately inclination; the general nodded good-naturedly, still grasping the linen robe with his plump, red hand; and the carriage jolted along the green and disappeared behind the glazed brick walls of the church.
The judge regarded his walking-stick meditatively for a moment, and continued his way. The smile with which he had followed the vanishing figure of Juliet Burwell returned to his face, and his features softened from their usual chilly serenity.
He had gone but a short distance and was passing the iron gate of the churchyard, when the droning of a voice came to him, and looking beyond the bars, he saw little Nicholas Burr lying at full length upon a marble slab, his head in his hands and his feet waving in the air.
Entering the gate, the judge followed the walk of moss-grown stones leading to the church steps, and paused within hearing of the voice, which went on in an abstracted drawl.
"The most cel-e-bra-ted sys-tem of juris-pru-dence known to the world begins, as it ends, with a code—" He was not reading, for the book was closed. He seemed rather to be repeating over and over again words which had been committed to memory.
"With a code. From the commencement to the close of its history, the ex-posi-tors of Ro-man Law con-sistently em-ployed lan-guage which implied that the body of their sys-tem rested on the twelve De-cem-viral Tables—Dec-em-vi-ral—De-cem-vi-ral Tables."
"Bless my soul!" said the judge. The boy glanced up, blushed, and would have risen, but the judge waved him back.
"No—no, don't get up. I heard you as I was going by. What are you doing?"
"Learning! Dear me! What do you mean by learning?"
"I'm learnin' by heart, sir—and—and, if you don't mind, sir, what does j-u-r-i-s-p-r-u-d-e-n-c-e mean?"
The judge started, returning the boy's eager gaze with one of kindly perplexity.
"Bless my soul!" he said again. "You aren't trying to understand that, are you?"
The boy grew scarlet and his lips trembled. "No, sir," he answered. "I'm jest learnin' it now. I'll know what it means when I'm bigger—"
"And you expect to remember it?" asked the judge.
"I don't never forget," said the boy.
"Bless my soul!" exclaimed the judge for the third time.
For a moment he stood looking silently down upon the marble slab with its defaced lettering. Of the wordy epitaph which had once redounded to the honour of the bones beneath there remained only the words "who departed," but he read these with a long abstracted gaze.
"Let me see," he said at last, speaking with his accustomed dignity. "Did you ever go to school, Nicholas?"
"I went 'most three winters, sir, but I had to leave off on o'count o' pa's not havin' any hand 'cep'n me."
The judge smiled.
"Ah, well," he returned. "We'll see if you can't begin again. My boy has a tutor, you know, and his playmates come to study with him. He's about your age, and it will give you a start. Come in to-morrow at nine, and we'll talk it over. No, don't get up. I am going."
And he passed out of the churchyard, closing the heavy gate with a metallic clang. Nicholas lay on the marble slab, but the book slipped from his hands, and he gazed straight before him at the oriel window, where the ivy was tremulous with the shining bodies and clamorous voices of nesting sparrows. They darted swiftly from gable to gable, filling the air with shrill sounds of discord, and endowing with animation the inanimate pile, wrapping the dead bricks in a living shroud.
On the other side swept the long, colourless grasses, rippling in faint waves like a still lake that reflects the sunshine and swaying lightly beneath myriads of gauzy-winged bees that flashed with a droning noise from blade to blade, to find rest in the yellow hearts of the damask roses. Across the white vaults and the low-lying marble slabs innumerable shadows chased, and from above the gnarled old locust trees swept a fringe of vivid green, the slender blossoms hanging in tassels from the branches' ends, and filling the air with a soft and ceaseless rain of fragrant petals. Pale as the ghosts of dead leaves, they fell always, fluttering night and day from the twisted boughs, settling in creamy flakes upon the bending grasses, and outlining in delicate tracery the epitaphs upon the discoloured marbles.
Nicholas lay with wide-open eyes, looking up at the oriel window where the sparrows twittered. On a near vault a catbird poised for an instant, surveying him with bright, distrustful eyes. Then, with an impetuous flutter of slate-gray wings, it fled to the poisonous oak on the far brick wall. A red-and-white cow, passing along the lane outside, stopped before the closed gate, and stood philosophically chewing the cud as she looked within through impeding bars. From the judge's garden came the faint sound of a negro voice as the old gardener weeded the vegetables. Nicholas rolled over again and faced the outstretched wings of the noseless angel on the nearest tombstone. The loss of the nose had distorted the marble smile into a grimace, which gave a leer to the remaining features. As the boy looked at it he laughed suddenly, and his voice startled him amid the droning of bees. Then he sat up and glanced at his brier-scratched feet stretched upon the slab, and laughed again for the sheer joy of discord.
Nicholas followed the main street to its sudden end at King's College, and turned into one of the diverging ways which skirted the whitewashed plank fence of the college grounds, and led to what was known in the neighbourhood as the Old Stage Road. Passing a straggling group of negro cabins, it stretched, naked, bleached, and barren, for a good half-mile, dividing with its sandy length the low-lying fields, which were sown on the one side in a sparse crop of grain and on the other in the rich leaves and round pink heads of ripening clover. At the end of the half-mile the road ascended a slight elevation, and the character of the soil changed abruptly into clay of vivid red, which, extending a dozen yards up the rain-washed hillside, appeared, in a general view of the landscape, like the scarlet tongue protruding from the silvery body of a serpent.
Far ahead to the right of the highway and beyond the thinly sown wheat a stretch of pine woodland was darkly limned against the western horizon, standing a gloomy advance guard of the shadows of the night. At its foot the newer green of the late spring foliage took a frivolous aspect, presenting the effect of deep-tinted foam breaking against the impenetrable mass of darkness.
The boy trudged resolutely along the sandy road, reaching at intervals to grasp handfuls of sassafras leaves from the bushes beside the way. From the ditch on the left a brown toad hopped slowly into the dust of the road. On the worm-eaten rails of the fence, on the other side, a gray lizard glided swiftly like a stealthy shadow of the leaves of the poisonous oak.
Nicholas picked up a stone from the roadside and aimed it at the slimy little body, but his throw erred, and the missile fell harmlessly into the wheat field beyond, startling a blackbird with scarlet marks, which soared suddenly above the bearded grain and vanished, with a tremulous cry and a flame of outstretched wings, into the distant wood.
The sun had gone down behind the pines and a warm mist steamed up from the cooling earth, condensing into heavy dew on the dusty leaves of the plants in the ditch. Above the lowering pines the horizon burned to a deep scarlet, like an inverted brazier at red heat, and one gigantic tree, rising beyond the jagged line of the forest, was silhouetted sharply against the enkindled clouds. Suddenly, from the shadows of the long road, a voice rose plaintively. It was rich and deep and colourific, and it seemed to hover close to the warmth of the earth, weighed down by its animal melody. It had mingled so subtly with the stillness that it was as much a part of nature as the cry of a whip-poor-will beyond the thicket or the sunset in the pine-guarded west. At first it came faintly, and the words were lost, but as Nicholas gained upon the singer he caught more clearly the air and the song.
"Oh, de Ark hit came ter res' On-de-hill, Oh, de Ark hit came ter res' On-de-hill, En' dar ole Noah stood, En' spread his han's abroad, Er sacri-fice ter-Gawd On-de-hill."
Nicholas quickened his pace into a run and, in a moment, saw the stooping figure of an old negro toiling up the red clay hillside, a staff in his hand and a bag of meal on his shoulder. In the vivid light of the sunset his stature was exaggerated in size, giving him an appearance at once picturesque and pathetic—softening his rugged outline and magnifying the distortion of age.
As he ascended the gradual incline he planted his staff firmly in the soil, shifting his bag from side to side and uttering inaudible grunts in the pauses of his song.
"En' dar, mid flame en smoke, De great Jehovah s-poke. En' awful thunder b-roke, On-de-hill."
"Uncle Ish!" called the boy sharply. The old man lowered the bag from his shoulder and turned slowly round.
"Who dat?" he demanded severely. "Ain't I done tell you dar ain' no ha'nts 'long dis yer road?"
"It's me, Uncle Ish," said the boy. "It's Nick Burr. I heard you singing a long ways off."
"Den what you want ter go a-hollerin' en a-stealin' up on er ole nigger fer des' 'bout sundown?"
"But, Uncle Ish, I didn't mean to scare you. I jest heard—"
"Skeer! Who dat you been skeerin'? Ain't I done tole you dar ain' no ha'nts round dese parts? What I gwine ter be skeered fer uv er little no 'count white trash dat ain' never own er nigger in dere life? Who you done skeer dis time?"
He picked up his bag, slung it over his shoulder and went on his way, the boy trotting beside him. For a time the old man muttered angrily beneath his breath, and then, becoming mollified by the boy's silence, he looked kindly down on the small red head at his elbow.
"You ain't said howdy, honey," he remarked in a fault-finding tone. "Dar ain' no manners dese days, nohow. Dey ain' no manners en dey ain' no nuttin'. De niggers, dey is gwine plum outer dey heads, en de po' white trash dey's gwine plum outer dey places."
He looked at Nicholas, who flinched and hung his head.
"Dar ain' nobody lef to keep 'em ter dey places, no mo'. In Ole Miss' time der wa'nt no traipsin' roun' er niggers en intermixin' up er de quality en de trash. Ole Miss, she des' pint out der place en dey stay dar. She ain' never stomach noner der high-ferlutin' doin's roun' her. She know whar she b'long en she know whar dey b'long. Bless yo' life, Ole Miss wuz dat perticklar she wouldn't drink arter Ole Marster, hisself, 'thout renchin' out de gow'd twel t'wuz mos' bruck off de handle."
He sighed and shifted his bag.
"Ef Ole Miss 'ud been yer thoo' dis las' war, dar wouldn't er been no slue-footed Yankees a-foolin' roun' her parlour. She'd uv up en show'd 'em de do'—"
"Are all Yankees slue-footed, Uncle Ish?"
"All dose I seed, honey—des' es slue-footed. En dar wuz Miss Chris' en ole Miss Grissel a-makin' up ter 'em, en a-layin' out er demselves fer 'em en a-spreadin' uv de table, des' de same es ef dey went straight on dey toes. Dar wan't much sense in dat ar war, nohow, an' I ain' never knowed yit what 'twuz dey fit about. Hit wuz des' a-hidin' en a-teckin' ter de bushes, en a-hidin' agin, en den a-feastin', en a-curtsin' ter de Yankees. Dar wan't no sense in it, no ways hits put, but Ise heered Marse Tom 'low hit wuz a civil war, en dat's what it wuz. When de Yankees come a-ridin' up en a-reinin' in dere hosses befo' de front po'ch, en Miss Chris come out a-smilin' en a-axin' howdy, en den dey stan' dar a-bowin' en a-scrapin', hit wuz des' es civil es ef dey'd come a-co'tin'. But Ole Miss wuz dead en buried, she wuz."
Nicholas shook his head without speaking. There was a shade of consolation in the thought that the awful "Ole Miss" was below the earth and beyond the possibility of pointing out his place.
The brazier in the west snapped asunder suddenly, and a single forked flame shot above the jagged pines and went out in the dove-coloured clouds. In a huge oak beyond the rail fence there was a harsh rustling of wings where a flock of buzzards settled to roost.
"Yes, Lord, she wuz dead en buried," repeated Uncle Ish slowly. "En dar ain' none like her lef' roun' yer now. Dis yer little Euginny is des' de spit er her ma, en it 'ud mek Ole Miss tu'n in her grave ter hear tell 'bout her gwines on. De quality en de po' folks is all de same ter her. She ain' no mo' un inspecter er pussons den de Lord is—ef Ole Miss wuz 'live, I reckon she'd lam 'er twel she wuz black en blue—"
"Is she so very bad?" asked Nicholas in an awed voice.
Uncle Ish turned upon him reprovingly.
"Bad!" he repeated. "Who gwine call Ole Miss' gran'chile bad? I don't reckon it's dese yer new come folks es hev des' sprouted outer de dut es is gwine ter—"
At this instant the sound of a vehicle reached them, gaining upon them from the direction of Kingsborough, and they fell to one side of the road, leaving room for the horses to pass. It was the Battle carriage, rolling heavily on its aged wheels and creaking beneath the general's weight.
"Howdy, Marse Tom!" called Uncle Ishmael. The general responded good-naturedly, and the carriage passed on, but, before turning into the branch road a few yards ahead, it came to a standstill, and the bright, decisive voice of the little girl floated back.
"Uncle Ish—I say, Uncle Ish, don't you want to ride?"
"Dar, now!" cried Uncle Ishmael exultantly. "Ain't I tell you she wuz plum crazy? What she doin' a-peckin' up en ole nigger like I is?"
He hastened his steps and scrambled into the seat beside the driver, settling his bag between his knees; and, with a flick of the peeled hickory whip, the carriage rolled into the branch road and disappeared, scattering a whirl of mud drops as it splashed through the shallow puddles which lingered in the dryest season beneath the heavy shade of the wood.
Nicholas turned into the branch road also, for the poor lands of his father adjoined the slightly richer ones of the Battles. He felt tired and a little lonely, and he wished suddenly that a friendly cart would come along in which he might ride the remainder of the way. Between the densely wooded thicket on either side, the road looked dark and solemn. It was spread with a rotting carpet of last year's leaves, soft and damp under foot, and polished into shining tracks in the ruts left by passing wheels. Through the dusk the ghostly bodies of beech trees stood out distinctly from the surrounding wood, as if marked by a silver light falling from the topmost branches. The hoarse, grating notes of jar-flies intensified the stillness.
Nicholas went on steadily, spurred by superstitious terror of the silence. He remembered that Uncle Ish had said there were no "ha'nts" along this road, but the assurance was barren of comfort. Old Uncle Dan'l Mule had certainly seen a figure in a white sheet rise up out of that decayed oak stump in the hollow, for he had sworn to it in the boy's presence in Aunt Rhody Sand's cabin the night of her daughter Viny's wedding. As for Viny's husband Saul, he had declared that one night after ten o'clock, when he was coming through this wood, the "booger-boos" had got after him and chased him home.
At the end of the wood the road came out upon the open again, and in the distance Nicholas could see, like burnished squares, the windows of his father's house. Between the thicket and the house there was a long stretch of clearing, which had been once planted in corn, and now supported a headless army of dry stubble, amid a dull-brown waste of broomsedge. The last pale vestige of the afterglow, visible across the level country, swept the arid field and softened the harsh outlines of the landscape. It was barren soil, whose strength had been exhausted long since by years of production without returns, tilled by hands that had forced without fertilising. There was now grim pathos in its absolute sterility, telling as it did of long-gone yields of grain and historic harvests.
Nicholas skirted the waste, and was turning into the pasture gate on the opposite side of the road, when he heard the shrill sound of a voice from the direction of the house.
On one of the cedar posts of the fence of the cow-pen he discerned the small figure and green cotton frock of his half-sister, Sarah Jane, who was shouting through her hollowed palms to increase the volume of sound.
"I say, Nick! The she-ep hev' been driv-en u-p! Come to sup-per!"
She vanished from the post and Nicholas ran up the remainder of the road and swung himself over the little gate which led into the small square yard immediately surrounding the house. At the pump near the back door his father, who had just come from work, was washing his hands before going into supper, and near a row of pointed chicken coops the three younger children were "shooing" up the tiny yellow broods. The yard was unkempt and ugly, run wild in straggling ailanthus shoots and littered with chips from the wood-pile.
As he entered the house he saw his stepmother placing a dish of fried bacon upon the table, which was covered with a "watered" oilcloth of a bright walnut tint. At her back stood Sarah Jane with a plate of corn bread in one hand and a glass pitcher containing buttermilk in the other. She was a slight, flaxen-haired child, with wizened features and sore, red eyelids.
As his stepmother caught sight of him she stopped on her way to the stove and surveyed him with sharp but not unkindly eyes.
"You've been takin' your time 'bout comin' home," she remarked, "an' I reckon you're powerful hungry. You can sit down if you want to."
She was long and lean and withered, with a chronic facial neuralgia, which gave her an irritable expression and a querulous voice. For the past several years Nicholas had never seen her without a large cotton handkerchief bound tightly about her face. She had been the boy's aunt before she married his father, and her affection for him was proved by her allowing no one to harry him except herself.
"How's your face, ma?" asked Nicholas with the indifference of habit as he took his seat at the table, while Sarah Jane went to the door to call her father. When Burr came in the inquiry was repeated.
"Face any easier, Marthy?" It was a form that had been gone through with at every meal since the malady began, and Marthy Burr, while she deplored its insincerity, would have resented its omission.
"Don't you all trouble 'bout my neuralgy," she returned with resigned exasperation as she stood up to pour the coffee out of the large tin boiler. "It's mine, an' I've borne worse things, I reckon, which ain't sayin' that 'tain't near to takin' my head off."
Amos Burr drank his coffee without replying, the perspiration standing in drops on his large, freckled face and shining on his heavy eyebrows. Presently he looked at Nicholas, who was eating abstractedly, his gaze on his plate.
"I got that thar piece of land broke to-day," he said, "an' I reckon you can take the one-horse harrow and go over it to-morrow. Them peanuts ought to hev' been in the ground two weeks ago—"
"They ain't hulled yet," interrupted his wife. "Sairy Jane ain't done more'n half of 'em. She and Nick can do the balance after supper. Hurry up, Sairy Jane, and get through. Nannie, don't you touch another slice of that middlin'. You'll be frettin' all night."
Nicholas looked up nervously. "I don't want to harrow the land to-morrow, pa," he began; "the judge said I might come in to school—"
Amos Burr looked at him helplessly. "Wall, I never!" he exclaimed.
"Did you ever hear the likes?" said his wife.
"I can go, pa, can't I?" asked Nicholas.
"He can go, pa, can't he?" repeated Sarah Jane, looking up with her mouth wide open and full of corn bread.
Burr shook his head and looked at his wife.
"I don't see as I can get any help," he said. "You're as good as a hand, and I can't spare you." Then he concluded with a touch of irritation, "I don't see as you want any more schoolin'. You can read and write now a heap better'n I can."
Nicholas choked over his bread and his lips trembled.
"I—I don't want to be like you, pa!" he cried breathlessly, and the unshed tears stung his eyelids. "I want to be different!"
Burr looked up stolidly. "I don't see as you want any more schoolin'," he repeated stubbornly, but his wife came sharply to the boy's assistance.
"I wish you'd stop pesterin' the child, Amos," she said, inspired less by the softness of amiability than by the genius of opposition. "I don't see how you can be everlastingly doin' it—my dead sister's child, too."
Nicholas swallowed his tears with his coffee and turned to his father. "I can get up 'fore day and do a piece of the land, and I can help you 'bout the sowin' when I get back in the evening. I'll be back by twelve—"
"Oh, I reckon you can go if you're so set on it," said Amos gruffly. He rose and left the room, stopping in the hall to get a bucket of buttermilk for the hogs. Nicholas went over to the window and joined Sarah Jane, who was shelling the peanuts, carefully separating the outer hulls from the inner pink skins, which were left intact for sowing. Marthy Burr, who was clearing off the table, let fall a china dish and began scolding the younger children.
"I declare, if you don't all but drive me daft!" she said, flinching from a twinge of neuralgia and raising her voice querulously. "Why can't you take yourselves off and give me some rest? Nannie, you and Jake go out to the old oak and see if all the turkeys air up. Be sure and count 'em—and take Jubal (the youngest) 'long with you. If you see your pa tell him I say to look at the brindle cow. She acted mighty queer at milkin', and I reckon she'd better have a little bran mash—Sairy Jane," turning suddenly upon her eldest daughter, "if you eat another one of them peanuts I'll box your jaws—"
Nicholas finished the peanuts and went upstairs to his little attic room. He was not sleepy, and, after throwing himself upon his corn-shuck mattress, he lay for a long time staring at the ceiling, thinking of the morrow and listening to the groans of his stepmother as she tossed with neuralgia.
In the first glimmer of dawn Nicholas dressed himself and stole softly down from the attic, the frail stairway creaking beneath his tread. As he was unfastening the kitchen door, which led out upon a rough plank platform called the "back porch," Marthy Burr stuck her head in from the adjoining room where she slept, and called his name in a high-pitched, querulous voice.
"Is that you, Nick?" she asked. "I declar, I'd jest dropped off to sleep when you woke me comin' down stairs. I never could abide tip-toein', nohow. I don't see how 'tis that I can't get no rest 'thout bein' roused up, when your pa can turn right over and sleep through thunder. Whar you goin' now?"
Nicholas stopped and held a whispered colloquy with her from the back porch. "I'm goin' to drag the land some 'fore pa gets up," he answered. "Then I'm goin' in to town. You know he said I might."
His stepmother shook her bandaged head peevishly and stood holding the collar of her unbleached cotton gown.
"Oh, I reckon so," she responded. "I was think-in' 'bout goin' in myself and hevin' my tooth out, but I s'pose I can wait on you. The Lord knows I'm used to waitin'."
Nicholas looked at her in perplexity, his arm resting on the little shelf outside, which supported the wooden water bucket and the long-handled gourd.
"You can go when I come back," he said at last, adding with an effort, "or, if it's so bad, I can stay at home."
But, having asserted her supremacy over his inclinations, Marthy Burr relented. "Oh, I don't know as I'll go in to-day," she returned. "I ain't got enough teeth left now to chew on, an' I don't believe it's the teeth, nohow. It's the gums—"
She retreated into the room, whence the shrill voice of Sairy Jane inquired:
"Air you up, ma? Why, 'tain't day!"
Nicholas closed the door and went out upon the porch. The yard looked deserted and desolated, giving him a sudden realisation of his own littleness and the immensity of the hour. It was as if the wheels of time had stopped in the dim promise of things unfulfilled. A broken scythe lay to one side amid the straggling ailanthus shoots; near the wood-pile there was a wheelbarrow half filled with chips, and at a little distance the axe was poised upon a rotten log. From the small coops beside the hen-house came an anxious clucking as the fluffy yellow chickens strayed beneath the uneven edges of their pointed prisons and made independent excursions into the world.
In the far east the day was slowly breaking, and the open country was flooded with pale, washed-out grays, like the background of an impressionist painting. A heavy dew had risen in the night, and as the boy passed through the dripping weeds on his way to the stable they left a chill moisture upon his bare feet. His eyes were heavy with sleep, and to his cloudy gaze the familiar objects of the barnyard assumed grotesque and distorted shapes. The manure heap near the doorway presented an effect of unreality, the pig-pen seemed to have suffered witchery since the evening before, and the haystack, looming vaguely in the drab distance, appeared to be woven of some phantasmal fabric.
He led out the old sorrel mare and followed her into the large ploughed field beyond the cow-pen, where the harrow was lying on one side of the brown ridges. As he passed the pen the startled sheep huddled into a far corner, bleating plaintively, and the brindle cow looked after him with soft, persuasive eyes. When he had attached the clanking chains of the plough harness to the single-tree, he caught up the ropes which served for reins and set out laboriously over the crumbling earth, which yielded beneath his feet and made walking difficult.
The field extended from the cow-pen and the bright, green rows of vegetables that were raised for market to the reedy brook which divided his father's land from that belonging to General Battle. The brook was always cool and shady, and silvery with minnows darting over the shining pebbles beneath the clear water. As Nicholas looked across the neutral furrows he could see the feathery branches of willows rising from the gray mist, and, farther still up the sloping hillside, the dew-drenched green of the mixed woodlands.
The land before him had been upturned by shallow ploughing some days since, and it lay now pale and arid, the large clods of earth showing the detached roots of grass and herbs, and presenting a hint of menacing destruction rather than the prospect of the peaceful art of cultivation. It was the boy's duty to drag the soil free from grass, after which it would be laid out into rows some three feet apart. When this was done two furrows would be thrown together to give what the farmers called a "rise," the point of which would be finally levelled, when the ground would be ready for the peanut-sowing, which was performed entirely by hand.
The boy worked industriously through the deepening dawn, giving an occasional "gee up, Rhody!" to the mare, and following the track of the harrow with much the same concentration of purpose as that displayed by his four-footed friend. He was strong for his years, lithe as a sapling, and as fearless of elemental changes, and as he walked meditatively across the bare field he might have suggested to an onlooker the possible production of a vast fund of energy.
Presently the gray light was shot with gold and a streak of orange fluttered like a ribbon in the east. In a moment a violet cloud floated above the distant hill, and as its ends curled up from the quickening heat it showed the splendour of a crimson lining. A single ray of sunshine, pale as a spectral finger, pointed past the woodlands to the brook beneath the willows, and the vague blur of the mixed forest warmed into vivid tints, changing through variations from the clear emerald of young maples to the olive dusk of evergreens.
Last of all the ploughed field, which had preserved a neutral cast, blushed faintly in the sunrise, glowing to pale purple tones where the sod was newly turned. From the fugitive richness of the soil a warm breath rose suddenly, filling the air with the genial odour of earth and sunshine. The shining, dark coils of worms were visible like threads in the bright brown clods.
Nicholas raised his head and stared with unseeing eyes at the gorgeous east. A rooster crowed shrilly, and he turned in the direction of the barnyard. Then he flicked the ropes gently and went on, his gaze on the ground. His thoughts, which at first were fixed solely upon the teeth of the harrow, took tumultuous flight, and he reviewed for the hundredth time his conversation with the judge and the vast avenue of the future which was opening before him. He would not be like his father, of this he was convinced—his father, who was always working with nothing to show for it—whose planting was never on time, and whose implements were never in place. His father had never had this gnawing desire to know things, this passionate hatred of the work which he might not neglect. His father had never tried to beat against the barriers of his ignorance and been driven back, and beat again and wept, and read what he couldn't understand. The teacher at the public school had told him that he was far ahead of his years, and yet they had taken him away when he was doing his level best, and put him to dragging the land, and gathering the peanuts, and carrying the truck to market, and marking the sheep with red paint, and bringing up the cows, and doing all the odd, innumerable jobs they could devise. He let the ropes fall for an instant and dug his fist into his eye; then he took them up again and went on stolidly. At last the sun came out boldly above the hill, and the hollows were flooded with light. In the centre of the field the boy's head glowed like some large red insect. A hawk, winging slowly above him, looked down as if uncertain of his species, and fluttered off indifferently.
At six o'clock his stepmother came to the back door and called him to breakfast.
When the meal was over Amos Burr went out to the field, and Nicholas was sent to drive the sheep to the pasture. With vigorous wavings of a piece of brushwood, and many darts from right to left, he succeeded finally in driving them across the road and through the gate on the opposite side, after which he returned to assist his stepmother about the house. Not until nine o'clock, when he had seen the Battle children going up the road, was he free to set off at a run for Kingsborough.
As he sped breathlessly along, past the wastelands, into the woods, down the road to the hillside, and down the hillside to the road again, he went too rapidly for thought. The fresh air brushed his heated face gently, and, at the edge of the wood, where the shallow puddles lingered, myriads of blue and yellow butterflies scattered into variegated clumps of colour at his approach, darting from the moist heaps of last year's leaves to the shining rivulets in the wheel ruts by the way. A partridge whistled from the yellowing green of the wheat, and a rabbit stole noiselessly from the sassafras in the ditch and shot shy glances of alarm; but he did not turn his head, and his hand held no ready stone.
Though he had run half the way, when at last he reached the judge's house, and stood before the little office in the garden where the school was held, his courage misgave him, and he leaned, trembling, against the arbour where a grapevine grew. The sound of voices floated out to him, mingled with bright, girlish laughter, and, looking through the open window, he saw the light curls of a little girl against the darker head of a boy. He choked suddenly with shyness, and would have hesitated there until the morning was over had not the judge's old servant, Caesar, espied him from the dining-room window.
"Look yer, boy, what you doin' dar?" he demanded suspiciously, and then called to some one inside the house. "Marse George, dat ar Burr boy is a-loungin' roun' yo' yawd."
The judge did not respond, but the tutor came to the door of the office and intercepted the boy's retreat. He was a pale, long-faced young man in spectacles, with weak, blue eyes and a short, thin moustache. His name was Graves, and he regarded what he called the judge's "quixotism" with condescending good-nature.
"Is that you, Nicholas Burr?" he asked in a slightly supercilious voice. "The judge has told me about you. So you won't be a farmer, eh? And you won't stay in your class? Well, come in and we'll see what we can make of you."
Nicholas followed him into the room and sat down at one of the pine desks, while the judge's son, Tom, nodded to him from across the room, and Bernard Battle grinned over his shoulder at his sister Eugenia, and a handsome boy, called Dudley Webb, made a face which convulsed little Sally Burwell, who hid her merriment in her curls. There were several other children in the room, but Nicholas did not see them distinctly. Something had got before his eyes and there was a lump in his throat. He sat rigidly in his seat, his straw hat, with the shoestring around the crown, lying upon the desk before him. He looked neither to the right nor to the left, keeping his frightened gaze upon the tutor's face.
Mr. Graves asked him a few questions, which he could not answer, and then, giving him a book, turned to the other children. As the lessons went on it seemed to Nicholas that he had never known anything in his life; that he should never know anything; and that he should always remain the most ignorant person on earth—unless that lot fell to Sairy Jane.
The difficulties besetting the path of knowledge appeared to be insurmountable. Even if he had the books and the time he could never learn anything—his head would prevent it.
"Bound Beloochistan, Tom," said the tutor, and Tom, a stout, fair-haired boy with a heavy face, went through the process to the satisfaction of Mr. Graves and to the amazement of Nicholas.
The office was a plain, square room, containing, besides the desks and tables, an old secretary and a corner cupboard of an antique pattern, which held an odd assortment of cracked china and chemist bottles. There was also a square mahogany chest, called the wine-cellar, which had been sent from the dining-room when the last bottle of Tokay was opened to drink the health of the Confederacy.
Before the war the place had been used by the judge as a general business room, but when the slaves were freed and there were fewer servants it was found to be little needed, and was finally given over entirely to the children's school.
When recess came the tutor left the office, telling Nicholas that he might go home with the little girls if he liked. "I shall try to have the books you need by to-morrow," he said, and, his natural amiability overcoming his assumed superciliousness, he added pleasantly:
"I shouldn't mind being backward at first. The boys are older than you, but you'll soon catch up."
He went out, and Nicholas had started towards the door, when Tom Bassett flung himself before him, swinging skilfully over an intervening table.
"Hold up, carrot-head," he said. "Let's have a look at you. Are all heads afire where you come from?"
"He's Amos Burr's boy," explained Bernard Battle with a grin. "He lives 'long our road. I saw him hoeing potatoes day before yesterday. He's got freckles enough to tan a sheepskin!"
In the midst of the laugh which followed Nicholas stood awkwardly, shifting his bare feet. His face was scarlet, and he fingered in desperation the ragged brim of his hat.
"I reckon they're my freckles," he said doggedly.
"And I reckon you can keep 'em," retorted Bernard, mimicking his tone. "We ain't going to steal 'em. I say, Eugie, here're some freckles for sale!"
The dark little girl, who was putting up her books in one corner, looked up and shook her head.
"Let me alone!" she replied shortly, and returned to her work, tugging at the straps with both hands. Dudley Webb—a handsome, upright boy, well dressed in a dark suit and linen shirt—lounged over as he munched a sandwich.
He looked at Nicholas from head to foot, and his gaze was returned with stolid defiance. Nicholas did not flinch, but for the first time he felt ashamed of his ugliness, of his coarse clothes, of his briar-scratched legs, of his freckles, and of the unalterable colour of his hair. He wished with all his heart that he were safely in the field with his father, driving the one-horse harrow across upturned furrows. He didn't want to learn anything any more. He wanted only to get away.
"He's common," said Dudley at last, throwing a crust of bread through the open window. "He's as common as—as dirt. I heard mother say so—"
"Father says he's uncommon," returned Tom doubtfully, turning his honest eyes on Nicholas again. "He told Mr. Graves that he was a most uncommon boy."
"Oh, well, you can play with him if you like," rejoined Dudley resolutely, "but I shan't. He's old Amos Burr's son, anyway, who never wore a whole shirt in his life."
"He had on one yesterday," said Bernard Battle impartially. "I saw it. It was just made and hadn't been washed."
Nicholas looked up stubbornly. "You let my father alone!" he exclaimed, spurred by the desire to resent something and finding it easier to fight for another than himself. "You let my father alone, or I'll make you!"
"I'd like to see you!" retorted Dudley wrathfully, and Nicholas had squared up for the first blow, when before his swimming gaze a defender intervened.
"You jest let him alone!" cried a voice, and the flutter of a blue cotton skirt divided Dudley from his adversary. "You jest let him alone. If you call him common I'll hit you, an'—an' you can't hit me back!"
"Eugie, you ought to be—" began Bernard, but she pushed the combatants aside with decisive thrusts of her sunburned little hand, and planted herself upon the threshold, her large, black eyes glowing like shaded lamps.
"He wan't doin' nothin' to you, and you jest let him be. He's goin' to tote my books home, an' you shan't touch him. I reckon I know what's common as well as you do—an' he ain't—he ain't common."
Then she caught Nicholas's arm and marched off like a dispensing providence with a vassal in tow. Nicholas followed obediently. He was sufficiently cowed into non-resistance, and he felt a wholesome awe of his defender, albeit he wished that it had been a boy like himself instead of a slip of a girl with short skirts and a sunbonnet. At the bottom of his heart there existed an instinctive contempt of the sex which Eugenia represented, developed by the fact that it was not force but weakness that had vanquished his victorious opponent. Dudley Webb was a gentleman, and only a bully would strike a girl, even if she were a spitfire—the term by which he characterised Eugenia. He remembered suddenly her exultant, "an' you can't hit me back!" and it seemed to him that, even in the righteous cause of his deliverance, she had taken an unfair and feminine advantage of the handsome boy for whom he cherished a shrinking admiration.
As for Eugenia herself, she was troubled by no such misgivings. She walked slightly in front of him, her blue skirt swinging briskly from side to side, her white sunbonnet hanging by its strings from her shoulders. Above the starched ruffles rose her small dark head and white profile, and Nicholas could see the determined curve of her chin and the humorous tremor of her nostril. It was a vivid little face, devoid of colour except for the warm mouth, and sparkling with animation which burned steadily at the white heat of intensity—but to Nicholas she was only a plain, dark, little girl, with an unhealthy pallor of complexion. He was grateful, nevertheless, and when his first regret that she was not a boy was over he experienced a thrill of affection. It was the first time that any one had deliberately taken his part in the face of opposing odds, and the stand seemed to bring him closer to his companion. He held her books tightly, and his face softened as he looked at her, until it was transfigured by the warmth of his emotion. Then, as they passed the college grounds, where a knot of students greeted Eugenia hilariously, and turned upon the Old Stage Road, he reached out timidly to take the small hand hanging by her side.
"It's better walkin' on this side the road," he said with a mild assumption of masculine supremacy. "I wouldn't walk in the dust."
Eugenia looked at him gravely and drew her hand away.
"You mustn't do that," she responded severely. "When I said you weren't common I didn't mean that you really weren't, you know; because, of course, you are. I jest meant that I wouldn't let them say so."
Nicholas stood in the centre of the road and stared at her, his face flushing and a slow rage creeping into his eyes.
For a moment he stood in trembling silence. Then he threw the books from him into the sand at her feet, and with a choking sob sped past her to vanish amid a whirl of dust in the sunny distance.
Eugenia looked thoughtfully down upon her scattered possessions. She was all alone upon the highway, and around her the open fields rolled off into the green of far-off forests. The sunshine fell hotly over her, and straight ahead the white road lay like a living thing.
She stooped, gravely gathered up the books, and walked resolutely on her way, a cloud of yellow butterflies fluttering like loosened petals of full-blown buttercups about her head.
Battie Hall was a square white frame house with bright-green window shutters and a deep front porch, supported by heavy pillars, and reached from the gravelled walk below by a flight of rugged stone steps. In the rear of the house, through which a wide hall ran, dividing the rooms of the first floor, there was another porch similar to the one at the front, except that the pillars were hidden in musk roses and the long benches at either side were of plain, unpainted pine. At the foot of the back steps a narrow, well-trodden path led to the vegetable garden, which was separated from the yard by what was called "Cattle Lane"—a name derived from the morning and evening passage of the cows on their way to and from the pasture.
Beginning at the gate into the garden, where the tall white palings were gay with hollyhocks and heavy-headed sunflowers, a grapevine trellis extended to the farmyard at the end of the lane, whence an overgrown walk led across tangled meadows to the negro "quarters"—a long, whitewashed row of almost deserted cabins. Since the close of the war the "quarters" had fallen partly into disuse and had decayed rapidly, though some few were still tenanted by the former slaves, who gathered as of old in the doorways of an evening to strum upon broken-stringed banjos and to wrap the hair of their small offspring. Beyond this row there was a slight elevation called "Hickory Hill," where Uncle Ishmael had lived for more than seventy years; and at the foot of the hill, on the other side, near "Sweet Gum Spring," there were several neatly patched log cabins occupied by the house servants, who held in social contempt the field hands in the neighbouring "quarters." Overlooking the "Sweet Gum Spring," on a loftier hill, was the family graveyard, which was walled off from the orchard near by, where the twisted old fruit trees had long since yielded the larger part of their abundance.
At the front of the Hall the view was vastly different. There the great blue-grass lawn was thickly studded with ancient elms and maples, whose shade fell like a blanket upon the velvety sod beneath. The gravelled walk, beginning at the front steps, was bordered on either side by rows of closely clipped box, which ended in the long avenue of cedars leading from the lawn to the distant turnpike. To the right of the house there were three pointed aspens, which shivered like skeletons in silver, holding grimly aloof from the vivid pink of the crepe myrtle at their feet. Beyond them was the well-house, with a long moss-grown trough where the horses and the cows came to drink, and across the road began the cornlands, which stretched in rhythmic undulations to the dark belt of the pine forest. On the left of the box walk, in a direct line from the three aspens, towered a huge sycamore, and from one of its protecting arms, shaded by large fan-like leaves, a child's swing dangled by a thick hemp rope. Near the sycamore, where an old oak had fallen, the rotting stump was hidden by a high "rockery," edged with conch shells, and over the rough gray rocks a tangle of garden flowers ran wild—sweet-william, petunias, phlox, and the mossy stems of red and yellow portulaca. On the western side of the house there was a spreading mimosa tree, its sensitive branches brushing the green shutters of a window in the second story.
The Hall had been built by the general's father when, because of family dissensions, he had decided to move from a central county to the more thinly settled country surrounding Kingsborough. There the general had passed his boyhood, and there he had left his wife when he had gone to the war. At the beginning of the struggle he had freed his slaves and buckled on his sword.
"They may have the negroes, and welcome," he had said to the judge. "Do you think I'd fight for a damned darkey? It's the principle, sir—the principle!"
And the judge, who had not freed his servants, but who would as soon have thought of using a profane word as of alluding in disrespectful terms to a family portrait, had replied gravely:
"My dear Tom, you will find principle much better to fight for than to live on."
But the general had gone with much valour and more vehemence. He had enlisted as a private, had risen within a couple of years to a colonelcy, and had been raised to the rank of general by the unanimous voice of his neighbours upon his return home. After an enthusiastic reception at Kingsborough he had mounted a heavy-weight horse and ridden out to the Hall, to find the grounds a tangle of weeds and his wife with the pallor of death upon her brow. She had rallied at his coming, had lingered some sad years an invalid in the great room next the parlour, and had died quietly at last as she knelt in prayer beside her high white bed.
For days after this the empty house was like a coffin. The children ran in tears through the shuttered rooms, and the servants lost their lingering shred of discipline. When the funeral was over, the general made some spasmodic show of authority, but his heart was not in it, and he wavered for lack of the sustaining hold of his wife's frail hand. He dismissed the overseer and undertook to some extent the management of the farm, but the crops failed and the hay rotted in the fields before it was got into the barn. Then, as things were galloping from bad to worse, a letter came from his sister, Miss Christina, and in a few days she arrived with a cartload of luggage and a Maltese cat in a wicker basket. From the moment when she stepped out of the carriage at the end of the avenue and ascended the box-trimmed walk to the stone steps, the difficulties disentangled and the domestic problems dwindled into the simplest of arithmetical sums. By some subtle law of the influence of the energetic she assumed at once the rights of authority. From the master of the house to the field hands in the "quarters," all bent to her regenerating rule. She opened the windows in the airy rooms, cleaned off the storeroom shelves with soda and water, and put the marauding small negroes to weeding the lawn. Before her passionate purification the place was purged of the dust of years. The hardwood floors of the wide old halls began to shine like mirrors, the assortment of odds and ends in the attic was relegated to an outhouse, and even the general's aunt, Miss Griselda Grigsby, was turned unceremoniously out of her apartment before the all-pervading soap-suds of cleaning day.
As for the servants, a sudden miraculous zeal possessed them. Within a fortnight the garden rows were hoed free from grass, the hops were gathered from the fence, and the weeds on the lawn vanished beneath small black fingers. Even the annual threshing of the harvest was accomplished under the overseeing eye of "Miss Chris," as she was called by the coloured population. During the week that the old machine poured out its chaffless wheat and the driver whistled in the centre of the treadmill Miss Chris appeared at the barn at noon each day to warn the hands against waste of time and to see that the mules were well watered.
But the revolutions without were as naught to the internal ones. Aunt Verbeny, the cook, whose tyranny had extended over thirty years, was assisted from her pedestal, and the hen-house keys were removed from the nail of the kitchen wall.
"This will never do, Verbeny," said Miss Chris a month after her arrival. "We could not possibly have eaten three dozen chickens within the last week. I am afraid you take them home without asking me."
Aunt Verbeny, a fat old woman with a shining black skin, smoothed her checked apron with offended dignity.
"Hi! Miss Chris, ain't I de cook?" she exclaimed.
But Miss Chris preserved her ground.
"That is no excuse for you taking what doesn't belong to you," she replied severely. "If this keeps up I shall be obliged to let Delphy do the cooking. There won't be a chicken in the hen-house by the end of the month."
Aunt Verbeny still smoothed her apron, but her authority was shaken, and she felt it. She gave a slow grunt of dissatisfaction.
"Dese ain't de doin's I'se used ter," she protested, and then, beneath the undaunted eyes of Miss Chris, she melted into propitiation.
"Des' let dat ar chicken alont, Miss Chris," she said, skilfully reducing the charge to a single offence. "Des' let dat ar chicken alont. 'Tain' no use yo' rilin' yo'se'f 'bout dat. Hit's done en it's been done. Hit don't becomst de quality ter fluster demse'ves over de gwines on uv er low-lifeted fowl. You des' bresh yo'se'f down an steddy like hit ain' been fool you ef you knowed yo'se'f. You des' let dat ar chicken be er little act uv erdultery betweenst you en me. Ef'n it's gone, hit'll stay gone!"
Whereupon Miss Chris retreated, leaving her opponent in possession of the kitchen floor.
But from this day forth the hen-house was locked at night and unlocked in the morning by the hand of Miss Chris, and Aunt Verbeny's overweening ill-temper diminished with her authority.
Miss Chris had been a beauty in her day, but as she passed middle age the family failing seized upon her, and she grew huge and unwieldy, the disproportion of her enormous figure to her small feet giving her an awkward, waddling walk.
She had a profusion of silvery-white hair, worn in fluffy curls about her large pink face, soft brown eyes, and a full double chin that fell over a round cameo brooch bearing the head of Minerva set in a plain gold band. In winter she wore gowns of black Henrietta cloth, made with plain bodices and full plaited skirts; in summer she wore the same skirts with loosely fitting white linen sacques, trimmed in delicate embroideries, with muslin ruffles falling over her plump hands. When she came to the Hall she brought with her innumerable reminiscences of her childhood, which she told in a musical voice with girlish laughter.
After his sister's arrival the general discontinued his fitful overseering. He rose early and spent his long days sitting upon the front porch, smoking an old briar pipe and reading the Richmond papers. Occasionally he would ride at a jogging pace round the fields, giving casual directions to the workers, but as his weight increased he found it difficult to mount into the saddle, and, at last, desisted from the attempt. He preferred to sit in peace in his cane rocking chair, looking down the box walk into the twilight of the cedar avenue, or gazing placidly beyond the aspens and the well-house to the streaked ribbons of the ripening corn. It was said that he had never been the same man since the death of his wife. Certainly he laughed as heartily and his jovial face had taken a ruddier tint, but there was a superficiality in his exuberant cheerfulness which told that it was not well rooted below the surface. His jokes were as ready as ever, but he had fallen into an absent-minded habit of repetition, and sometimes repeated the same stories at breakfast and supper. He talked freely of his dead wife, he even made ill-placed jests about his widowerhood, and he never failed to kiss a pair of red lips when the chance offered; but, for all that, his gaze often wandered past the huge sycamore to the family graveyard, where rank periwinkle grew and mocking-birds nested. Through the long summer not a Sunday passed that he did not take fresh flowers to one of the neatly trimmed mounds where the marble headpiece read:
BELOVED WIFE OF
DIED APRIL 3RD., 18—.
'I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord.'"
Sometimes the children were with him, but usually he went alone, and once or twice he returned with red eyelids and asked for a julep.
There was little to fill his life now, and he divided it between Bernard and Eugenia, whom he adored, and the negroes, whom he reviled for diversion and spoiled to make amends.
"They will break me!" he would declare a dozen times a day. "They will turn me out of house and home. Here's old Sambo's Claudius come back and moved into the quarters. He hasn't a cent to his name, and he's the most no 'count scamp on earth. It's worse than before the war—upon my soul it is! Then they lived on me and I got an odd piece of work out of them. Now they live on me and don't do a damned lick!"
"My dear Tom!" Miss Chris cheerfully remonstrated. She had long been reconciled to her brother's swearing propensities, which she regarded as an amiable eccentricity to be overlooked by a special indulgence accorded the male sex, but she never knew just how to meet him in a discussion of the servants.
"What is to be done about it?" she inquired gravely. "Claudius left here at the beginning of the war, Aunt Griselda says, and he has never been back until now. It seems he has brought his family. He has lung-trouble."
"Done about it!" repeated the general heatedly. "What's to be done about it? Why, the rascal can't starve. I've just told Sampson to wheel him down a barrel of meal. Oh, they'll break me! I shan't have a morsel left!"
The next time it was an opposite grievance.
"What do you reckon's happened now?" he asked, marching into the brick storeroom, where his sister was slicing ripe, red tomatoes into a blue china bowl. "What do you think that fool Ish has done?"
Miss Chris looked up attentively, her large, fresh-coloured face expressing mild apprehension. She had rolled back her linen sleeves, and the juice of the tomatoes stained her full, dimpled wrists.
"He hasn't killed himself?" she inquired anxiously.
"Killed himself?" roared the general. "He'll live forever. I don't believe he'd die if he were strung up with a halter round his neck. He's moved off."
"Moved off!" echoed Miss Chris faintly. "Why, I believe Uncle Ish was living in that cabin on Hickory Hill before I was born. I remember going up there to help him gather hickory nuts when I wasn't six years old. I couldn't have been six because mammy Betsey was with me, and she died before I was seven. I declare there were always more nuts on those trees than any I ever saw—"
But the general broke in upon her reminiscences, and she took up a fresh tomato and peeled it carefully with a sharp-edged knife.
"Some idiots got after him," said the general, "and told him if he went on living on my land he'd go back to slavery, and, bless your life, he has gone—gone to that little one-room shanty where his daughter used to live, between my place and Burr's—as if I'd have him," he concluded wrathfully. "I wouldn't own that fool again if he dropped into my lap straight from heaven!"
Miss Chris laughed merrily.
"It is the last place he would be likely to drop from," she returned; "but I'll call him up and talk with him. It is a pity for him to be moving off at his age."
So Uncle Ishmael was summoned up to the porch, and Miss Chris explained the error of his ways, but to no purpose.
"I ain' got no fault ter fine," he repeated over and over again, scratching his grizzled head. "I ain' got no fault ter fine wid you. You've been used me moughty well, en I'se pow'ful 'bleeged ter you—en Marse Tom, he's a gent'mun ef ever I seed one. I ain' go no fault ter fine."
The general lost his temper and started up.
"Then what do you mean by turning fool at your age?" he demanded angrily. "Haven't I given you a roof over your head all these years?"
"Dat's so, suh."
"And food to eat?"
"And never asked you to do a lick of work since you got the rheumatism?"
"Dat's es true es de Gospel."
"Then what do you mean by going off like mad to that little, broken-down shanty with half the roof gone?"
Uncle Ishmael shuffled his heavy feet and scratched his head again.
"Hit's de trufe, Marse Tom," he said at last. "Hit's de Gospel trufe. I ain' had so much ter eat sence I'se gone off, en I ain' had much uv er roof ter kiver me, en I ain' had nuttin' ter w'ar ter speak on—but, fo' de Lawd, Marse Tom, freedom it are er moughty good thing."
Then the general flew into the house in a rage and Uncle Ishmael left, followed by two small negroes, bearing on their heads the donations made by Miss Chris to his welfare.
On the day that Eugenia encountered Nicholas at school the general was sitting, as usual, in his rocking chair upon the front porch, when he saw the flutter of a blue skirt, and Eugenia emerged from the avenue and came up the walk between the stiff rows of box. It was two o'clock, and the general was peacefully awaiting the sound of the dinner bell, but at the sight of Eugenia his peacefulness departed, and he called angrily:
"Eugie, where's Bernard?"
"Coming!" returned the general indignantly. "Haven't I told you a dozen times not to walk along that road by yourself? Why didn't you wait for the carriage? Are you never going to mind what I say to you?"
Eugenia came up the steps and threw her books on one of the long green benches. Then she seated herself in a rocking chair and untied her sunbonnet.
"I wa'n't by myself," she said. "A boy was with me."
"A boy? Where is he?"
"He ran away."
The general's great head went back, and he shook with laughter. "Bless my soul! What did he mean by that? What boy was it, daughter?"
Eugenia sat upright in the high rocker, fanning her heated face with her sunbonnet.
"The Burr boy," she answered.
The general gasped for breath, and turned towards the hall.
"Come out here, Chris!" he called. "Here's Eugie been walking home with the Burr boy!"
In a moment Miss Chris's large figure appeared in the doorway, and she handed a brimming mint julep to the general.
"I don't know what Eugie can be made of," she remarked. "Amos Burr was overseer for the Carringtons before he got that place of his own, and I remember just as well as if it were yesterday old Mr. Phil Carrington telling me once, when I was on a visit there, that the more his man Burr worked the less he accomplished. But, as for Eugenia, that isn't the worst about her. Just the other morning, when I was looking out of the storeroom window, I saw her with her arm round the neck of Aunt Verbeny's little Suke. I declare I was so upset I let the quart pot fall into the potato bin!"
"But there isn't anybody else, Aunt Chris," protested Eugenia, looking up from her father's julep, which she was tasting. "And I'm 'bliged to have a bosom friend."
The general shook until his face was purple and the ice jingled in the glass.
"Bosom friend, you puss!" he roared. "Why can't you choose a bosom friend of your own colour? What do you want with a bosom friend as black as the ace of spades?"
"O papa, she ain't black; she's jes' yellow-brown."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Eugie," said Miss Chris severely. "Now go upstairs and wash your face and hands before dinner. It is almost ready. I wonder where Bernard is!"
"Can't I wait twell the bell rings?" Eugenia asked; but Miss Chris shook her head decisively.
"Eugenia, will you never stop talking like a darkey?" she demanded. "How often must I tell you that there's no such word as 'twell'? Now, go right straight upstairs."
Eugenia rose obediently and went into the hall. She had learned from her father and the servants not to dispute the authority of Miss Chris, though she yielded to it with a mild surprise at her own docility.
"She don't really manage me," she had once confided to Delphy, the washerwoman, "but I jes' plays that she does."
When Eugenia came downstairs she found the family seated at dinner, Miss Chris and her father beaming upon each other across a dish of fried chicken and a home-cured ham. Bernard was on Miss Chris's right hand, and on the other side of the table Eugenia's seat separated the general from Aunt Griselda, who sat severely buttering her toast before a brown earthenware teapot ornamented by a raised design of Rebecca at the well. Aunt Griselda was a lean, dried-up old lady, with a sharp, curved nose like the beak of a bird, and smoothly parted hair brushed low over her ears and held in place by a tortoise-shell comb. There were deep channels about her eyes, worn by the constant falling of acrid tears, and her cheeks were wrinkled and yellowed like old parchment.
Twenty years ago, when the general had first brought home his young wife, before her buoyancy had faltered, and before the five little head-boards to the five stillborn children had been set up amid the periwinkle in the family graveyard, Aunt Griselda had written from the home of her sister to say that she would stop over at Battle Hall on her way to Richmond.
The general had received the news joyfully, and the best chamber had been made ready by the hospitable hands of his young wife. Delicate, lavender-scented linen had been put on the old tester-bed and curtains of flowered chintz tied back from the window seats. Amelia Battle had placed a bowl of tea-roses upon the dressing table and gone graciously down to the avenue to welcome her guest. From the family carriage Aunt Griselda had emerged soured and eccentric. She had gone up to the best chamber, unpacked her trunks, hung up her bombazine skirts in the closet, ordered green tea and toast, and settled herself for the remainder of her days. That was twenty years ago, and she still slept in the best chamber, and still ordered tea and toast at the table. She had grown sourer with years and more eccentric with authority, but the general never failed to treat her crotchets with courtesy or to open the door for her when she came and went. To the mild complaints of Miss Chris and the protestations of Eugenia he returned the invariable warning: "She is our guest—remember what is due to a guest, my dears."
And when Miss Chris placidly suggested that the privileges of guestship wore threadbare when they were stretched over twenty years, and Eugenia fervently hoped that there were no visitors in heaven, the general responded to each in turn:
"It is the right of a guest to determine the length of his stay, and, as a Virginian, my house is open as long as it has a roof over it."
So Aunt Griselda drank her green tea in acrid silence, turning at intervals to reprove Bernard for taking too large mouthfuls or to request Eugenia to remove her elbows from the table.
To-day, when Eugenia descended, she was gazing stonily into Miss Chris's genial face, and listening constrainedly to a story at which the general was laughing heartily.
"Yes, I never look at these forks of the bead pattern that I don't see Aunt Callowell," Miss Chris was concluding. "She never used any other pattern, and I remember when Cousin Bob Baker once sent her a set of teaspoons with a different border, she returned them to Richmond to be exchanged. Do you remember the time she came to mother's when we were children, Tom? Eugie, will you have breast or leg?"