The Colonel busied himself drawing, in the most careful and elaborate manner, the wax-topped corks of certain be-cobwebbed bottles that had been delivered the night before by no less a person than Duncan's own agent, and to one of which was attached Fitz's visiting card bearing his compliments and best wishes. The contents of these crusted bottles the Colonel had duly emptied into two cut-glass decanters with big stoppers—heirlooms from Carter Hall—placing the decanters themselves in two silver coasters bearing the Coat-of-Arms of his family, and the whole combination on the old-fashioned sideboard which graced the wall opposite the fireplace. Chad, with the aid of the grocer, had produced as assistant below stairs, from a side street behind Jefferson Market, a saddle-colored female who wore flowers in her hat, and who, to his infinite amusement, called him "Mister."
"Can't do nothin' big, Major, dis place's so mighty small," he called to me from his kitchen door as I mounted the yard steps, "but it's gwine to smell mighty good round here 'bout dinner-time."
Under the deft touches of all these willing hands it is not to be wondered at that the Colonel's cosy rooms developed a quality unknown to them before, delightful as they had always been: The table boasted an extra leaf (an extra leaf was always ready for use in every dining-room of the Colonel's); the candlesticks, old family plate and andirons, dulled by the winter's use, shone with phenomenal brightness; the mantel supported not only half a dozen bottles of claret (Duncan's cellars, Fitz's selection) but a heap of roses that reached as high as the clock, while over the door, around the windows and high up over the two fireplaces—everywhere, in fact, where a convenient nail or hook could be found—were entwined in loops and circles, the Christmas greens and holly berries that little Jim had staggered under.
The crowning sensation of the coming event stood in the corner of the rear room,—a small Christmas tree grown in the woods behind Carter Hall. A little tree with all its branches perfect; large enough to hold its complement of candles; small enough to stand in the centre of the table within reach of everybody's hand. Aunt Nancy had picked it out herself. She must always respect the sentiment. No bought tree would do for her on such an occasion. It must be to the manor born, nourished in her own soil, warmed by the same sun and watered by the same rains. The bringing of a tree from her own home at Carter Hall to cheer the Colonel's temporary resting-place in Bedford Place, was to her like the bringing of a live coal from old and much loved embers with which to start a fire on a new hearth.
These several preparations complete—and it was quite late in the day when they were complete (in the twilight really)—Chad threw a heap of wood beside the fireplace, brushed the hearth of its ashes, laid a pile of India Blue plates in front of its cheery blaze (no crime, the Colonel often said, was equal to putting a hot duck on a cold plate), placed the Colonel's chair in position, arranged a cushion in Aunt Nancy's empty rocker; gave a few finishing touches to the table; stopped a moment in the kitchen below to give some instructions to the saddle-colored female as to the length of time a canvas-back should remain in the oven, and stepped back into his little room, there to array himself in white jacket and gloves, the latter tucked into his outside pocket ready for instant use.
During these final preparations the Colonel was upstairs donning a costume befitting the occasion—snow-white waistcoat, white scarf and patent-leather pumps, with little bows over the toes, limp as a poodle's ears, and his time-honored coat, worn wide open of course, the occasion being one of great joyousness and good cheer. These necessities of toilet over, the Colonel descended the narrow staircase, threw wide the dining-room door, shook me cordially by the hand with the manner of a man welcoming a distinguished guest whom he had not seen for years (I had just arrived); bowed to Chad as if he had been one of a long line of servants awaiting the coming of their lord (festive occasions always produced this frame of mind in the Colonel); laid a single white rose beside the plates of his two lady guests—one for Miss Carter and the other for Miss Klutchem—and glancing around the apartment expressed his admiration of all that had been done. Then he settled himself in his easy chair, with his feet on the fender, and spread his moist, newly-washed hands to the blaze.
Aunt Nancy now entered in a steel-gray silk and new cap and ribbons, her delicate, frail shoulders covered by a light scarf, little Jim following behind her with her ball of yarn and needles, and a low stool for her feet. The only change in Jim was a straggly groove down the middle of his wool, where he had attempted a "part" like Chad's.
"I'm glad Mr. Klutchem is comin', Nancy," said the Colonel when the dear lady had taken her seat with Jim behind her chair. "From what you tell me of his home I'm afraid that he must pass a great many lonely hours. And then again I cannot forget his generosity to a friend of mine once in his hour of trial."
"What was the trouble between you and Mr. Klutchem, George?" she asked in reply, spreading out her skirts and taking the knitting from Jim's hands.
The Colonel hesitated and for a moment did not answer. Aunt Nancy raised her eyes to his and waited.
"I diffe'ed from him on the value of some secu'ities, Nancy, and for a time the argument became quite heated."
"And it left some ill-feeling?"
"Oh, no; on the contrary, it seemed to open a way for an important settlement in a friend's affairs which may have the best and most lastin' results. I believe I am quite within the mark, Major, when I make that statement," added the Colonel, turning to me.
"No doubt of it, Colonel," I answered. "That same friend told me that he hadn't enjoyed anything so much for years as Mr. Klutchem's visit to his office that morning."
"Well, I am so glad," said Aunt Nancy—"so glad!" The "friend's" name had been too obviously concealed by both the Colonel and myself for her to press any inquiries in that direction. "And you have not seen the daughter?" she continued.
"No, Mr. Klutchem was ill at a friend's house when I called on him once befo', and his family were not in the room. I shall have that pleasure for the first time when she arrives."
Chad now entered, bowed low to his Mistress, his invariable custom, and began to light the candles on the mantelpiece and sideboard, and then those in the two big silver candlesticks which decorated each end of the table, with its covers for six. Little Jim still stood behind his Miss Nancy's chair: he was not to be trusted with any of Chad's important duties.
There came a knock at the door.
"That's dear Fitz," said the Colonel. "He promised to come early."
Chad looked meaningly at the scrap, and little Jim, in answer to the sound of Fitz's knuckles, left the room, picking up his "pan" from the hall table as he answered the summons.
At this moment the dear lady dropped her ball of yarn, and the Colonel and I stooped down to recover it. This was a duty from which even Chad was relieved when either of us was present. While we were both on our knees groping around the legs of the sideboard, the door opened softly, and a sweet, low voice said:
"Please, I'm Katy Klutchem, and I've come to the Christmas tree."
The Colonel twisted his head quickly.
A little girl of six or eight, her chubby cheeks aglow with the cold of the winter twilight, a mass of brown curls escaping from her hat framing a pretty face, stood looking at him—he was still on his knees—with wide, wondering eyes. He had expected to welcome a young woman of twenty, he told me afterwards, not a child. Aunt Nancy inadvertently, perhaps, or because she supposed he knew, had omitted any reference to her age. I, too, had fallen into the same error.
The dear lady without rising from her seat held out her two hands joyously:
"Oh, you darling little thing! Come here until I take off your hat and coat."
The Colonel had now risen to his feet, the ball of yarn in his hand, his eyes still on the apparition. No child had ever stepped foot inside the cosy quarters since his occupation. Katy returned his gaze with that steadfast, searching look common to some children, summing up by intuition the dangers and the man. Then, with her face breaking into a smile at the Colonel, she started towards Aunt Nancy.
But the Colonel had come to his senses now.
"So you are not a grown-up lady at all," he cried, with a joyous note in his voice, as he advanced towards her, "but just a dear little girl."
"Why, did you think I was grown-up? I'm only seven. Oh, what a nice room, and is the Christmas tree here?"
"It is not lighted yet, dearie," replied Aunt Nancy, her fingers busy with the top button of the child's cloak, the eager, expectant face twisted around as if she was looking for something. "It's over there in the corner."
"Let me show it to you," said the Colonel, and he took her hand. "Major, please bring one of the candles."
The child's eyes sought the Colonel's face. The first look she had given him as she entered the room had settled all doubt in her mind; children know at a glance whom they can trust.
"Please do," she answered simply, and her grasp closed over his. The cloak and hat were off now, and Jim was bearing them upstairs to be laid on Miss Nancy's bed.
As the small, frail hand touched his own I saw a strange look come into the Colonel's eyes. It was evidently all he could do to keep from stooping down and kissing her.
Instinctively my mind went back to a night not long before when I had found him sitting by his fire. "There is but one thing in all the world, Major," he said to me then, "sweeter than the song of a robin in the spring, and that is the laughter of a child."
I knew therefore, as I looked at these two, what the little hand that lay in his meant to him.
So I held the candle and the Colonel lighted the tip end of just one tiny taper to show her how it burned, and what a pretty light it made shining through the green; and Katy clapped her hands and said it was beautiful, and such a darling little tree, and not at all like the big one in the Sunday School that reached nearly to the ceiling, and that nobody dared to touch. And then we all went back to the fire and the Colonel's chair, and before I knew it he had her by his side with his arm around her shoulders, telling her stories, while Aunt Nancy and Jim and I sat listening.
And so absorbed was he in the new life, and so happy with the child, that he only gave Fitz three fingers to shake when that friend of his heart came in, and never once said he was glad to see him—an unprecedented omission—and never once made the slightest allusion to the expected guest of the evening, Mr. Klutchem, now that his daughter had turned out to be a child of seven instead of a full-grown woman of twenty.
The Colonel told her of the great woods behind Carter Hall, where the Christmas tree had grown, and the fox with the white tail that lived there, and that used to pop into his hole in the snow, and how you'd pass right by and never see him because his tail, which was the biggest part of him, was so white; and the woodpeckers that bored into the bark with their long, sharp bills; and finally of the big turkeys that strutted and puffed their feathers and spread their tails about and ran so fast nothing could catch them.
"Not even a dog?" interrupted the child. She had crawled up into his arms now and was looking up into his face with wondering eyes.
"Dogs!" answered the Colonel contemptuously, "why, these turkeys would be up and gone befo' a dog could turn 'round."
"Tell me what they are like. Have they long—long legs—so?" and she stretched out her arms.
"Oh, longer—terrible long legs—long as this"—and the Colonel's arms went out to their full length.
Jim's eyes were now popping out of his head, but his place was behind his Mistress's chair, ready for her orders, and he had had so many scoldings that day that he thought it best not to move.
"And does he puff himself out like a real turkey in the picture books?"
"Oh, worse than a real turkey,—big as so"—and the Colonel's arms went round in a circle.
The child thought hard for a moment until she had the picture of the strutting gobbler fastened in her mind, and said, cuddling closer to the Colonel: "Tell me some more."
"Yes, about turkeys."
"About wild ones or tame ones?"
"Was that a wild one that the dogs couldn't catch?"
"Then tell me about some tame ones. Do they live in the woods?"
"No, they live in the barnyard with the chickens, and the cows, and the horses. Why, did you never see one?"
"Yes, but I want to hear you tell about them—that's better than seeing."
Jim could hold in no longer. He had become so excited that he kept rubbing one shoe against the other, twisting and squirming like an eel. At last he burst out:
"An' one o' gobble-gobble was dat ornery, Mammy Henny shut him up in de coop!"
Aunt Nancy turned in astonishment, and Chad, who had come in with some dishes, was about to crush him with a look, when the Colonel said, with a sly twinkle in his eye:
"What did he do, Jim?"
"Jes' trompled de li'l teeny chickens an' eat up all de corn an' wouldn't let nobody come nigh him. An' he was dat swelled up!"
Katy laughed, and turning to the Colonel, said:
"Tell me about that one."
The Colonel ruminated for a moment, looked at Chad with a half-humorous expression, and motioned to little Jim to come over and stand by his chair so that he could hear the better, his own arm still about Katy, her head on his shoulder.
"About that big gobbler, Katy, that was so bad they had to put him in a coop?"
"Yes, that very one."
"Well, when I fust knew him he was a little teeny turkey—oh, not near so high as Jim; 'bout up to Jim's knees, I reckon. He'd follow 'round after his mammy and go where she wanted him to go and mind her like a nice little turkey as he was. He didn't live on my plantation then—he lived on Judge Barbour's plantation next to mine. Well, one day, Aunt Nancy—that dear lady over there—wanted a fine young turkey, and this little knee-high turkey was growin' to be a big turkey, and so she brought him over and gave him the run of the barnyard.
"She was just as good to him as she could be. She made a nice clean place for him to live in, so his feathers wouldn't get dirty any mo', and he didn't have to run 'round lookin' for grasshoppers and beetles and little worms as he did at home, but he had a nice bowl of mush eve'y day and a place to go to sleep in all by himself, and Aunt Nancy did everythin' she could to make him comfo'table.
"Well, what do you think happened? Just as soon as that turkey found out he was bein' taken caare of better than the hens and the roosters and all the other little turkeys he had left at home, he began to put on airs. He breshed his feathers out and he strutted around same as if he owned the whole barnyard, and he'd go down to the pond and look at himself in the water; and he got so proud that whenever old Mrs. Hen or old Mr. Rooster would say 'Good-mornin'' to him as kind and as nice as could be, he wouldn't answer politely, but he'd stick up his head and go 'Gobble-gobble-gobble!' and then he'd swell up again and puff out his chest and march himself off. Pretty soon he got so sassy that nobody could live with him. Why, he didn't care what he did and who he stepped on. He trampled on two po' little chicks one day that were just out of the shell and mashed them flat and did all sorts of dreadful things."
"What an awful turkey! Poor little chickens," sighed Katy. "Go on."
"Next thing he did was to steal off and smoke cigarettes."
Katy raised her head and looked up into the Colonel's eyes.
"Why, turkeys can't smoke, can they?"
"Oh, no—of co'se not—I forgot. That's another story and I got them mixed up. Where was I? Oh, yes, when he got so sassy."
Katy dropped her head on his shoulder again. Jim was now listening with all his might, his only fear being that Chad or Miss Nancy or the knocker on the front door would summon him before the story was ended.
"Well," continued the Colonel, "that went on and on and on till there wasn't any livin' with him. Even dear Aunt Nancy couldn't get along with him, which is a dreadful thing to say of anybody. So one day"—here the Colonel's voice dropped to a tone of grave importance—"one day—Mammy Henny—that's the wife of Chad over there by the table, crep' up behind this wicked, sassy little turkey, when he was swellin' around so big he couldn't see his feet, and she grabbed him by the neck and two legs, and befo' he knew where he was, plump he went into a big coop, and the door was shut tight. He hollered and squawked and flapped his wings terrible, but that didn't make any diff'ence; in he went and there he stayed. He pushed with his long legs, and stuck his head out through the slats, and did all he could to get out, but it was no use. Next day Mammy Henny got a great big knife—oh, an awful long knife——"
"How long?" asked the child.
"Oh, a dreadful long knife—'most as long as Jim, here"—and the Colonel laid his hand on the boy's shoulder—"and she sharpened it on a big grindstone, and Mammy Henny put some corn in the little trough outside the slats, and when this bad, wicked turkey poked his head out—WHACK—went the knife, and off went his head, and he was dead—dead—dead!"
As the solemn words fell from his lips, the Colonel broke into a laugh, and in a burst of tenderness threw his arms around the child and kissed her as if he would like to eat her up.
Katy was clapping her hands now.
"Oh, I'm just too glad. And the poor little chickies—served him just right. I was afraid he'd get out and run away."
The Colonel stole a look at Jim. The scrap stood looking into the fire, a wondering expression on his face. How much of the story was truth and how much fiction evidently puzzled Jim.
During the telling everybody in the room, Fitz, Miss Nancy—all of us, in fact,—had been watching Katy's delight and Jim's eager brown face, turned to the Colonel, the whites of his eyes big as saucers. Watching, too, the Colonel's impartial manner to both of his listeners—black and white alike—the only distinction being that the black boy stood, while the white child lay nestled in his arms.
Chad, as the story progressed, had crept up behind the Colonel's chair, where he could hear without being seen, and was listening as eagerly as if he were a boy again. He had often told me that his old master, the Colonel's father, used to tell him and the Colonel stories when they were boys together, but I had never seen the Colonel in the role before.
When the allusion to the cigarettes escaped the Colonel's lips a smile overspread Chad's visage, and a certain triumphant look crept into his eyes. With the child's laughter still ringing through the room, Chad tapped Jim on the arm, led him to one side, held his lean, wrinkled finger within an inch of the boy's nose and said in a sepulchral tone:
"Did ye hear dat? Do ye know who dat sassy, low-lived, mizzable, no-count, ornery turkey was, dat kep' a-swellin' up, thinkin' he was free an' somebody great till dat caarvin' knife tuk his head off? Dat's you!"
* * * * *
In the midst of this scene, Katy still in the Colonel's arms, Aunt Nancy knitting quietly, talking to Fitz in an undertone, and I forming part of the circle around the fire, watching the Colonel's delight and joy over his new guest—the dining-room door was pushed open, and Mr. Klutchem stepped in.
"I found the outside door ajar, Colonel," he blurted out, "and heard you all laughing, and so I just walked in. Been here long, Katy?"
For an instant I was sorry he had come; it was like the dropping of a stone into a still pool.
The child slid out from the Colonel's lap, with an expression on her face as if she had been caught in some act she should be ashamed of, and stood close to the Colonel's chair, as if for protection. Aunt Nancy, Fitz, and I rose to our feet to welcome the newcomer. The Colonel, having to pull himself out from the depths of his chair, was the last to rise. He had been so absorbed in the child that he had entirely forgotten both the father and the dinner. It, however, never took the Colonel long to recover his equilibrium where a matter of courtesy was concerned.
"My dear, Mr. Klutchem," he cried, throwing out his chest, and extending his hand graciously. "This is, indeed, a pleasure. Permit me to present you to my aunt, Miss Caarter, of Virginia, who has left her home to gladden our Christmas with her presence. The gentlemen, of co'se, you already know. Yo' little daughter, suh, is a perfect sunbeam. She has so crept into our hearts that we feel as if we never wanted her to leave us——" and he laid his hand on the child's head.
The banker shook hands with Aunt Nancy, remarked that he was sorry he had not been at home when she called, extended the same five fingers to me, and again in turn to Fitz, and sat down on the edge of a chair which Jim had dragged up for him. Katy walked over and stood by her father's knee. Her holiday seemed over.
"Rather sharp weather, isn't it?" Mr. Klutchem began, rubbing his hands and looking about him. He had not forgotten the cheeriness of the rooms the day of his first visit; in their holiday attire they were even more delightful. "I suppose, Colonel, you don't have such weather in your State," he continued.
The Colonel, who was waiting for a cue—any cue served the Colonel, weather, politics, finance, everything but morals and gossip, these he never discussed, launched out in his inimitable way describing the varied kinds of weather indigenous to his part of the State: the late spring frosts with consequent damage to the peach crop; the heat of summer; the ice storms and the heavy falls of soft snow that were gone by mid-day; the banker describing in return the severities of the winters in Vermont, his own State, and the quality of the farming land which, he said, with a dry laugh, often raised four stone fences to the acre, and sometimes five.
Before the two had talked many minutes I saw to my delight that the waters of the deep pool which I feared had become permanently troubled by the sudden arrival of the broker, were assuming their former tranquil condition. Aunt Nancy resumed her knitting awaiting the time when Chad should announce dinner. Katy, finding that her father had no immediate use for her—not an unusual experience with Katy—moved off and stood by Aunt Nancy, watching the play of her needles, the dear lady talking to her in a low voice, while Fitz and I put our heads together, and with eyes and ears open, followed with close attention the gradual thawing out of the hard ice of the practical man of affairs under the warm sun of the Colonel's hospitality.
Soon the long expected hour arrived, a fact made known first by the saddle-colored female to Jim standing at the head of the stairs, and who promptly conveyed it to Chad's ear in a whisper that was heard all over the room, and finally by Chad himself, who announced the welcome news to Miss Nancy with a flourish that would have done credit to the master of ceremonies at a Lord Mayor's banquet; drawing out a chair for her on the right of the Colonel, another on his left for Mr. Klutchem, and a third for Miss Klutchem, who was seated between Fitz and me. He then stationed Jim, now thoroughly humbled by the chastening he had received, at the door in the hall to keep open an unbroken line of communication between the fragrant kitchen below and the merry table above.
The seating of the guests brought the cosy circle together—and what a picture it was: The radiance of Aunt Nancy's face as she talked to one guest and another, twisting her head like a wren's to see Mr. Klutchem the better when the Colonel stood up to carve the ducks: and the benignant, patriarchal, bless-you-my-children smile that kept irradiating the Virginian's visage as, knife in hand, he descanted on the various edibles and drinkables that made his native County a rare place to be born in; and Mr. Klutchem's quiet, absorbed manner, so different from his boisterous outbreaks—a fact which astonished Fitz most of all; and Katy's unrestrained laughter breaking in at all times like a bird's, and Chad's beaming face and noiseless tread, taking the dishes from Jim's hands as carefully as an antiquary would so many curios, and placing them without a sound before his master—yes, all these things indeed made a picture that could never be forgotten.
As to the quality and toothsomeness of the several and various dishes—roast, broiled, and baked—that kept constantly arriving, there was, there could be, but one opinion:
Nobody had ever seen such oysters; nobody had ever eaten such terrapin! Nobody had ever tasted such ducks!—so Mr. Klutchem said, and he ought to have known, for he had the run of the Clubs. Nobody had crunched such celery nor had revelled in such sweet potatoes; nor had anybody since the beginning of the world ever smacked their lips over such a ham.
"One of our razor-backs, Mr. Klutchem," said the Colonel; "fed on acorns, and so thin that he can jump through a palin' fence and never lose a hair. When a pig down our way gets so fat that a darky can catch him, we have no use for him"—and the Colonel laughed—a laugh which was echoed in a suppressed grin by Chad, the witticism not being intended for him.
Soon there stole over every one in the room that sense of peace and contentment which always comes when one is at ease in an atmosphere where love and kindness reign. The soft light of the candles, the low, rich color of the simple room with its festoons of cedar and pine, the aroma of the rare wine, and especially the spicy smell of the hemlock warmed by the burning tapers—that rare, unmistakable smell which only Christmas greens give out and which few of us know but once a year, and often not then; all had their effect on host and guests. Katy became so happy that she lost all fear of her father and prattled on to Fitz and me (we had pinned to her frock the rose the Colonel had bought for the "grown-up daughter," and she was wearing it just as Aunt Nancy wore hers), and Aunt Nancy in her gentle voice talked finance to Mr. Klutchem in a way that made him open his eyes, and Fitz laughingly joined in, giving a wide berth to anything bearing on "corners" or "combinations" or "shorts" and "longs," while I, to spare Aunt Nancy, kept one eye on Jim, winking at him with it once or twice when he was about to commit some foolishness, and so the happy feast went on.
As to the Colonel, he was never in better form. To him the occasion was the revival of the old Days of Plenty—the days his soul coveted and loved: his to enjoy, his to dispense.
But if it had been delightful before, what was it when Chad, after certain mysterious movements in the next room, bore aloft the crowning glory of the evening, and placed it with all its candles in the centre of the table, the Colonel leaning far back in his chair to give him room, his coat thrown wide, his face aglow, his eyes sparkling with the laughter that always kept him young!
Then it was that the Colonel gathering under his hand the little sheaf of paper lamplighters which Chad had twisted, rose from his seat, picked up a slender glass that had once served his father ("only seben o' dat kind left," Chad told me) and which that faithful servitor had just filled from the flow of the old decanter of like period, and with a wave of his hand as if to command attention, said, in a clear, firm voice that indicated the dignity of the occasion:
"My friends,—my vehy dear friends, I should say, for I can omit none of you—certainly not this little angel who has captured our hearts, and surely not our distinguished guest, Mr. Klutchem, who has honored us with his presence—befo' I kindle with the torch of my love these little beacons which are to light each one of us on our way until another Christmas season overtakes us; befo', I say, these sparks burst into life, I want you to fill yo' glasses (Chad had done that to the brim—even little Katy's) and drink to the health and happiness of the lady on my right, whose presence is always a benediction and whose loyal affection is one of the sweetest treasures of my life!"
Everybody except the dear lady stood up—even little Katy—and Aunt Nancy's health was drunk amid her blushes, she remarking to Mr. Klutchem that George would always embarrass her with these too flattering speeches of his, which was literally true, this being the fourth time I had heard similar sentiments expressed in the dear lady's honor.
This formal toast over, the Colonel's whole manner changed. He was no longer the dignified host conducting the feast with measured grace. With a spring in his voice and a certain unrestrained joyousness, he called to Chad to bring him a light for his first lamplighter. Then, with the paper wisp balanced in his hand, he began counting the several candles, peeping into the branches with the manner of a boy.
"One—two—three—fo'—yes, plenty of them, but we are goin' to begin with the top one. This is yours, Nancy—this little white one on the vehy tip-top. Gentlemen, this top candle is always reserved for Miss Caarter," and the lighted taper kindled it into a blaze. "Just like yo' eyes, my dear, burnin' steadily and warmin' everybody," and he tapped her hand caressingly with his fingers. "And now, where is that darlin' little Katy's—she must have a white one, too—here it is. Oh, what a brave little candle! Not a bit of sputterin' or smoke. See, dearie, what a beautiful blaze! May all your life be as bright and happy. And here is Mr. Klutchem's right alongside of Katy's—a fine red one. There he goes, steady and clear and strong. And Fitz—dear old Fitz. Let's see what kind of a candle Fitz should have. Do you know, Fitz, if I had my way, I'd light the whole tree for you. One candle is absurd for Fitz! There, Fitz, it's off—another red one! All you millionaires must have red candles! And the Major! Ah, the Major!"—and he held out his hand to me—"Let's see—yaller? No, that will never do for you, Major. Pink? That's better. There now, see how fine you look and how evenly you burn—just like yo' love, my dear boy, that never fails me."
The circle of the table was now complete; each guest had a candle alight, and each owner was studying the several wicks as if the future could be read in their blaze: Aunt Nancy with a certain seriousness. To her the custom was not new; the memories of her life were interwoven with many just such top candles,—one I knew of myself, that went out long, long ago, and has never been rekindled since.
The Colonel stopped, and for a moment we thought he was about to take his seat, although some wicks were still unlighted—his own among them.
Instantly a chorus of voices went up: "You have forgotten your own, Colonel—let me light this one for you," etc., etc. Even little Katy had noticed the omission, and was pulling at my sleeve to call attention to the fact: the Colonel's candle was the only one she really cared for.
"One minute—" cried the Colonel. "Time enough; the absent ones fust"—and he stooped down and peered among the branches—"yes,—that's just the very one. This candle, Mr. Klutchem, is for our old Mammy Henny, who is at Caarter Hall, carin' for my property, and who must be pretty lonely to-day—ah, there you go, Mammy!—blazin' away like one o' yo' own fires!"
Three candles now were all that were left unlighted; two of them side by side on the same branch, a brown one and a white one, and below these a yellow one standing all alone.
The Colonel selected a fresh taper, kindled it in the flame of Aunt Nancy's top candle, and turning to Chad, who was standing behind his chair, said:
"I'm goin' to put you, Chad, where you belong,—right alongside of me. Here, Katy darlin', take this taper and light this white candle for me, and I'll light the brown one for Chad," and he picked up another taper, lighted it, and handed it to the child.
As the two candles flashed into flame, the Colonel leaned over, and holding out his hand to the old servant—boys together, these two, said in a voice full of tenderness:
"Many years together, Chad,—many years, old man."
Chad's face broke into a smile as he pressed the Colonel's hand:
"Thank ye, marster," was all he trusted himself to say—a title the days of freedom had never robbed him of—and then he turned his head to hide the tears.
During this whole scene little Jim had stood on tiptoe, his eyes growing brighter and brighter as each candle flashed into a blaze. Up to the time of the lighting of the last guest candle his face had expressed nothing but increasing delight. When, however, Mammy Henny's candle, and then Chad's were kindled, I saw an expression of wonderment cross his features which gradually settled into one of profound disappointment.
But the Colonel had not yet taken his seat. He had relighted the taper—this time from Mammy Henny's candle—and stood with it in his hand, peering into the branches as if looking for something he had lost.
"Ah, here's another. I wonder—who—this—little—yaller—candle—can—be—for," he said slowly, looking around the room and accentuating each word. "I reckon they're all here—Let me see—Aunt Nancy, Mr. Klutchem, Katy, Fitz, the Major, Mammy Henny, Chad, and me—Yes—all here—Oh!!" and he looked at the boy with a quizzical smile on his face—"I came vehy near forgettin'.
"This little yaller candle is Jim's."
* * * * *
When it was all over; and Aunt Nancy herself had tied on Katy's hat and tucked the tippet into her neck, and buttoned her coat so that not a breath of cold air could get inside; and when Jim stood holding Mr. Klutchem's hat in the hall, with Chad but a few feet away; and when Mr. Klutchem had said good-by to Aunt Nancy, and had turned to take the extended hand of the Colonel, I heard the banker say, in a voice as if a tear had choked it:
"Carter, you're mighty good stuff and I like you. What you've taught me to-night I'll never forget. Katy never had a mother, and I know now she's never had a home. Good-night."
"Come, Katy, I guess I'll carry you, little girl—" and he picked up the child, wound her reluctant arms about his neck, and went out into the night.
THE ROMANCE OF AN OLD-FASHIONED GENTLEMAN
Blossom week in Maryland! The air steeped in perfume and soft as a caress; the sky a luminous gray interwoven with threads of silver, flakings of pearl and tiny scales of opal.
All the hill-sides smothered in bloom—of peach, cherry, and pear; in waves, windrows and drifts of pink and ivory. Here and there, fluffy white, a single tree upheld like a bride's bouquet ready for my lady's hand when she goes to meet her lord. In the marshes flames of fringed azaleas and the tracings of budding birch and willow outspread like the sticks of fans. At their feet, shouldering their way upward, big dock leaves—vigorous, lusty leaves—eager to flaunt their verdure in the new awakening. Everywhere the joyous songs of busy birds fresh from the Southland—flying shuttles these, of black, blue and brown, weaving homes in the loom of branch and bud.
* * * * *
To the trained eye of young Adam Gregg, the painter, all this glory of blossom, hill-side, and pearly tinted sky came as a revelation and a delight. Drawing rein on his sorrel mare he raised himself in his stirrups and swept his glance over the landscape, feasting his eyes on the note of warmth in the bloom of the peach—a blossom unknown to his more northern clime, on the soft brown of the pastures, and on the filmy blue of the distant hills melting into the gray haze of the April morning. Suddenly a thrill shot through him and a fresh enthusiasm rose in his heart: with all this wealth of color about him, what would not his brush accomplish.
Swinging in his seat he readjusted the rain-cloak and painting-kit that were strapped to his saddle-bags, and rode on, his slouch hat pushed back from his forehead to cool his brow, his gray riding-coat unbuttoned and hanging loose, the brown riding-boots gripped about the mare's girth.
As he neared his destination the concluding lines of the letter of introduction tucked away in his pocket kept recurring to his mind. He was glad his subject was to be a woman—one near his own age. Women understood him better, and he them. It was the face and shoulders of a young and pretty woman—and a countess, too—which had won for him his first Honorable Mention in Munich. Would he be as lucky with the face and shoulders of the "beautiful girl-wife of Judge Colton"?
Soon the chimneys and big dormer-windows of Derwood Manor, surmounting the spacious colonial porch with its high pillars, rose above the skirting of trees. Then came the quaint gate with its brick posts topped by stone urns, through which swept a wide road bordered by lilac bushes. Dismounting at the horse-block the young painter handed the reins to a negro boy who had advanced to meet him, and, making his way through a group of pickaninnies and snuffing hounds, mounted the porch.
The Judge was waiting for him on the top step with both hands outstretched in welcome; a man of fifty, smooth-shaven, with iron-gray hair, a thin, straight mouth and a jaw as square as a law book.
"You needn't look for your letter, Mr. Gregg," he exclaimed heartily. "The nephew of my old classmate is always a welcome guest at Derwood Manor. We have been expecting you all the morning—" and the Judge shook the young man's hand as if he had known him from babyhood. It was in the early fifties and the hatreds of later years were unknown among men of equal social position in a land where hospitality was a religion. "Let me present you to Mrs. Colton and my little son, Phil."
Adam turned, and it seemed to him as if the glory of all the blossoms he had seen that day had gone into the making of a woman. Dressed all in white, a wide blue sash about her slender waist; graceful as a budding branch swaying in a summer wind; with eyes like rifts of blue seen through clouds of peach bloom; hair of spun gold in lifted waves about her head, one loosened curl straying over her beautiful shoulders; mouth and teeth a split pomegranate studded with seeds of pearl—she seemed the very embodiment of all the freshness, beauty, and charm of the awakening spring.
Instantly all the flesh tones from rose madder and cadmium to indigo-blue ran riot in his head. "What coloring," he kept saying to himself—"What a skin, and the hair and shoulders, and the curl that breaks the line of the throat—never was there such a woman!"
Even as he stood looking into her eyes, pretending to listen to her words of welcome, he was deciding on the colors he would use and the precise pose in which he would paint her.
"And it is such a delight to have you with us," she was saying in joyous tones, as though his coming brought a holiday. "When I knew you were to be here I began right away to build castles. You are to paint my portrait first, and then you are to paint Phil's. Isn't that it, Judge? Come Phil, dear, and shake hands with Mr. Gregg."
"Whichever you please," Adam replied simply, the little boy's hand in his. "I only hope I shall be able to do justice to you both. It will be my fault if I don't with all this beauty about me. I am really dazed by these wonderful fruit-trees."
"Yes, we're going to have a good season," exclaimed the Judge—"best we have had for years, peaches especially. We expect a——"
"Oh, I only meant the coloring," interrupted Gregg, his cheeks flushing. "It's wonderfully lovely."
"And you don't have spring blossoms North?" asked Mrs. Colton. Her own eyes had been drinking in the charm of his personality; no color-schemes or palette-tones were interesting her. The straight, lithe, figure, square shoulders, open, honest face, sunny brown eyes, with the short, crisp hair that curled about the temples, meant something alive and young: something that could laugh when she laughed and be merry over little things.
"Yes, of course, but not this glorious rose-pink," the young painter burst out enthusiastically. "If it will only last until I finish your portrait! It's really your month to be painted in, Mrs. Colton. You have all of Sully's harmonies in your coloring—pink, white, blue"—he was still looking into her eyes—"The great Thomas should have seen you first, I am only his humble disciple," and he shrugged his square shoulders in a modest way.
"And what about Phil?" she laughed, catching the fire of his enthusiasm as she drew the boy closer to her side.
"Well, I should try him in October. He has"—and he glanced at the Judge—"his father's brown eyes and dark skin. Nuts and autumn leaves and red berries go best with that," he added, as he ran his fingers through the boy's short curls.
"And an old fellow like me, I suppose, you'd paint with a foot of snow on the ground," laughed the Judge dryly. "Well—anything to please Olivia. Come, all of you, dinner is waiting!"
* * * * *
The warmth of the greeting was as great a surprise to the young Northerner as the wealth of the out-of-door bloom. He had been hospitably received in similar journeys in his own State, but never quite like this. There it was a matter of business until he had become "better acquainted," even when he stayed in the houses of his patrons. He remembered one old farmer who wanted to put him in a room over the stable with the hired man, and another, a mill-owner, who deducted the sum of his board from the price of the picture, but here he had been treated as one of the family from the moment his foot touched their door-step. The Judge had not only placed him on his right hand at table, but had sent old Bundy, the family butler, down into the wine-cellar for a bottle of old Madeira, that had "rusted away in his cellar," he said, for thirty years, and which he would open in remembrance of his college days, when his guest's uncle was his chum and classmate.
Several days had passed before he would even allow Adam to take out his brushes and prepare his canvas for work; his explanation being that as he was obliged to go on Circuit, he would like to enjoy his visitor's society before he left. There would be plenty of time for the picture while he was away. Then it too would come as a full surprise on his return—not a half-completed picture showing the work of days, but a finished portrait alive not only with the charm of the sitter, but with the genius of the master. This was proclaimed with a courteous wave of his hand to his wife and Adam, as if she, too, would be held responsible for the success of the portrait.
The morning before his departure he called Olivia and Adam, and the three made a tour of the rooms in search of a suitable place where his easel could be set up and the work begun. All three admitted that the study was too dark, and so was the library unless the vines were cleared from the windows, which was, of course, out of the question, the Judge's choice finally resting on one corner of the drawing-room, where a large window let in a little more light. In acquiescence the young painter drew back the curtains and placed his subject first on the sofa and then in an arm-chair, and again standing by the sash, and once more leaning over the window-sill; but in no position could he get what he wanted.
"Suit yourselves, then," said the Judge, "and pick out your own place, and make yourselves as comfortable as you can—only don't hurry over it. I shall not be back for a month, and if that is not time enough, why, we have all summer before us. As to your other comforts, my dear Adam—and I rejoice to see you know a good bottle of wine when you taste it—I have given Bundy express orders to decant for you some of the old Tiernan of '28, which is a little dryer than even that special bottle of the Madeira you liked so well. My only regret is that I cannot share it with you. And now one word more before I say good-by, and that is that I must ask you, my dear Gregg, to do all you can to keep Mrs. Colton from becoming lonely. You will, of course, as usual, accompany her in her afternoon rides, and I need not tell you that my own horses are at your disposal. When I return I hope to be welcomed by two Olivias; one which by your genius you will put on canvas, and the other"—and he bowed grandiloquently to his wife—"I leave in your charge."
The young painter took the first opportunity to discharge his duty—an opportunity afforded him when the Judge, after kissing his wife and shaking hands with Adam the morning he left, had stepped into his gig, his servant beside him, and with a lifting of his hat in punctilious courtesy, had driven down between the lilacs. It may have been gallantry or it may have been the pathetic way in which she waved her handkerchief in return that roused the boyish sympathy in his heart:
"Don't worry," he said in a voice full of tenderness. "He won't be long gone—only a month, he says; and don't be unhappy—I'm going to do everything to cheer you up."
"But I'm never lonely," she answered with an air of bravado, "and I try never to be unhappy. I always have Phil. And now," and she broke out into a laugh, "I have you, and that makes me feel just as I did as a girl when one of the boys came over to play with me. Come upstairs, right away, and let me show you the big garret. I'm just crazy to see you begin work, and I really believe that's the best place, after all. It's full of old trunks and furniture, but there's a splendid window——"
"On which side of the house, north or south? I must have a north light, you know."
"Yes—north; looking straight up into your freezing cold country, sir! This way! Come along!" she cried joyously as she mounted the stairs, little Phil, as usual, tumbling after them.
Adam entered first and stood in the middle of the floor looking about him.
"Superb!" he cried. "Just the very place! What a magnificent light—so direct, and not a reflection from anything."
It was, indeed, an ideal studio to one accustomed to the disorder of beautiful things. Not only was there a hip roof, with heavy, stained beams and brown shingles, but near its crotch opened a wide, round-topped window which shed its light on the dilapidated relics of two generations—old spinning-wheels, hair trunks, high-post, uncoupled bedsteads; hair-cloth sofas, and faded curtains of yellow damask, while near the door rested an enormous jar brought up from the garden to catch the drip of a leaky shingle—all so much lumber to Olivia, but of precious value to the young painter, especially the water jar, which reminded him of those he had seen in Sicily when he was tramping through its villages sketching.
"Just the place—oh, wonderful! Wonderful! Let me shout down for Bundy and we'll move everything into shape right away."
"Are you going to take them out or push them back?" exclaimed Olivia, her eyes growing wide with wonder as she watched him begin work.
"No, not going to move out one of them. You just wait—I'll show you!" The boy in him was coming out now.
And Olivia did wait, uttering little cries of delight or inquiry meanwhile, as she tripped after him, her skirts lifted above her dainty ankles to keep them from the dust. "Oh, that ugly old bureau; shan't we send it away?" followed by "Yes, I do think that's better." And, "Oh, are you going to put that screen there!" gouty old Bundy joining in with "Well, fo' de Lawd, Miss 'Livy, I neber did see no ol' trunk come to life agin befo' by jes' shovin' it 'roun'."
"And now get a sheet!" cried Adam, when everything had been arranged to his liking. "We'll tack it across the lower half of the window. Then Bundy, please go down and bring up two buckets of water and pour it into this jar. Now, Mrs. Colton, come along, you and I will bring up blossoms enough to fill it," and the two dashed downstairs and out into the orchard with a swoop of two swallows out for an airing.
Even Bundy had to admit to old Dinah, when he had returned to the kitchen, that the transformation of a lumber-room into a cosy studio was little less than miraculous.
"Dat painter gemman do beat de lan'," he chuckled. "Got dat ol' garret lookin' like a parlor fixed up for comp'ny. Ye oughter see dem ol' hair-backs wid de bottoms busted—got 'em kivered up wid dem patchwork bedspreads an' lookin' like dey was fit for de ol' mist'ess's bedroom. An' he's got dem ol' yaller cut'ains we useter hab in de settin'-room hung on de fo'-posters as sort o' screens fencin' off one corner ob de room jes' by de do'. Dat ol' carpet's spread out; dat one-legged spinnin'-wheel's propped up and standin' roun'; dem ol' stable lanterns is hung to de rafters. I clar' to goodness, ye wouldn't believe! Now dey jes' sont me down for two buckets o' water to fill dat ol' jar we useter hab settin' out here on de po'ch. He and de young mist'ess is out now lookin' for peach blossoms to fill it. He's a wonder, I tell ye!"
The masses of blossoms arranged in the big jar—the tops of their branches reaching the water-stained roof; a canvas for a half-length tacked on a stretcher and placed on an improvised easel, Adam began prying into the dark corners for a seat for his model, Olivia following his every movement, her eyes twice their usual size in her ever-increasing astonishment and delight.
"Hello, here's just the thing!" he shouted, dragging out a high-back chair with some of the lower rungs gone, and dusting it off with his handkerchief. "Sit here and let me see how the light falls. No, that isn't good; that dress won't do at all." (The gown came too far up on her neck to suit this artistic young gentleman's ideas regarding the value of curved lines in portraiture.) "That collar spoils everything. Can't you wear something else? I'd rather see you in full dress. I want the line of the throat ending in the sweep of the shoulder, and then I want the long curl against the flesh tones. You haven't worn your hair that way since I came; and where's the dress you had on the day I arrived? The colors suited you perfectly. I shall never forget how you looked—it was all blossoms, you and everything—and the background of the dark door, and the white of the porch columns, with just a touch of yellow ochre to break it—Oh, it was delicious! Please, now, put that dress on again and wear a low-neck waist with it. The flesh tones of the throat and shoulders will be superb and I know just how to harmonize them with this background."
It was the picture, not the woman, that filled his soul. Flesh tones heightened by a caressing, lingering curl, and relieved by green leaves and flowers, were what had made the Munich picture a success.
"But I haven't any low-necked gowns. Those I had when I was married are all worn out, and I've never needed any since. My nearest neighbors are ten miles away, and half the time I dine with only Phil."
"Well, but can't you fix something?" persisted Adam, bent on the composition he had in his mind. "Everybody's been so good to me here I want this portrait to be the very best I can do. What is in these trunks? There must be some old dresses belonging to somebody's grandmother or somebody's aunt. Do you mind my opening this one? It's unlocked."
Adam lifted the lid. A faded satin gown belonging to the Judge's mother lay on the top. The old lady had been born and brought up under this roof, and was still alive when the Judge's first wife died.
"Here's the very thing."
"And you really want that old frock? All right, Mr. Autocrat, I'll run down and put it on."
She was like a child dressing for her first party. Twice did her hair fall about her shoulders and twice must she gather it up, fingering carefully the long curl, patting it into place; hooking the bodice so that all its modesty would be preserved and yet the line of the throat show clear, shaking out the full, pannier-like skirt until it stood out quite to her liking. Then with a mock curtsey to herself in the glass, she dashed out of the room, up the narrow stairs and into the garret again before he had had time to sort over his brushes.
"Lovely!" he burst out enthusiastically when she had whirled round so he could see all sides of her. "It's more beautiful than the one I first saw you in. Now you look like a bit of old Dresden china—No, I think you look like a little French queen. No, I don't know what you do look like, only you're the loveliest thing I ever saw!"
The gown fitted her perfectly; part of her neck was bare, the single curl, just as he wanted it, straying over it. Then came the waist of ivory-white flowered satin with elbow sleeves, and then the puffy panniers drooped about the slender bodice. As he drank in her beauty the blood went tingling through his veins. He had thought her lovely that first morning when he saw her on the porch: then she was all blossoms; now she was a vision of the olden time for whose lightest smile brave courtiers fought and bled.
"That's it, keep your head up!" he cried, as with many steppings backward and forward, he conducted her to the old chair, and with the air of a grand chamberlain placed her upon it, adding in mock gallantry:
"Sit there, fair lady mine, while your humble slave makes obeisance. To touch the hem of your garment would be—Oh, but aren't you lovely! And the tone of old ivory in the satin, and the exquisite flesh notes—and the way the curl lies on the shoulder! You are adorable!"
And so the picture was begun.
The hours and the days that followed were hours and days of never-ending joy and frolic. While it was still "Mr. Gregg" and "Mrs. Colton," it was as often "Uncle Adam" by little Phil (the three were never separated) and now and then "Marse Adam" by old Bundy, who sought in this way to emphasize his master's injunction to "look after Mr. Gregg's comfort."
Nor did the supervision stop here. Under Olivia's instructions and with Bundy's help, the big dining-room table, with the Judge's seat at one end, hers at the other, and little Phil in his high chair in the middle, was given up and moved out as being altogether too formal and the seats too far apart, and a small one, sprinkled daily with fresh damask roses that she herself had culled from the garden, was substituted. The great window in the library, which had always been kept closed by reason of a draught which carromed on the door of the study and struck the Judge somewhere between his neck and his shoulders, was now thrown wide and kept wide, and the porch chairs, three of them, which had precise positions fixed for them between the low windows, were dragged out under the big apple-tree shading the lawn and moved up to another table that Bundy had carried down from one of the spare rooms.
And then the joy of being for the first time the real head of the house when "company" was present—free to pour out her hospitality in her own way—free to fix the hours of breakfast, dinner, and supper, and what should be cooked, and how served; free to roam the rooms at her pleasure, in and out of the silent study without the never-infringed formality of a knock.
And the long talks in the improvised studio, she sitting under the big north window in the softened light of the sheet; the joy she took in his work; the charm of his sympathetic companionship. Then the long rides on horseback when the morning's work was over, she on Black Bess, he on his own mare; the rompings and laughter in the cool woods; the delight over the bursting of new blossoms; the budding of new leaves and tendrils, and the ceaseless song of the birds! Were there ever days like these!
And the swing and dash and freedom of it all! The perfect trust, each in the other. The absence of all coquetry and allurement, of all pretence or sham. Just chums, good fellows, born comrades; joining in the same laugh, stilled by the same thoughts; absorbed in the same incidents, no matter how trivial: the hiving of a swarm of bees, the antics of a pair of squirrels, or the unfolding of a new rose. He twenty-five, clean-souled, happy-hearted; lithe as a sapling and as graceful and full of spring. She twenty-two, soft-cheeked as a summer rose and as sweet and wholesome and as innocent of all guile as a fawn, drinking in for the first time, in unknown pastures, the fresh dew of the morning of life.
And the little comedy in the garret was played to the very end.
Each day my lady would dress herself with the greatest care in the flowered satin and coax the stray curl into position, and each day Adam would go through the ceremony of receiving her at the door with his mahlstick held before him like a staff of state. Then, bowing like a courtier, he would lead her past the yellow satin screen and big jar of blossoms and place her in the high-back chair, little Phil acting as page, carrying her train.
* * * * *
And so the picture was finished!
On that last day, as he stood in front of it, the light softened by the screening sheet falling full upon it, his heart swelled with pride. He knew what his brush had wrought. Not only had he given the exact pose he had labored for—the bent head, the full throat, the slope of the gently falling line from the ear to the edge of the corsage, the round of the white shoulders relieved by the caressing curl; but he had caught a certain joyous light in the eyes—a light which he had often seen in her face when, with a sudden burst of affection, she had strained little Phil to her breast and kissed him passionately.
"I'm not so beautiful as that," she had said to Adam with a deprecatory tone in her voice, as the two stood before it. "It's only because you think I am, and because you've kept on saying it over and over until you believe it. It's the gown and the peach blossoms in the jar behind my chair—not me."
The servants were none the less enthusiastic. Bundy screwed up his toad eyes and expressed the opinion that it was "de 'spress image," and fat old Aunt Dinah, who had stumbled up the garret stairs from the kitchen, the first time in years—her quarters being on the ground floor of one of the cabins—put on her spectacles, and lifting up her hands, exclaimed in a camp-meeting voice:
"De Lawd wouldn't know t'other from which if both on ye went to heaben dis minute! Dat's you, sho' nuff, young mist'ess."
Only one thing troubled the young painter: What would the Judge say when he returned in the morning? What alterations would he insist upon? He had been compelled so many times to ruin a successful picture, just to please the taste of the inexperienced, that he trembled lest this, the best work of his brush, should share their fate. Should the Judge disapprove Olivia's heart would well nigh be broken, for she loved the picture as much as he did himself.
* * * * *
The night before Judge Colton's return the two sat out on the porch in the moonlight. The air was soft and full of the coming summer. Fire-flies darted about; the croaking of tree-toads could be heard. From the quarters of the negroes came the refrain of an old song:
"Corn top's ripe and de meadow's in de bloom, Weep no mo' me lady."
"I feel as if I had been dreaming and had just waked up," sighed Olivia. "Is it all over?"
"Yes, I can't make it any better," he answered in a positive tone, his thoughts on his picture.
"Must you go away after you finish Phil's?" Her mind was not on the portrait.
"Yes, unless the Judge wants his own painted. I wish he would. I'd love to stay with you—you've been so kind to me. Nobody has ever been so good."
"And you've been very kind to me," Olivia sighed. "Oh, so kind!"
"And just think how beautiful it is here," he rejoined; "and the wonderful weather; and the lovely life we have led. You ought to be very contented in so beautiful a home, with everybody so good to you."
"It's all been very, very happy, hasn't it?" She had not listened, nor had she answered him. It was the refrain of the old song that filled her ears.
"Yes, the happiest of my life. If you'd been my own sister you couldn't have been lovelier to me."
"Where shall you go?" She was not looking at him. Her eyes were fixed on the group of trees breaking the sky line.
"Home, to my people," he answered slowly.
"How far away is it?"
"Oh, a long distance! It takes me three days' constant riding to get home."
"And you love them?"
"Do they love you?"
Again the song rolled out:
"Few mo' days to tote de weary load, Weep no mo' me lady."
The home-coming of the master brought everybody on the run to the porch: the men in the neighboring field; the gardener, who came bounding over his flower-beds; Aunt Dinah, drying her fat hands on her apron, to grasp her master's; Bundy, who helped him to alight; half a dozen pickaninnies and twice as many dogs, and last Adam and Olivia, who came flying down the front stairs, followed by little Phil.
The Judge alighted from the gig with some difficulty, Bundy guiding his foot so that it rested on the iron step, and helped him to the ground. The ride had been a trying one, and the heat and dust had left their marks on his face.
"And how about the portrait?" were his first words after kissing his wife and child and shaking hands with Gregg. "Is it finished, and are you pleased, my dear?"
"Yes, and it's lovely, only it's not me, I tell him."
"Not you? Who is it, then?"
"Oh, somebody twice as pretty!"
"No. It's not one-quarter, not one-tenth as beautiful!" There was a ring in Adam's voice that showed the tribute came from his heart.
"But that's the dress and the background; and the lovely blossoms. Oh, you'd never believe that old jar could look so well!"
"Background! Jar! Where did you sit?" He had changed his coat now, and Bundy was brushing the dust from his trousers and shoes.
"Oh, up in the garret. You wouldn't know the place. Mr. Gregg pulled everything round until it is the cosiest room you ever saw."
The Judge shot a quick, searching glance at Adam. Then his eye took in the lithe, graceful figure of the young man, so buoyant with health and strength.
"Up in the garret! Why didn't you paint it here, or in the front room?"
"I needed a north light, sir."
"And you could only find that in a garret? I should have thought the parlor was the place for a lady. And are you satisfied with the result?" he asked in a more formal tone, as he dropped into a chair and turned to Adam. The long ride had fatigued him more than he had thought possible.
"Well, it certainly is the best thing I have ever done. The flesh tones are purer, and the——"
The Judge looked up: "Of the face?"
"All the flesh tones—especially the tones around the curl where it lies on the bare shoulder."
He was putting his best foot forward, arguing his side of the case. Half of Olivia's happiness would be gone if her husband were disappointed in the portrait.
"Let us go up and look at it," the Judge said, as if impelled by some sudden resolve.
When he reached the garret—Adam and Olivia and little Phil had gone ahead—he stopped and looked about him.
"Well, upon my soul! You have turned things upside down," he remarked in a graver tone. "And here's where you two have spent all these days, is it?" Again his eye rested on Adam's graceful figure, whose cheeks were flushed with his run upstairs. With the glance came a certain feeling of revolt, as if the lad's very youth were an affront.
"Only in the morning, sir, while the light lasted," explained Adam, noticing the implied criticism in the coldness of the Judge's tones.
"Turn the picture, please, Mr. Gregg."
For a brief moment the Judge, with folded arms, gazed into the canvas; then the straight lips closed, the brow tightened, and an angry glow mounted to the very roots of his gray hair.
"Mr. Gregg," said the Judge in the same measured tone with which he would have sentenced a criminal, "if I did not know you to be a gentleman, and incapable of dishonor, I should ask you to leave my house. You may not have intended it, sir, but you have abused my hospitality and insulted my home. My wife is but a child, and easily influenced, and you should have protected her in my absence, as I would have protected yours. The whole thing is most disturbing, sir—and I——"
"Why—why—what is the matter?" gasped Adam. The suddenness of the attack had robbed him of his breath.
"Matter!" thundered the Judge. "Bad taste is the matter, if not worse! No woman should ever uncover her neck to any man but her husband! You have imposed upon her, sir, with your foreign notions. The picture shall never be hung!"
"But it is your own mother's dress," pleaded Olivia, a sudden flush of indignation rising in her face. "We found it in the trunk. It's on my bed now—I'll go and get it——"
"I don't want to see it! What my mother wore at her table in the presence of my father and his guests is not what she would have worn in her garret day after day for a month with her husband away. You should have remembered your blood, Olivia, and my name and position."
"Judge Colton!" cried Adam, stepping nearer and looking the Judge square in the eyes—all the forces of his soul were up in arms now—"your criticisms and your words are an insult! Your wife is as unconscious as a child of any wrong-doing, and so am I. I found the dress in the trunk and made her put it on. Mrs. Colton has been as safe here with me as if she had been my sister, and she has been my sister every hour of the day, and I love her dearly. I have told her so, and I tell you so!"
The Judge was accustomed to read the souls of men, and he saw that this one was without a stain.
"I believe you, Gregg," he said, extending his hand. "I have been hasty and have done you a wrong. Forgive me! And you, too, Olivia. I am over-sensitive about these things: perhaps, too, I am a little tired. We will say no more about it."
* * * * *
That night when the Judge had shut himself up in his study with his work, and Olivia had gone to her room, Adam mounted the stairs and flung himself down on one of the old sofas. The garret was dark, except where the light of the waning moon filtering through the sheet, fell upon the portrait and patterned the floor in squares of silver. Olivia's eyes still shone out from the easel. In the softened, half-ghostly light there seemed to struggle out from their depths a certain pleading look, as if she needed help and was appealing to him for sympathy. He knew it was only a trick the moonlight was playing with his colors—lowering the reds and graying the flesh tones—that when the morning came all the old joyousness would return; but it depressed him all the same.
The Judge's words with their cruelty and injustice still rankled in his heart. The quixotic protest, he knew, about his mother's faded old satin must have had some other basis than the one of immodesty—an absurd position, as any one could see who would examine the picture. Olivia could never be anything but modest. Had it really been the gown that had offended him? or had he seen something in his wife's portrait which he had missed before in her face—something of the joy which a freer and more untrammelled life had given her, and which had, therefore, aroused his jealousy. He would never forgive him for the outburst, despite the apology, nor would he ever forget Olivia cowering, when she listened, as if from a blow, hugging little Phil to her side. While the Judge's words had cut deep into his own heart they had scorched Olivia's like a flame. He had seen it in her tear-dried face seamed and crumpled like a crushed rose, when without a word to her husband or himself, except a simple—"Good-night, all," she had left the room but an hour before.
Suddenly he raised his head and listened: A step was mounting the stairs. Then came a voice from the open door.
"Adam, are you in there?"
"May I come in?"
Like a wraith of mist afloat in the night she stole into the darkened room and settled slowly and noiselessly beside him. He tried to struggle to his feet in protest, but she clung to him, her fingers clutching his arm, her sobs choking her.
"Don't—don't go! I must talk to you—nobody else understands—nobody——"
"But you must not stay here! Think what——"
"No! Please—please—I can't go; you must listen! I couldn't sleep. Help me! Tell me what I must do! Oh, Adam, please—please! I shall die if I have to keep on as I have done."
She slipped from the low cushion and lay crouching at his feet, her arms and face resting on his knees; her wonderful hair, like spun gold, falling about him, its faint perfume stirring his senses.
Then, with indrawn, stifling sobs she laid bare her innermost secrets; all her heartaches, misunderstandings, hidden sorrows, and last that unnamed pain which no human touch but his could heal. Only once, as she crouched beside him, did he try to stop the flow of her whispered talk; she pleading piteously while he held her from him, he looking into her eyes as if he were afraid to read their meaning.
When she had ended he lifted her to her feet, smoothed the dishevelled hair from her face, and kissed her on the forehead:
"Go now," he said in a broken voice, as he led her to the door. "Go, and let me think it over."
* * * * *
With the breaking of the dawn he rose from the lounge where he had lain all night with staring eyes, took the portrait from the easel, held it for a brief instant to the gray light, touched it reverently with his lips, turned it to the wall, and then, with noiseless steps, descended to his bedroom. Gathering his few belongings together he crept downstairs so as to wake no one, pushed open the front door, crossed the porch and made his way to the stable, where he saddled his mare. Then he rode slowly past the lilacs and out of the gate.
When he reached the top of the hill and looked back, the rising sun was gilding the chimneys and quaint dormers of Derwood Manor. Only the closed shutters of Olivia's room were in shadow.
"It's the only way," he said with a sigh, and turned his horse's head towards the North.
The few weeks Adam Gregg spent in his father's home on his return from Derwood Manor were weeks of suffering such as he had never known in his short career. No word had come from Olivia, and none had gone from him in return. He dared not trust himself to write; he made no inquiries. He made no mention, even at home, of his visit, except to say that he had painted Judge Colton's wife and had then retraced his steps. It was not a matter to be discussed with any one—not even with his mother, to whom he told almost every happening of his life. He had seen a vision of transcendent beauty which had filled his soul. Then the curtain had fallen, blotting out the light and leaving him in darkness and despair. What was left was the memory of a tear-stained face and two pleading eyes. These would haunt him all his days.
At the end of the year he found himself in London: Gainsborough, Romney and Lawrence beckoned to him. He must master their technique, study their color. The next year was spent in Madrid studying Velasquez and Goya. It was the full brush that enthralled him now—the sweep and directness of virile methods. Then he wandered over to Granada, and so on to the coast and Barcelona, and at last to Paris.
When his first salon picture was exhibited it could only be properly seen when the crowd opened, so great was the throng about it. It was called "A Memory," and showed the figure of a young girl standing in the sunlight with wreaths of blossoms arched above her head. On her golden hair was a wide hat which half shaded her face; one beautiful arm, exquisitely modelled and painted, rested on the neck of a black horse. A marvellous scheme of color, the critics said, the blossoms and flesh tones being wonderfully managed. No one knew the model—English, some suggested; others concluded that it was the portrait of some lady of the court in a costume of the thirties.
The day after the opening of the salon Clairin called and left his card, and the day following Fortuny mounted the stairs to shake his hand, although he had never met Gregg before. When, later on, Honorable Mention was awarded him by the jury, Boisseau, the art dealer, rang his bell and at once began to inquire about the price of portraits. Madame X. and the Countess M. had been captivated, he said, by "A Memory," and wanted sittings. If the commissions were sufficient the dealer could arrange for very many orders, not only for many women of fashion, but of members of the Government.
The following year his portrait of Baron Chevrail received the Gold Medal and he himself a red ribbon, and a few months later his picture of "Columbus before the Council" took the highest honors at Genoa, and was bought by the Government.
During almost all the years of his triumphal progress he lived alone. So seldom was he seen outside of his studio that many of his brother painters were convinced that he never spent more than a few days at a time in Paris. They would knock, and knock again, only to be told by the concierge that monsieur was out, or in London, or on the Riviera. His studio in London and his occasional visits to Vienna, where he shared Makart's atelier while painting a portrait of one of the Austrian grand dukes, helped in this delusion. The truth was that he had no thought for things outside of his art. The rewards of fame and money never appealed to him. What enthralled him was his love of color, of harmony, of the mastering of subtleties in composition and mass. That the public approved of his efforts, and that juries awarded him honors, caused him no thrill of exultation. He knew how far short his brush had come. He was glad they liked the picture. Next time he would do better. These triumphs ruffled his surface—as a passing wind ruffles a deep pool.
As he grew in years there came a certain dignity of carriage, a certain poise of bearing. The old-time courtliness of manner was strengthened; but the sweetness of nature was still the same—a nature that won for him friends among the best about him. Not many—only three or four who had the privilege of knocking with three light taps and one loud one at his door, a signal to which he always responded—but friends whose proudest boast was their intimacy with Adam Gregg.
The women smiled at him behind their lorgnons as they passed him riding in the Bois, for he had never given up this form of out-door exercise, his erect military figure, fine head and upturned mustache lending him a distinction which attracted attention at once; but he seldom did more than return their salutations. Sometimes he would accept an invitation to dinner, but only on rare occasions. When he did it was invariably heralded in advance that "Gregg was coming," a fact which always decided uncertain guests to say "Yes" to their hostess's invitation.
And yet he was not a recluse in the accepted sense of the word, nor did he lead a sad life. He only preferred to enjoy it alone, or with one or two men who understood him.
While casual acquaintances—especially those in carriages—were denied access when he was absorbed on some work of importance, the younger painters—those who were struggling up the ladder—were always welcome. For these the concierge was given special instructions. Then everything would be laid aside; their sketches gone over and their points settled, no matter how long it took or how many hours of his precious time were given to their service. Many of these lads—not alone his own countrymen, but many who could not speak his language—often found a crisp, clean bank-note in their hands when the painter's fingers pressed their own in parting. Of only one thing was he intolerant, and that was sham. The insincere, the presuming and the fraudulent always irritated him; so did the slightest betrayal of a trust. Then his dark-brown eyes would flash, his shoulders straighten, and there would roll from his lips a denunciation which those who heard never forgot—an outburst all the more startling because coming from one of so gentle and equable a temperament.
During all the years of his exile no word had come from Olivia. He had once seen Judge Colton's name in one of the Paris papers in connection with a railroad case in which some French investors were interested, but nothing more had met his eye.
Had he been of a different temperament he would have forgotten her and that night in the improvised studio, but he was not constituted to forget. He was constituted to remember, and to remember with all his soul. Every day of his life he had missed her; never was there a night that she was not in his thoughts before he dropped to sleep. What would have been his career had fate brought them together before the blight fell upon her? What intimacies, what enjoyment, what ideals nurtured and made real. And the companionship, the instant sympathy, the sureness of an echo in her heart, no matter how low and soft his whisper! These thoughts were never absent from his mind.
Moreover, his life had been one of standards: the greatest painter, the greatest picture, the finest piece of bronze. It was so when he looked over curios at the dealer's: it was the choicest of its kind that he must have; anything of trifling value, or anything commonplace—he ignored. Olivia had also fixed for him a standard. Compared to her, all other women were trite and incomplete. No matter how beautiful they might be, a certain simplicity of manner was lacking, or the coloring was bad, or the curve of the neck ungraceful. All of these perfections, and countless more, made up Olivia's personality, and unless the woman before him possessed these several charms she failed to interest him. The inspection over and the mental comparison at an end, a straightening of the shoulders and a knitting of the brow would follow, ending in a far-away look in his brown eyes and an unchecked sigh—as if the very hopelessness of the comparison brought with it a certain pain. As to much of the life of the Quartier about him, he shrank from it as he would from a pestilence. Certain men never crossed his threshold—never dared.
One morning there came to him the crowning honor of his career. A new hotel de ville was about to be erected in a neighboring city, and the authorities had selected him to paint the great panel at the right of the main entrance. As he threw the letter containing the proposition on his desk and leaned back in his chair a smile of supreme satisfaction lighted up his face. He could now carry out a scheme of color and massing of figures which had been in his mind for years, but which had heretofore been impossible owing to the limited area covered by the canvases of his former orders. This space would give him all the room he needed. The subject was to be an incident in the life of Rochambeau, just before the siege of Yorktown. Gregg had been selected on account of his nationality. Every latitude was given him, and the treatment was to be distinctly his own.
It was while searching about the streets and cafes of Paris for types to be used in the preliminary sketches for this, the supreme work so far of his life, that he took a seat one afternoon in the early autumn at a table outside one of the cheap cafes along the Seine. He could study the faces of those passing, from a position of this kind. In his coming picture there must necessarily be depicted a group of the great Frenchman's followers, and a certain differentiation of feature would be necessary. On this afternoon, then, he had taken his sketch-book from his breast pocket and was about to make a memorandum of some type that had just attracted him, when a young man in a student's cap twisted his head to get a closer view of the work of Gregg's pencil.
An intrusion of this kind from any one but a student would have been instantly resented by Adam. Not so, however, with the young fellow at his elbow; these were his wards, no matter where he met them.
"Come closer, my boy," said Gregg in a low voice. "You belong to the Quartier, do you not?"
"Are you English?"
"No, an American. I am from Maryland."
"From Maryland, you say!" exclaimed Adam with a sudden start, closing his sketch-book and slipping it into his pocket. The name always brought with it a certain rush of blood to his cheek—why, he could never tell. "How long have you been in Paris, my lad?" He had moved back now so that the stranger could find a seat beside him.
"Only a few months, sir. I was in London for a time and then came over here. I'm working at Julian's"—and the young fellow squeezed himself into the chair Adam had pulled out for him.
"Are you from one of the cities?"
"No, from Montgomery County, sir."
"That's next to Frederick, isn't it?"
Both question and answer set his pulses to beating. Instantly there rushed into his mind the picture he never forgot—the figure in white standing at the head of the porch steps. He recalled the long curl that lay next her throat, the light in her eyes, the warm pressure of her hand; the wealth of bursting blossoms, their perfume filling the spring air. How many years had passed since he had ridden through those Maryland orchards!
For some minutes Adam sat perfectly still, his eyes fixed on the line of trees fringing the parapet of the Seine. The boy kept silent; it was for the older man to speak first again. Soon an overwhelming, irresistible desire to break through the reserve of years surged over the painter. He could ask this lad questions he had never asked any one before—not that he had ever had an opportunity, for he had seen no one who knew, and he had determined never to write. Here was his chance.
"Perhaps you can tell me about some of the old residents. I visited your part of the State many years ago—in the spring, I remember—and met a few of the people. What has become of Major Dorsey, Mr. Talbot and"—there was a slight pause—"and Judge Colton?"
"I don't know, sir. I've heard my father speak of them, but I never saw any of them except Judge Colton. He used to stay at our house when he held court. He lived up in Frederick County—a thin, solemn-looking man, with white hair. He's dead now."
Gregg's fingers tightened convulsively. "Judge Colton dead! Are you sure?"
"Yes—died the week I left home. Father went up to his funeral. He rode in the carriage with Mrs. Colton, he told us when he came home. They're pretty poor up there, too; the Judge lost all his money, I heard."
Gregg paid for his coffee, rose from his seat, shook hands with the boy, gave him his name and address in case he ever wanted advice or help and continued his walk under the trees overlooking the river. The news had come to him out of the sky, and in a way that partook almost of the supernatural. There was no doubt in his mind of the truth. The boy's Southern accent and his description of the man who ten years before had denounced Olivia and himself, was confirmation enough.
As he forged along, elbowing his way among the throng that crowded the sidewalk, the scene in the garret the night he parted from Olivia took possession of him—the one scene in all their past relation on which he never allowed himself to dwell. He recalled the tones of her voice, the outline of her figure crouching at his knees, the squares of moonlight illumining the floor and the room, and now once again he listened to the story she had poured into his ears that fatal night.
By the time he had reached his studio his mind was made up. Olivia was in trouble, perhaps in want. In the conditions about her she must be threatened by many dangers and must suffer many privations. The old ungovernable longing again gripped him, and with renewed force.
What was there in life but love? he said to himself. What else counted? What were his triumphs, his honors, his position among his brother painters, his welcome among his equals, compared to the love of this woman? What happiness had they brought him? Then his mind reverted to his past life. How hungry had he been for the touch of a hand, the caress of a cheek, the whispered talk into responsive ears. No! there was nothing—nothing but love! Everything else was but the ashes of a bitter fruit.
He must see Olivia, and at once; the long wait was over now. What her attitude of mind might be made no difference, or what her feeling towards him for deserting her on that terrible night. To-day she was unprotected, perhaps in want. To help her was a matter of honor.
With these thoughts crowding out every other, and with the impetus of the resolve hot upon him, he opened his portfolio and wrote a note, informing the committee in charge of the Rochambeau picture of his sudden departure for America and the consequent impossibility of executing the commission with which they had honored him.
Three days later, with a new joy surging through his veins, he set sail for home.
Again Adam drew rein and looked over the brown hills of Maryland. No wealth of bursting blossoms greeted him; the trees were bare of leaves, their naked branches shivering in the keen November wind; in the dips of the uneven roads the water lay in pools; above hung a dull, gray sky telling of the coming cold; long lines of crows were flying southward, while here and there a deserted cabin showed the havoc the years of war had wrought—a havoc which had spared neither friend nor foe.
None of these things disturbed Adam nor checked the flow of his spirits. The cold would not reach his heart; there was a welcome ahead—of eye and hand and heart. No word of him had reached her ears. If she had forgiven him, thought of him at all, it was as across the sea in some unknown land. Doubtless she still believed he had forgotten her and their early days. This would make the surprise he held in store for her all the more joyous.
As he neared the brow of the hill he began to con over in his mind the exact words he would use when he was ushered into her presence. He would pretend at first to be a wayfarer and ask for a night's lodging, or, perhaps, it might be best to inquire for young Phil, who must now be a great strapping lad. Then he began thinking out other surprises. Of course she would know him—know him before he opened his lips. How foolish, then, the pretence of deceiving her. What was really more important was the way in which he would enter the house; some care must therefore be exercised. If he should approach by the rear and meet either Dinah or old Bundy, who must still be alive, of course they would recognize him at once before he could caution them, the back door being near the old kitchen. The best way would be to signal Bundy and call to him before the old man could fully identify him. He could then open the door softly and step in front of her.
Perhaps another good way would be to leave his horse in the stable, and wait until it grew quite dark—the twilight was already gathering—watch the lights being lit, and in this way discover in which room she was sitting. Then he would creep under the window and sing the old song they had listened to so often together, "Weep no mo', me lady." She would know then who had come all these miles to see her!