"Hab he got dat debbil hat on he head, chile?" inquired Aunt Hominy, laying down the club with which she was beating biscuit-dough on the block.
"Yes, aunty, he's left it on the hat-rack. I'm afraid to go past it to the do'."
Aunt Hominy threw the club on the blistered bulk of dough, and retreated towards the big black fireplace, with a face expressive of so much fright and cunning humor together that it seemed about to turn white, but only got as far as a pucker and twitches.
"De Lord a massy!" exclaimed Aunt Hominy, "chillen, le's burn dat hat in de fire! Maybe it'll liff de trouble off o' dis yer house. We got de hat jess wha' we want it, chillen. Roxy, gal, you go fotch it to Aunt Hominy!"
The girl started as if she had been asked to take up a snake: "'Deed, Aunt Hominy, I wouldn't touch it to save my life. Nobody but ole Samson ever did that!"
"Go' long, gal!" cried Aunt Hominy, "didn't Miss Vessy hole dat ar' hat one time, an' pin a white rose in it? Didn't he, dat drefful Meshach Milbun, offer Miss Vessy a gole dollar, an' she wouldn' have none of his gole? Dat she did! Virgie, you go git dat hat, chile! Poke it off de rack wid my pot-hook heah. 'Twon't hurt you, gal! I'll sprinkle ye fust wid camomile an' witch-hazel dat I keep up on de chimney-jamb."
Aunt Hominy turned towards the broadly notched chimney sides, where fifty articles of negro pharmacy were kept—bunches of herbs, dried peppers, bladders of seeds, and bottles of every mystic potency.
"Aunty," answered Virgie, "if I wasn't afraid of that Bad Man, I would be afraid to move that hat, because Miss Vessy would be mortified. Think of her seeing me treating a visitor's things like that. Why, I'd rather be sold!"
"Dat hat," persisted Aunt Hominy, "is de ruin ob dis family. Dat hat, gals, de debbil giv' ole Meshach, an' made him wear it fo' de gift ob gittin' all de gole in Somerset County. Don't I know when he wore it fust? Dat was when he begun to git all de gole. Fo' dat he had been po' as a lizzer, sellin' to niggers, cookin' fo' heseff, an' no' count, nohow. He sot up in de loft of his ole sto' readin' de Bible upside down to git de debbil's frenship. De debbil come in one night, and says to ole Meshach: 'Yer's my hat! Go, take it, honey, and measure land wid it, and all de land you measure is yo's, honey!' An' Meshach's measured mos' all dis county in. Jedge Custis's land is de last."
The relation affected both girls considerably, and the group of little colored boys and girls still more, who came up almost chilled with terror, to listen; but it produced the greatest effect on Aunt Hominy herself, whose imagination, widened in the effort, excited all her own fears, and gave irresistible vividness to her legend.
"How can his hat measure people's lands in, Aunty?" asked Virgie, drawing Roxy to her by the waist for their mutual protection.
"Why, chile, he measures land in by de great long shadows dat debbil's hat throws. Meshach, he sots his eyes on a good farm. Says he, 'I'll measure dat in!' So he gits out dar some sun-up or sundown, when de sun jest sots a'mos' on de groun, an' ebery tree an' fence-pos' and standin' thing goes away over de land, frowin' long crooked shadows. Dat's de time Meshach stans up, wid dat hat de debbil gib him to make him longer, jest a layin' on de fields like de shadow of a big church-steeple. He walks along de road befo' de farm, and wherever dat hat makes a mark on de ground all between it an' where he walks is ole Meshach's land. Dat's what he calls his mortgage!"
The children had their mouths wide open; the maids heard with faith only less than fear.
"But, Aunt Hominy," spoke Roxy, "he never measured in Judge Custis's house, and all of us in it, that is to be sold."
"Didn't I see him a doin' of it?" whispered Aunt Hominy, stooping as if to creep, in the contraction of her own fears, and looking up into their faces with her fists clinched. "He's a ben comin' along de fence on de darkest, cloudiest nights dis long a time, like a man dat was goin' to rob something, and peepin' up at Miss Vessy's window. He took de dark nights, when de streets of Prencess Anne was clar ob folks, an' de dogs was in deir cribs, an' nuffin' goin' aroun' but him an' wind an' cold an' rain. One night, while he was watchin' Miss Vessy's window like a black crow, from de shadow of de tree, I was a-watchin' of him from de kitchen window. De moon, dat had been all hid, come right from behin' de rain-clouds all at once, gals, an' scared him like. De moon was low on de woods, chillen, an' as ole Meshach turned an' walked away, his debbil's shadow swept dis house in. He measured it in dat night. It's ben his ever since."
"Well," exclaimed Roxy, after a pause, "I know I wouldn't take hold of that hat now."
"I am almost afraid to look at it," said Virgie, "but if Miss Vessy told me to go bring it to her, I would do it."
"Le's us all go together," ventured Aunt Hominy, "and take a peep at it. Maybe it won't hurt us, if we all go."
Aware that Judge Custis and his wife were not near, the little circle of servants—Aunt Hominy, Virgie, Roxy, and the four children, from five to fourteen years of age—filed softly from the kitchen through the covered colonnade, and thence along the back passage to the end of the hall, where they made a group, gazing with believing wonder at the King James tile.
* * * Vesta Custis, having changed her morning robe for a walking-suit, and slightly rearranged her toilet, and knelt speechless awhile to receive the unknown will of Heaven, came down the stairs at last, in time to catch a glimpse of half-a-dozen servants staring at a strange old hat on the hall rack. They hastily fled at her appearance, but the idea of the hat was also conveyed to her own fancy by their unwonted behavior. She looked up an instant at the queer, faded article hanging among its betters, and with a reminiscence of childhood, and of having held it in her hand, there descended along the intervening years upon the association, the odor of a rose and the impression of a pair of bold, startled eyes gazing into hers. She opened the library door, and the same eyes were looking up from her father's easy-chair.
"Mr. Milburn, I believe?" said Vesta, walking to the visitor, and extending her hand with native sweetness.
He arose and bowed, and hardly saw the hand in the earnest look he gave her, as if she had surprised him, and he did not know how to express his bashfulness. She did not withdraw the hand till he took it, and then he did not let it go. His strong, rather than bold, look, continuing, she dropped her eyes to the hand that mildly held her own, and then she observed, all calm as she was, that his hand was a gentleman's, its fingers long and almost delicate, the texture white, the palm warm, and, as it seemed to her, of something like a brotherly pressure, respectful and gentle too.
As he did not speak immediately, Vesta returned to his face, far less inviting, but peculiar—the black hair straight, the cheek-bones high, no real beard upon him anywhere, the shape of the face broad and powerful, and the chops long, while the yellowish-brown eyes, wide open and intense, answered to the open, almost observant nostrils at the end of his straight, fine nose. His complexion was dark and forester-like, seeming to show a poor, unnutritious diet. He was hardly taller than Vesta. His teeth were good, and the mouth rather small. She thought he was uncertain what to say, or confused in his mind, though no sign of fear was visible. Vesta came to his rescue, withdrawing her hand naturally.
"I have seen you many times, Mr. Milburn, but never here, I think."
"No, miss, I have never been here." He hesitated. "Nor anywhere in Princess Anne. You are the first lady here to speak to me."
His words, but not his tone, intimated an inferiority or a slight. The voice was a little stiff, appearing to be at want for some corresponding inflection, like a man who had learned a language without having had the use of it.
"Will you sit, Mr. Milburn? You owe this visit so long that you will not be in haste to-day. I hope you have not felt that we were inhospitable. But little towns often encourage narrow circles, and make people more selfish than they intend."
"You could never be selfish, miss," said Milburn, without any of the suavity of a compliment, still carrying that wild, regarding gaze, like the eyes of a startled ox.
Vesta faintly colored at the liberty he took. It was slightly embarrassing to her, too, to meet that uninterpretable look of inquiry and homage; but she felt her necessity as well as her good-breeding, and made allowance for her visitor's want of sophistication. He was like an Indian before a mirror, in a stolid excitement of apprehension and delight. The most beautiful thing he ever saw was within the compass of his full sight at last, and whether to detain it by force or persuasion he did not know.
Her dark hair, silky as the cleanest tassels of the corn, fell as naturally upon her perfect head as her teeth, white as the milky corn-rows, moved in the May cherries of her lips. The delicate arches of her brows, shaded by blackbirds' wings, enriched the clear sky of her harmonious eyes, where mercy and nobility kept company, as in heaven.
"How could you know I was unselfish, Mr. Milburn?"
"Because I have heard you sing."
"Oh, yes! You hear me in our church, I remember."
"I have heard you every Sunday that you sung there for years," said Meshach, with hardly a change of expression.
"Are you fond of music, Mr. Milburn?"
"Yes, I like all I have ever heard—birds and you."
"I will sing for you, then," said Vesta, taking the relief the talk directed her to. A piano was in another room, but, to avoid changing the scene, as well as to use a simpler accompaniment for an ignorant man's ears, she brought her guitar, and, placing it in her lap, struck the strings and the key, without waiting, to these tender words:
"Oh, for some sadly dying note, Upon this silent hour to float, Where, from the bustling world remote, The lyre might wake its melody! One feeble strain is all can swell. From mine almost deserted shell, In mournful accents yet to tell That slumbers not its minstrelsy.
"There is an hour of deep repose, That yet upon my heart shall close, When all that nature dreads and knows Shall burst upon me wondrously; Oh, may I then awake, forever, My harp to rapture's high endeavor; And, as from earth's vain scene I sever, Be lost in Immortality."
Vesta ceased a few minutes, and, her visitor saying nothing, she remarked, with emotion.
"Those lines were written at my grandfather's house, in Accomac County, by a young clergyman from New York, who was grandfather's rector, Rev. James Eastburn. He was only twenty-two years old when he died, at sea, of consumption. His is the only poetry I have ever heard of, Mr. Milburn, written in our beautiful old country here."
"I wondered if I should ever hear you sing for me," spoke Milburn, after hesitation. "Now it is realized, I feel sceptical about it. You are there, Miss Custis, are you not?"
Vesta was puzzled. Under other circumstances she would have been amused, since her humor could flow freely as her music. It faintly seemed to her that the little odd man might be cracked in the head.
"Yes, indeed, Mr. Milburn. If it were a dream, I should have no expression all this day but song. I think I never felt so sad to sing as just now. Father is ill. Mamma is ill. I have become the business agent of the family, and have heard within this hour that papa is deeply involved. You are his creditor, are you not?"
Meshach Milburn bowed.
"What is the sum of papa's notes and mortgages? Is it more than he can pay by the sacrifice of everything?"
"Yes. He has nothing to sell at forced sale which will bring anything, but the household servants here; these maids in the family are marketable immediately. You would not like to sell them?"
"Sell Virgie! She was brought up with me; what right have I to sell her any more than she has to sell me?"
"None," said Milburn, bluntly, "but there is law for it."
"To sell Roxy, too, and old Aunt Hominy, and the young children! how could I ever pray again if they were sold? Oh! Mr. Milburn, where was your heart, to let papa waste his plentiful substance in such a hopeless experiment? If my singing in the church has given you happiness, why could it not move you to mercy? Think of the despair of this family, my father's helpless generosity, my mother's marriage settlement gone, too, and every other son and daughter parted from them!"
"I never encouraged one moment Judge Custis's expenditure," said Meshach, "though I lent him money. The first time he came to me to borrow, my mind was in a liberal disposition, for you had just entered it with your innocent attentions. I supposed he wanted a temporary accommodation, and I gave it to him at the lowest rate one Christian would charge another."
"You say that I influenced you to lend my father money? Why, sir, I was a child. He has been borrowing from you since my earliest recollections."
The creditor took from his breast-pocket a large leather wallet, and, arising, laid its contents on the table. He opened a piece of folded paper, and drew from it two objects; one a lock of blue-black hair like his own, and the other a pressed and faded rose.
"This flower," said Milburn, with reverence, "Judge Custis's daughter fastened in my derided hat. I kept it till it was dead, and laid it away with my mother's hair, the two religious objects of my life. That faded rose made me your father's creditor, Miss Custis."
Vesta took the rose, and looked at him with surprise and inquiry.
"Oh, why did not this flower speak for us?" she said; "to open your lips after that, to save my father? Then you informed yourself, and knew that he was hurrying to destruction, but still you gave him money at higher interest."
Milburn looked at her with diminished courage, but sincerity, and answered: "Your voice sang between us, Miss Custis, every time he came. I did not admit to myself what it was, but the feeling that I was being drawn near you still opened my purse to your father, till he has drained me of the profits of years, which I gave him with a lavish fatality, though grasping every cent from every source but that. I did know, then, he could not probably repay me, but every Sabbath at the church you sang, and that seemed some compensation. I was bewitched; indistinct visions of gratitude and recognition from you filled the preaching with concourses of angels, all bearing your image, and hovering above me. The price I paid for that unuttered and ever-repelled hope has been princely, but never grudged, and it has been pure, I believe, or Heaven would have punished me. The more I ruined myself for your father, the more successful my ventures were in all other places; if you were my temptation, it had the favor or forgiveness of the God in whose temple it was born."
Vesta arose also, with a frightened spirit.
"Do I understand you?" she said, with her rich gray eyes wide open under their startled lashes. "My father has spoken of a degrading condition? Is it to love you?"
For the first time Meshach Milburn dropped his eyes.
"I never supposed it possible for you to love me," he said, bitterly. "I thought God might permit me some day to love you."
"Do you know what love is?" asked Vesta, with astonishment.
"How came you, then, to be interpreting my good acts so basely, carrying even my childhood about in your evil imagination, and cursing my father's sorrow with the threat of his daughter's slavery?"
Milburn heard with perfect humility these hard imputations.
"You have not loved, I think, Miss Custis?" he said, with a slight flush. "I have believed you never did."
He raised his eyes again to her face.
"I loved my father above everything," faltered Vesta. "I saw no man, besides, admiring my father."
"Then I displaced no man's right, coveting your image. Sometimes it seemed you were being kept free so long to reward my silent worship. I do not know what love is, but I know the gifts of God, as they bloom in nature, repel no man's devotion. The flowers, the birds, and the forest, delighted my childhood; my youth was spent in the study of myself and man; at last a beautiful child appeared to me, spoke her way to my soul, and it could never expel her glorious presence. All things became subordinate to her, even avarice and success. She kept me a Christian, or I should have become utterly selfish; she kept me humble, for what was my wealth when I could not enter her father's house! I am here by a destiny now; the power that called you to this room, so unexpectedly to me, has borne us onward to the secret I dreaded to speak to you. Dare I go further?"
She was trying to keep down her insulted feelings, and not say something that should forever exasperate her father's creditor, but the possibility of marrying him was too tremendous to reply.
"This moment is a great one," continued Milburn, firmly, "for I feel that it is to terminate my visions of happiness, and of kindness as well. You have expressed yourself so indignantly, that I see no thought of me has ever lodged in your mind. Why should it have ever done so? Though I almost dreamed it had, because you filled my life so many years with your rich image, I thought you might have felt me, like an apparition, stealing around this dwelling often in the dark and rain, content with the ray of light your window threw upon the deserted street. Now I see that I was a weak dunce, whose passion nature lent no nerve of hers to convey even to your notice. Better for me that I had hugged the debasing reality of my gold, and lost my eyes to everything but its comfort!"
He looked towards the door. Vesta sat down in the fairy rocker, and detained him.
"You have told me the feeling you think you had, Mr. Milburn. Poor as we Custises are now, it will not do to be proud. How did you ever think that feeling could be returned by me? My youth, my connections, everything, would forbid me, without haughtiness, to see a suitor in you. Then, you took no means to turn my attention towards you. You could have been neighborly, had you desired. You did not even wear the commonest emblems of a lover—"
She paused. Milburn said to himself:
"Ah! that accursed Hat."
The interruption ruffled his temper:
"I have had reasons, also proud, Miss Custis, to be consistent with my perpetual self here. I will put the substantial merits of my case to you, since I see that I am not likely to make myself otherwise attractive. This house is already mine. The law will, in a few weeks, put me in possession of your father's entire property. I shall change outward circumstances with him in Princess Anne. He is too old to adopt my sacrifices, and recover his situation; he may find some shifting refuge with his sons and daughters, but, even if his spirit could brook that dependence, it would be very unnecessary, when, by marrying his creditor, you can retain everything he now has to make his family respectable. I offer you his estate as your marriage portion!"
He took up from the table the notes her father had negotiated, and laid them in her lap.
Vesta sat rocking slowly, and deeply agitated. She had in her mouth the comfort and honor of her parents, which she could confer in a single word. It was a responsibility so mighty that it made her tremble.
"Oh! what shall I say?" she thought. "It will be a sin to say 'Yes.' To say 'No' would be a crime."
"You shall retain every feature of your home—your servants, your mother, and her undiminished portion; your liberty in the fullest sense. I will contribute to send your father to the legislature or to congress, to sustain his pride, and keep him well occupied. The Furnace he may appear to have sold to me, and I will accept the unpopularity of closing it. I ask only to serve you, and inhabit your daily life, like one of these negroes you are kind to, and if I am ever harsh to you, Miss Vesta, I swear to surrender you to your family, and depart forever."
Vesta shook her head.
"There is no separation but one," she said, "when Heaven has been called down to the marriage solemnity. It is before that act that we must consider everything. How could I make you happy? My own happiness I will dismiss. Yours must then comprehend mine. Kindness might make me grateful, but gratitude will not satisfy your love."
"Yes," exclaimed Milburn, chasing up his advantage with tremulous ardor; "the long famine of my heart will be thankful for a dry crust and a cup of ice. Here at the fireside let me sit and warm, and hear the rustle of your dress, and grow in heavenly sensibility. You will redeem a savage, you will save a soul!"
"It is not the price I must pay to do this, I would have you consider, sir," Vesta replied, with her attention somewhat arrested by his intensity; "it is the price you are paying—your self-respect, perhaps—by the terms on which you obtain me. It may never be known out of this family that I married you for the sake of my father and mother. But how am I to prevent you from remembering it, especially when you say that I am the sum of your purest wishes? If your interest would consume after you obtained me, we might, at least, be indifferent; but if it grew into real love, would you not often accuse yourself?"
Meshach Milburn sat down, cast his large brown eyes upon the floor, and listened in painful reflection.
"You cannot conceive I have had any real love for you?" he exclaimed, dubiously.
"You have seen me, and desired me for your wife; that is all," said Vesta, "that I can imagine. Lawless power could do that anywhere. To be an obedient wife is the lot of woman; but love, such as you have some glimmering of, is a mystic instinct so mutual, so gladdening, yet so free, that the captivity you set me in to make me sing to you will divide us like the wires of a cage."
"There is no bird I ever caught," said Meshach Milburn, "that did not learn to trust me. Your comparison does not, therefore, discourage me. And you have already sung for me, the saddest day of your life!"
A slight touch of nature in this revelation of her strange suitor called Vesta's attention to the study of him again. With her intelligence and sense of higher worth coming to her rescue, she thought: "Let me see all that is of this Tartar, for, perhaps, there may be another way to his mercy."
As she recovered composure, however, she grew more beautiful in his sight, her dark, peerless charms filling the room, her kindling eyes conveying love, her skin like the wild plum's, and her raven brows and crown of luxuriant hair rising upon a queenly presence worthy of an empress's throne. Such beauty almost made Milburn afraid, but the energies of his character were all concentrated to secure it.
"Who are you?" she asked, with a calm, searching look, cast from her highest self-respect and alert intelligence. "Have you any relations or connections fit to bring here—to this house, to me?"
"Not one that I know," said the forester. "I am nothing but myself, and what you will make of me."
"Where were you born and reared?"
"The house does not stand which witnessed that misery," spoke Milburn, with a flush of obdurate pride; "it was burned last night, not far from the furnace which swallowed your father's substance."
"Why, I would be afraid of you, Mr. Milburn, if your errand here was not so practical. Omens and wonders surround you. Birds forget their natural life for you. Iron ceases to be occult when you take it up. Your birthplace in this world disappears by fire the night before you foreclose a mortgage upon a gentleman's daughter. Is all this sorcery inseparable from that necromancer's Hat you wear in Princess Anne?"
She had touched the sensitive topic by a skilful approach, yet he changed color, as if the allusion piqued him.
"Nature never rebuked my hat, Miss Vesta, and you are so like nature, it will not occupy your thoughts. I recollect the day you decorated my old hat; said I: 'perhaps this vagrant head-covering, after all its injuries and wanderings, may some day find a peg beneath my own roof, and the kind welcome of a lady like that little miss.' That was several years ago, and to-day, for the first time, my hat is on the rack of your hall. The long wish of the heart is not often denied. We are not responsible for it. The only conspiracy I have plotted here, was that I did not oppose most natural occurrences, all drawing towards this scene. My magic was hope and humility. I dared to wear my ancestor's hat in the face of a contemptuous and impertinent provincial public, and it gave me the pride to persevere till I should bring it home to honors and to noble shelter. If you despise my hat, you will despise me."
"Oh, no; Mr. Milburn! I try never to despise anything. If you wore your family hat from some filial respect, it was, in part, piety. But was that, indeed, your motive in being so eccentric?"
Milburn felt uneasy again. He hesitated, and said:
"In perfect truth, I fear not. There may have been something of revenge in my mind. I had been grossly insulted."
"Is it not something of that revenge which instigates you here—even in this profession of love?" exclaimed Vesta, judicially.
Meshach looked up, and the shadows cleared from his face.
"I can answer that truthfully, lady. Towards you, not an indignant thought has ever harbored in my brain. It has been the opposite: protection, worship, tender sensibility."
"Has that exceptional charity extended to my father?"
Vesta would have been exasperated, but for his candor.
"My father never insulted you, sir?"
"No, he patronized me. He meant no harm, but that old hat has worn a deep place in my brain through carrying it so long, and it is a subject that galls me to mention it. Yet, I must be consistent with my only eccentricity. Wherever I may go, there goes my hat; it makes my identity, my inflexibility; it achieves my promise to myself, that men shall respect my hat before I die."
"Pardon me," said Vesta, not uninterested in his character, "I can understand an eccentricity founded on family respect. We were Virginians, and that is next to religion there. The negroes of our family share it with us. You had a family, then?"
Milburn shook his head.
"No; not a family in the sense you mean. Generations of obscurity, a parentage only virtuous; no tombstone anywhere, no crest nor motto, not even a self-deluding lie of some former gentility, shaped from hand to hand till it commits a larceny on history, and is brazen on a carriage panel! We were foresters. We came forth and existed and perished, like the families of ants upon the ant-hills of sand. We migrated no more than the woodpeckers in your sycamore trees, and made no sound in events more than their insectivorous tapping. Out yonder beyond Dividing Creek, in the thickets of small oak and low pines, many a little farm, scratched from the devouring forest, speckling the plains and wastes with huts and with little barns of logs, once bore the name of Milburn through all the localities of the Pocomoke to and beyond the great Cypress Swamp. They are dying, but never dead. The few who live expect no recognition from me, and, happy in their poverty, envy me nothing I have accumulated. My name has grown hard to them, my hat is the subject of their superstitions, my ambition and success have lost me their sympathy without giving me any other social compensation. You behold a desperate man, a merciless creditor, a tussock of ore from the bogs of Nassawongo, yet one whose only crimes have been to adore you, and to wear his forefathers' hat."
"Is this pride, then, wholly insulted sensibility, Mr. Milburn?"
"I cannot say, Miss Custis. You may smile, but I think it is aristocracy."
"I think so, too," exclaimed Vesta reflectively; "you are a proud man. My father, who has had reason to be proud, is less an aristocrat, sir, than you."
Milburn's flush came and stayed a considerable while. He was not displeased at Vesta's compliment, though it bore the nature of an accusation.
"You are aristocratic," explained Vesta, "because you adopted the obsolete hat of your people. Whatever vanity led you to do it, it was the satisfaction of some origin, I think."
She checked herself, seeing that she was entering into his affairs with too much freedom.
"I suppose that somewhere, some time," spoke the strange visitor, "some person of my race has been influential and prosperous. Indeed, I have been told so. He was elevated to both the magistracy and the scaffold, but my hat had even an older origin."
"Tell me about that ancestor," said Vesta, the heartache from his greater errand instigating her to defer it, while she was yet barely conscious that the man was original, if not interesting.
He told a singular tale, tracing his hat to Raleigh's times and through Sir Henry Vane to America, till it became the property of Jacob Milborne, the popular martyr who was executed in New York, and his brethren driven into Maryland, bringing with them the harmless hat as their only patrimony.
Before he began, Milburn drew up his compact little figure and opened the door to the hall. The wind or air from some of the large, cold apartments of the long house, coming in by some crack or open sash, gave almost a shriek, and scattered the fire in the chimney.
Vesta felt her blood chill a moment as her visitor re-entered with the antediluvian hat, and placed it upon the table beneath the lamp.
It had that look of gentility victorious over decay, which suggested the mummy of some Pharaoh, brought into a drawing-room on a learned society's night. Vesta repressed a smile, rising through her pain, at the gravity of the forester guest, who was about to demonstrate his aristocracy through this old hat. It seemed to her, also, that the portraits of the Custises, on the wall, carried indignant noses in the air at their apparently conscious knowledge of the presence of some unburied pretender, as if, in Westminster Abbey, the effigies of the Norman kings had slightly aroused to feel Oliver Cromwell lying among them in state.
The hat, Vesta perceived, was Flemish, such as was popular in England while the Netherlands was her ally against the house of Spain, and, stripped of its ornaments, was lengthened into the hat of the Puritans.
Vesta attempted to exert her liberality and perceive some beauty in this hat, but the utmost she could admit was the tyranny of fashion over the mind—it seemed, over the soul itself, for this old hat, inoffensive as it was, weighed down her spirits like a diving-bell.
The man, without his hat, had somewhat redeemed himself from low conversation and ideas, but now, that he brought this hat in and associated his person with it, she shrank from him as if he had been a triple-hatted Jew, peddling around the premises.
The obnoxious hat also exercised some exciting influence over Meshach Milburn, if his changed manner could be ascribed to that article, for he resumed his strong, wild-man's stare, deepened and lowered his voice, and without waiting for any query or expression of his listener, told the tale.
HA! HA! THE WOOING ON'T.
It was twilight when Meshach Milburn closed his story, and silence and pallid eve drew together in the Custis sitting-room, resembling the two people there, thinking on matrimony, the one grave as conscious serpenthood could make him, the other fluttering like the charmed bird. Vesta spoke first:
"How intense must be your head to create so many objects around it within the world of a hat! You have only brought the story down a little way towards our times."
"I began the tale of Raleigh out of proportion," said Milburn, "and it grew upon the same scale, like the passion I conceived for you so intensely at the outset, that in the climax of this night I am scarcely begun."
"Yet, like Raleigh, I see the scaffold," said Vesta, with an attempt at humor that for the first time broke her down, and she raised her hands to her face to hush the burst of anguish. It would not be repressed, and one low cry, deep with the sense of desertion and captivity, sounded through the deepening room and smote Milburn's innermost heart. He obeyed an impulse he had not felt since his mother died, starting towards Vesta and throwing his arms around her, and drawing her to his breast.
"Honey, honey," he whispered, kissing her like a child, "don't cry now, honey. It will break my heart."
The act of nature seldom is misinterpreted; Vesta, having labored so long alone with this obdurate man, her young faculties of the head strained by the first encounter beyond her strength, accepted the friendship of his sympathy and contrition, as if he had been her father. In a few moments the paroxysm of grief was past, and she disengaged his arms.
"You are not merciless," said Vesta. "Tell me what I must do! You have broken my father down and he cannot come to my help. Take pity on my inequality and advise me!"
"Alas! child," said Milburn, "my advice must be in my own interest, though I wish I could find your confidence. I am a poor creature, and do not know how. It is you who must encourage the faith I feel starting somewhere in this room, like a chimney swallow that would fain fly out. Chirrup, chirrup to it, and it may come!"
Standing a moment, trying to collect her thoughts and wholly failing, Vesta accepted the confidence he held out to her with open arms. Blushing as she had never blushed in her life, though he could not know it in the evening dark, she walked to him and kissed him once.
"Will that encourage you to advise me like a friend?" she said.
"Alas! no," sighed Milburn fervently, "it makes me the more your unjust lover. I cannot advise you away from me. Oh, let me plead for myself. I love you!"
"Then what shall I do," exclaimed Vesta, in low tones, "if you are unable to rise to the height of my friend, and my father is your slave? Do you think God can bless your prosperity, when you are so hard with your debtor? On me the full sacrifice falls, though I never was in your debt consciously, and I have never to my remembrance wished injury to any one."
"Would you accept your father's independence at the expense of the most despised man in Princess Anne?" Milburn spoke without changing his kind tone. "Would you let me give him the fruit of many years of hard toil and careful saving, in order that I shall be disappointed in the only motive of assisting him—the honorable wooing of his daughter?"
She felt her pride rising.
"Your father's debts to me are tens of thousands of dollars," continued Milburn. "Do you ask me to present that sum to you, and retire to my loneliness out of this bright light of home and family, warmth and music, that you have made? That is the test you put my love to: banishment from you. Will you ask it?"
"I have not asked for your money, sir," said Vesta. "Yet I have heard of Love doing as much as that, relieving the anguish of its object, and finding sufficient joy in the self-denying deed."
"I do not think you personally know of any such case, though you may have read it in a novel or tract. Men have died, and left a fortune they could no longer keep, to some cherished lady; or they have made a considerable sacrifice for a beautiful and noble woman; but where did you ever hear, Miss Vesta, of a famished lover, surrendering every endowment that might win the peerless one, to be himself returned to his sorrow, tortured still by love, and by his neighbors ridiculed? What would Princess Anne say of me? That I had been made a fool of, and hurl new epithets after my hat?"
Vesta searched her mind, thinking she must alight upon some such example there, but none suited the case. Meshach took advantage of her silence:
"The gifts of a lover are everywhere steps to love, as I have understood. He makes his impression with them; they are expected. Nothing creates happiness like a gift, and it is an old saying that blessings await him who gives, and also her who takes, and that to seek and ask and knock are praiseworthy."
"Oh," said Vesta, "but to be bought, Mr. Milburn? To be weighed against a father's debts—is it not degrading?"
"Not where such respect and cherishing as mine will be. Rather exalt yourself as more valuable to a miser than his whole lendings, and greater than all your father's losses as an equivalent, and even then putting your husband in debt, being so much richer than his account."
"Where will be my share of love in this world, married so?" asked Vesta. "To love is the globe itself to a woman, her youth the mere atmosphere thereof, her widowhood the perfume of that extinguished star; and all my mind has been alert to discover the image I shall serve, the bright youth ready for me, looking on one after another to see if it might be he, and suddenly you hold between me and my faith a paper with my father's obligations, and say: 'Here is your fate; this is your whole romance; you are foreclosed upon!' How are you to take a withered heart like that and find glad companionship in it? No, you will be disappointed. It will recoil upon me that I sold myself."
"The image you waited for may have come," said Milburn undauntedly, "even in me; for love often springs from an ambush, nor can you prepare the heart for it like a field. I recollect a fable I read of a god loving a woman, and he burst upon her in a shower of gold; and what was that but a rich man's wooing? We get gold to equalize nobility in women; beauty is luxurious, and demands adornment and a rich setting; the richest man in Princess Anne is not good enough for you, and the mere boys your mind has been filled with are more unworthy of being your husband than the humble creditor of your father. Such a creation as Miss Vesta required a special sacrifice and success in the character of her husband. The annual life of this peninsula could not match you, and a monster had to be raised to carry you away."
"You are not exactly a monster," Vesta remarked, with natural compassion, "and you compliment me so warmly that it relieves the strain of this encounter a little. Do not draw a woman's attention to your defects, as she might otherwise be charmed by your voice."
"That also is a part of my sacrifice," said Meshach, "like the money which I have accumulated. Without a teacher, but love and hope, I have educated myself to be fit to talk to you. It is all crude now, like a crow that I have taught to speak, but encouragement will make me confident and saucy, and you will forget my sable raiment—even my hat."
A chilliness seemed to attend this conclusion, and Vesta touched her bell. Virgie, entering, took her mistress's instructions: "Bring a tray and tea, and lights, and place Mr. Milburn's hat upon the rack!"
The girl glanced at the antique hat with a timid light in her eye, but her mistress's head was turned as if to intimate that she must take it, though it might be red-hot. Virgie obeyed, and soon brought in the tea.
"It is good tea," spoke Milburn, drinking not from the cup, but the saucer, while Vesta observed him oddly, "and it is chill this evening. Let me start your fire!"
He shivered a little as he stood up and walked across the room, and poking the charred logs into a flame; and, setting on more wood, he made the walls spring into yellow flashes, between which Vesta saw her forefathers dart cold glances at her, in their gilt frames—yet how helpless they were, with all their respectability, to take her body or her father's honor out of pawn!—and she felt for the first time the hollowness of family power, except in the ever-preserved mail of a solvent posterity. She also made a long, careful survey of her suitor, to see if there was any apology for him as a husband.
His figure was short, but with strength and elasticity in it; better clothes might fit him daintily, and Vesta re-dressed him in fancy with lavender kids upon his small hands, a ring upon his long little finger, a carnelian seal and a ribbon at his fob-pocket, and ruffles in his shirt-bosom. In place of his dull cloth suit, she would give him a buff vest and pearl buttons with eyelet rings, and white gaiters instead of those shabby green things over his feet, and put upon his head a neat silk hat with narrow brim to raise his height slenderly, and let a coat of olive or dark-blue, and trousers of the same color, relieve his ornaments. Thus transformed, Vesta could conceive a peculiar yet a passable man, whom a lady might grow considerate towards by much praying and striving, and she wondered, now, how this man had managed to soothe her already to that degree that she had voluntarily kissed him. She would be afraid to do it again, but it was as clearly on record as that she had once put a flower in his hat; and Vesta said to herself:
"He has power of some kind! That story, little as I heard of it, was told with an opinionated confidence I wish my poor father had something of. Could I ever be happy with this man, by study and piety? God might open the way, but it seems closed to me now."
"The night wears on, Miss Custis," spoke Meshach. "Its rewards are already great to me. When may I return?"
"I think we must determine what to do this night, Mr. Milburn," Vesta said, with rising determination. "Not one point nearer have we come to any solution of this obligation of my father. We have considered it up to this time as my obligation, and that may have unduly encouraged you. Sir, I can work for my living."
"You work?" repeated Milburn.
"Why not? I love my father. As other women who are left poor work for their children or a sick husband, why should not I for him! Poverty has no terrors but—but the loss of pride."
"You hazard that, whatever happens," said her suitor, "but you will not lose it by evading the lesser evil for the greater. I have heard of women who fled to poverty from dissatisfaction with a husband, but pride survived and made poverty dreadful. Pride in either case increased the discontent. You should take the step which will let pride be absorbed in duty, if not in love."
"Duty?" thought Vesta. "That is a reposeful word, better than Love. Mr. Milburn," she said aloud, "how is it my duty to do what you ask?"
"I think I perceive that you have a loyal heart, a conscientiousness that deceit cannot even approach. Something has already made you slow to marriage, else, with your wonders, I would not have had the chance to be now rejected by you. Marriage has become too formidable, perhaps, to you, by the purity of your heart, the more so because you looked upon it to be your destiny. It is your fate, but you contend against it. Look upon it, then, as a duty, such as you expect in others—in your slave maid, for instance."
"Alas!" Vesta said, "she may marry freely. I am the slave."
"No, Miss Vesta, she has been free, but, sold among strangers with your father's effects, will feel so perishing for sympathy and protection that love, in whatever ugly form it comes, will be God's blessing to her poor heart. What you repel in the revulsion of fortune—the yoke of a husband—millions of women have bent to as if it was the very rainbow of promise set in heaven."
"How do you know so much of women's trials, Mr. Milburn? Have you had sisters, or other ladies to woo?"
"I have seen human nature in my little shop, not, like your rare nature, refined by happy fortune and descent, but of moderate kind, and struggling downward like a wounded eagle. They have come to me at first for cheaper articles of necessity or smaller portions than other stores would sell, looking on me with contempt. At last they have sacrificed their last slave, their last pair of shoes, and, when it was too late, their false pride has surrendered to shelter under a negro's hut, or dance barefooted in my store for a cup of whiskey."
"Sir," exclaimed Vesta indignantly, rising from her rocker, "do you set this warning for me?"
As she rose Meshach Milburn thought his wealth was merely pebbles and shells to her perfection, now animated with a queen's spirit.
"Miss Vesta," he said, "pardon me, but I have just issued from many generations of forest poverty, and knowing how hard it is to break that thraldom, I would stop you from taking the first step towards it. The bloom upon your cheek, the mould you are the product of without flaw, the chaste lady's tastes and thoughts, and inborn strength and joy, are the work of God's favor to your family for generations. That favor he continues in laying those family burdens on another's shoulders, to spare you the toil and care, anxiety and slow decay, that this violent change of circumstances means. It would be a sin to relapse from this perfection to that penury."
"I cannot see that honorable poverty would make me less a woman," exclaimed Vesta.
"You do not dread poverty because you do not know it," Milburn continued. "It grows in this region like the old field-pines and little oaks over a neglected farm. Once there was a court-house settlement on Dividing Creek, where justice, eloquence, talent, wit, and heroism made the social centre of two counties, but they moved the court-house and the forest speedily choked the spot. Now not an echo lingers of that former glory. You can save your house from being swallowed up in the forest."
"By marrying the forest hero?" Vesta said, though she immediately regretted it.
"Yes," Milburn uttered stubbornly, after a pause. "I have met the house of Custis half-way. I am coming out of the woods as they are going in, unless the sacrifice be mutual."
"Let us not be personal," Vesta pleaded, with her grace of sorrow; "I feel that you are a kind man, at least to me, but a poor girl must make a struggle for herself."
She saw the tears stand instantly in his eyes, and pressed her advantage:
"Your tears are like the springs we find here, so close under the flinty sand that nobody would suspect them, but I have seen them trickle out. Tell me, now, if I would not be happier to take up the burden of my father and mother, and let us diminish and be frugal, instead of cowardly flying into the protection of our creditor, by a union which the world, at least, would pronounce mercenary. My father might come up again, in some way."
"No, Miss Vesta. Your father can hold no property while any portion of his debts remains unpaid. The easier way is to show the world that our union is not mercenary, by trying to love each other. Throughout the earth marriage is the reparation of ruined families—the short path, and the most natural one, too. Ruth was poor kin, but she turned from the harvest stubble that made her beautiful feet bleed, to crawl to the feet of old Boaz and find wifely rest, and her wisdom of choice we sing in the psalms of King David, and hear in the proverbs of King Solomon, sons of her sons."
"I am not thinking of myself, God knows!" said Vesta. "Gladly could I teach a little school, or be a governess somewhere, or, like our connection, the mother of Washington, ride afield in my sun-bonnet and straw hat and oversee the laborers."
"That never made General Washington, Miss Vesta. It was marriage that lent him to the world; first, his half-brother's marriage with the Fairfaxes; next, his own with Custis's rich widow. Had they been looking for natural parts only, some Daniel Morgan or Ethan Allen would have been Washington's commander."
"Why do you draw me to you by awakening the motive of my self-love?" asked Vesta. "That is not the way to preserve my heart as you would have it."
"In every way I can draw you to me," spoke Milburn, again trembling with earnestness, "I feel desperate to try. If it is wrong, it arises from my sense of self-preservation. Without you I am a dismal failure, and my labor in life is thrown away."
"Do you really believe you love me? Is it not ambition of some kind; perhaps a social ambition?"
"To marry a Custis?" Milburn exclaimed. "No, it is to marry you. I would rather you were not a Custis."
"Ah! I see, sir;" Vesta's face flushed with some admiration for the man; "you think your family name is quite as good. So you ought to do. Then you love me from a passion?"
"Partly that," answered Milburn. "I love you from my whole temperament, whatever it is; from the glow of youth and the reflection of manhood, from appreciation of you, and from worship, also; from the eye and the mind. I love you in the vision of domestic settlement, in the companionship of thought, in the partition of my ambition, in my instinct for cultivation. I love you, too, with the ardor of a lover, stronger than all, because I must possess you to possess myself; because you kindle flame in me, and my humanity of pity is trampled down by my humanity of desire; I cannot hear your appeal to escape! I am deaf to sentiments of honor and courtesy, if they let you slip me! Give yourself to me, and these better angels may prevail, being perhaps accessory to the mighty instinct I obey at the command of the Creator!"
As he proceeded, Vesta saw shine in Meshach Milburn's face the very ecstacy of love. His dark, resinous eyes were like forest ponds flashing at night under the torches of negro 'coon-hunters. His long lady's hands trembled as he stretched them towards her to clasp her, and she saw upon his brow and in his open nostril and firm mouth the presence of a will that seldom fails, when exerted mightily, to reduce a woman's, and make her recognize her lord.
Yet, with this strong excitement of mental and animal love, which generally animates man to eloquence, if not to beauty, a weary something, nearly like pain, marked the bold intruder, and a quiver, not like will and courage, went through his frame. It was this which touched Vesta with the sense that perhaps she was not the only sufferer there, and pity, which saves many a lover when his merits could not win, brought the Judge's daughter to an impulsive determination.
"Mr. Milburn," she said at last, pressing her hands to her head, "this day's trials have been too much for my brain. Never, in all my life together, have I had realities like these to contend with. I am worn out. Nay, sir, do not touch me now!" He had tried to repeat his sympathetic overture, and pet her in his arms. "Let us end this conflict at once. You say you will marry me; when?"
"It is yours to say when, Miss Custis. I am ready any day."
"And you will give me every note and obligation of my father, so that my mother's portion shall be returned to her in full, and this house, servants, and demesnes be mine in my own right?"
"Yes," said Milburn; "I have such confidence in your truth and virtue that you shall keep these papers from this moment until the marriage-day."
"It will not be long, then," Vesta said, looking at Milburn with a will and authority fully equal to his own. "Will you take me to-night?"
"To-night?" he repeated. "Not to-night, surely?"
"To-night, or probably never."
He drew nearer, so as to look into her countenance by the strong firelight. Calm courage, that would die, like Joan of Arc in the flames, met his inquiry.
"Yes," said Milburn, "at your command I will take you to-night, though it is a surprise to me."
He flinched a little, nevertheless, his conscience being uneasy, and the same trembling Vesta had already observed went through his frame again.
"What will the world say to your marriage after a single day's acquaintance with me?"
"Nothing," Vesta answered, "except that I am your wife. That will, at least, silence advice and prevent intrusion. If I delay, these forebodings may prevail, if not with me, with my family, some of whom are to be feared."
He seemed to have no curiosity on that subject, only saying:
"It is you, dear child, I am thinking of—whether this haste will not be repented, or become a subject of reproach to yourself. To me it cannot be, having no world, no tribe—only myself and you!"
Vesta came forward and lifted his hand, which was cold.
"I believe that you love me," she said. "I believe this hand has the lines of a gentleman. Now, I will trust to you a family confidence. The troubles of this house are like a fire which there is no other way of treating than to put it out at once. My father will not be disturbed, beyond his secret pain, at the step I am to take, for he appreciates your talents and success. It is for him I shall take this step, if I take it at all, and I have yet an hour to reflect. But my mother will be resentful, and her brothers and kindred in Baltimore will express a savage rage, in the first place, at my father's losing her portion; next to that, and I hope less bitterly, they will resent my marriage to you. Exposed to their interference, I might be restrained from going to my father's assistance; they might even force me away, and break our family up, leaving father alone to encounter his miseries."
"I see," said Milburn; "you would give me the legal right to meet your mother's excited people."
"Not that merely," Vesta said; "I would put it out of her power and theirs to prevent the sacrifice I meditate making. My father's immediate dread is my mother's upbraiding—that he has risked and lost her money. It has sent her to bed already, sick and almost violent. I might as well save the poor gentleman his whole distress, if I am to save him a part."
"Brave girl!" exclaimed Meshach Milburn, in admiration. "It is true, then, that blood will tell. You intend to give your mother the money which has been lost, and silence her complaint before she makes it?"
"Just that, Mr. Milburn, and to say, 'It is my husband's gift, and a peace-offering from us all.'"
"Is it not your intention, honey," asked the creditor, "to take Mrs. Custis into your confidence before this marriage?"
She looked at him with the entreaty of one in doubt, who would be resolved. "Advise me," she said. "I want to do the best for all, and spare all bitter words, which rankle so long. Is it necessary to tell my mother?"
"No. You are a free woman. I know your age—though I shall forget it by and by." This first gleam of humor rather became his strange face. "If you tell your father, it is enough."
"I hope I am doing right," Vesta said, "and now I shall take my hour to my soul and my Saviour. Sir, do you ever pray?"
Milburn recoiled a little.
"I do not pray like you," he replied; "my prayers are dry things. I do say a little rhyme over that my mother taught me in the forest."
"Try to pray for me to do right," said Vesta, "that I may not make this sacrifice, and leave a wounded conscience. And now, sir, farewell. At nine o'clock go to our church and wait. If I resolve to come, there you will find the rector, and all the arrangements made. If I do not come, I think you will see me no more."
"Oh, beautiful spirit," exclaimed her lover, "oppress me not with that fear!"
"If another way is made plain to me," Vesta said, "I shall go that way. If my duty leads me to you again, you will be my master. Sir, though your errand here was a severe one, I thank you for your sincerity and the kind consideration you seem to have had for me so long. Farewell."
"Angel! Vesta! Honey!" Milburn cried, "may I kiss you?"
"Not now," she answered, cold as superiority, and interposing her hand.
The door stood wide open, and the slave-girl, Virgie, in it, holding the Entailed Hat. Milburn, with a shudder, took it, and covered himself, and departed.
MASTER IN THE KITCHEN.
The kitchen had been a scene of anything but culinary peace and savor during the long visit of the owner of the hat.
Aunt Hominy and the little darkeys had made three stolen visits to the hall to peep at the dreadful thing hanging there, as if it were a trap of some kind, liable to drop a spring and catch somebody, or to explode like a mortar or torpedo. As hour after hour wore on, and Miss Vesta did not reappear, and finally rang her bell for tea, Aunt Hominy was beside herself with superstition.
"Honey," she exclaimed to Virgie, "jess you take in dis yer dried lizzer an' dis cammermile, an' drap de lizzer in dat ole hat, an' sprinkle de flo' whar ole Meshach sots wi' de cammermile, an' say 'Shoo!' Maybe it'll spile his measurin' of Miss Vessy in."
"No, aunty, if old Meshach measured me in, I wouldn't make the family ashamed before him. Miss Vessy is powerful wise, and maybe she'll get the better of that wicked hat."
"Yes," said Roxy, "she's good, Aunt Hominy, an' says her prayers every night and mornin'. I've heard tell that witches can't hear the Lord's name, and stay, nohow. Maybe Miss Vessy'll say in Meshach's old hat: 'Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on.' That'll make the old devil jess fly up an' away."
"No, gals," insisted Aunt Hominy, "cammermile is all dat'll keep him from a-measurin' of us in. Don't ole Meshach go to church, too, and hab a prayer-book an'—listen dar, honey! ef she ain't a singin' to him!"
As Virgie answered the bell, Aunt Hominy took down her cherished camomile and sprinkled the little children, and gave them each a glass of sassafras beer to bless their insides.
"Lord a bless 'em!" exclaimed the old lady, "ef de slave-buyer comes, Aunt Hominy'll take 'em to de woods an' jess git los', an' live on teaberries, slippery-ellum, haws, an' chincapins. We don't gwyn stay an' let ole Meshach starve us like a lizzer."
"Aunt Hominy," said Roxy, "maybe, old lady, ef you bake a nice loaf of Federal bread, or a game-pie, or a persimmon custard, an' send it to ole Meshach, he won't sell us to the slave-buyers. He never gets nothing good to eat, an' don't know what it is. A little taste of it'll make him want mo'."
"Roxy, gal," said Aunt Hominy, "I'd jess like to make a dumplin'-bag out o' dat steeple-hat he got. When I skinned de dumplin' de hat would be bad spiled, chillen, an' den de Judge would git his lan' back dat Meshach's measured in. For de Judge would say, 'Meshach, ye hain't measured me fair. Wha's yer yard-stick, ole debbil?' Den Meshach he say, 'De hat I tuk it in wid, done gone burnt by dat ole Hominy, makin' of her puddin's.' 'Den,' says de Judge, 'ye ain't measured me squar. I won't play. Take it all back!' Chillen, we must git dat ar ole hat, or de slave-buyers done take us all."
They started to take another peep of cupidity and awe at the storied hat, when Virgie emerged from the parlor door with the dreaded article in her hand, and, hanging it on the peg, came with superstitious fear and relief into the colonnade. Aunt Hominy hurried her to the kitchen, strewed her with herb-dust, waved a rattle of snake's teeth in a pig's weazen over her head, and ended by pushing a sweet piece of preserved watermelon-rind down her throat.
"Did it hurt ye, honey?" inquired Aunt Hominy, with her eyes full of excitement, referring to the hat.
"'Deed I don't know, aunty," Virgie answered; "all I saw was Miss Vessy, looking away from me, as if she might be going to be ashamed of me, an' I picked the thing up an' took it to the rack; an' all I know is, it smelled old, like some of the old-clothes chests up in the garret, when we lift the lid and peep in, an' it seems as if they were dead people's clothes."
The little negroes, Ned, Vince, and Phillis, heard this with shining eyes, and dived their heads under Aunt Hominy's skirts and apron, while the old woman exclaimed:
"De Lord a massy!" and began to blow what she called "pow-pow" on the girl's profaned fingers.
"I don't believe it's anything, aunty, but an ugly, old, nasty, dead folks' hat," exclaimed Virgie. "He just wears it to plague people. He was drinking tea just like Miss Vessy, but I thought his teeth chattered a little, as if he had smelt of the old hat, and it give him a chill."
"Where did he get the hat, Aunt Hominy?" Roxy asked. "Did he dig it up somewhere?"
The question seemed to spur the cook's easy invention, and, after a cunning yet credulous look up and down the large kitchen, where the pale light at the windows was invisible in the stronger fire beneath the great stack chimney, Aunt Hominy whispered:
"He dug dat hat up in ole Rehoboff ruined churchyard. He foun' it in de grave."
"But you said this afternoon, aunty, that the Bad Man gave it to him."
"De debbil met him right dar," insisted Aunt Hominy, "in dat ole obergrown churchyard, whar de hymns ob God used to be raised befo' de debbil got it. He says to Meshach: 'I make you de sexton hyar. Go git de spade out yonder, whar de dead-house used to be, an' dig among de graves under de myrtle-vines, an' fin' my hat. As long as ye keep de Lord an' de singin' away from dis yer big forsaken church, you may keep dat hat to measure in eberybody's lan'.' So nobody kin sing or pray in dat church. Nobody but Meshach Milburn ever prays dar. He goes dar sometimes wid his Chrismas-giff on he head, an' prays to de debbil."
Thus does an unwonted fashion arouse unwonted visions, as if it brought to the present day the phantoms which were laid at rest with itself, and they walked into simple minds, and produced superstition there.
Aunt Hominy never was stimulated to inventions of this kind, but she immediately absorbed them, and they became religious beliefs with her. Her manner, highly animated by her terror and belief, produced more and more superstition in the minds of the girls and children, and the conversation fell off,—the little negroes wandering hither and thither, unable to sleep, yet unable to attract sufficient attention from any one, till Judge Custis, who had been waiting for hours for his creditor to go, slipped down the back stairs in his old slippers, and came to the kitchen among the colored people for company's sake.
His fine presence, and familiar, if superior, address, put a new complexion at once on the African end of the house.
He picked up all the children by twos or threes, woolled them, chased them, tossed them, and drove the lurid images of Aunt Hominy's mind out of their spirits, and then caught the two young girls, and set Roxy on his shoulder, and caught Virgie by the waist, and finally piled them on Aunt Hominy, who ran behind her biscuit-block, and he bunched all the children upon the party.
"De Lord a massy, Judge!" exclaimed Aunt Hominy, delighted, and showing her white teeth, whichever side she revealed. "Go 'long, Judge, Missy Custis ketch you! Miss Vessy's a-comin', befor' de Lawd!"
The children were screaming, getting into the riot more, while pretending to try to get out, invading the Judge's back, and rubbing their clean wool into his whiskers, and the two neat servants, brought up like white children in his family, were not unaccustomed to either jovial handling or petting from their master, which he commonly concluded by a present of some kind.
"Old woman," said the Judge to Aunt Hominy, "can you give me a bit of broiled something for my stomach? I want to eat it right here."
"Ha! yah! Don't got nothin' but a young chicken, marster! Mebbe I kin git ye a squab outen de pigeon-house in de gable-yend."
"That's it, Hominy!" exclaimed Judge Custis; "a tender squab, a little toast in cream, a glass of morning milk, and a bunch of fresh celery, will just raise my pulse, and put courage into me. Get it, my faithful old girl; it's the last I may ask of you, for old Samson Hat is going to own you next."
"Me? No, sah! I'll run away from Prencess Anne fust. De man dat cleans ole Meshach Milburn's debbil hat sha'n't nebber hab me."
"Well, it'll be one of you. If you don't take Samson, Roxy must, or Virgie. The old fellow will be very influential with our new master, and, Hominy, we're all depending on you to make him so comfortable that he will just keep the family together."
Sobriety came in on this attempted witticism, and the old cook saw a film grow into the Judge's smiling eyes.
"Old marster!" she exclaimed, raising her hands, "you's jess a-sottin' dar, an' breakin' your poor heart. Don't I know when you is a-makin' believe? Mebbe dis night is de las' we'll ever see you in your own warm, nice kitchen, an' never mo', dear ole marster, kin Hominy brile you a bird or season de soup you like. Bless God, dis time we'll git de squab an' de celery an' de toast, befo' ole Meshach Milburn measures all we got in!"
While the children crawled around the Judge's knees, setting up a dismal wail to see him sob, the two neat house girls, forgetting every contingency to themselves, sobbed also, like his own daughters, to see him unmanned; but Aunt Hominy only felt desperately energetic at the chance to cook the last supper of the Custis household.
She lighted a brand of pine in the fire, and started one of the stable boys up a ladder by its light to ransack the pigeon-cote, and in a very little while both a chicken and a bird were broiled and set upon the kitchen-table upon a spotless cloth, and the plume of lily-white celery, and the smoking toast in velvet cream, warmed the Judge's nostrils, and dried his tears.
Roxy stood behind him to wait upon his wishes; Virgie subdued every expression of grief, and comforted the children, and poor Aunt Hominy, with silent tears streaming down her cheeks to see him eat and suffer, kept up a clatter of epicurean talk, lest he might turn and see her miserable. As he finished his meal, and took out his gold tooth-pick, and felt a comfortable joy of such misery and sympathy, Vesta opened the door, and said:
"Let me speak with you."
Judge Custis rose, and raised his hands to Aunt Hominy in speechless recognition of her service; but not till the door closed behind him did the old cook's cry burst through her quivering lips:
"Oh! chillen, chillen, he'll never eat no mo' like dat again. Ole Meshach's measured him in!"
At the termination of Milburn's long visit, Vesta had gone to her own room, and read her passage in the Bible, and said her prayer, and tried to think, but the day's application had been too great to leave her mind its morning energy, when health, which is so much of decision, was elastic in her veins and brain.
She began to see her duty loom up like a prodigious thing on one side, crowding every other consideration out of the way but one—her modesty; and threatening that, which, like a little mouse, ran around and around her mind, timorous, but helpless, and without a hole of escape.
She would cease to be a maid within the circuit of the clock, or forsake her family, and drive that great bloodhound of duty over the threshold of her ruined home.
In the one case lay outward devastation—the red eyes of parents and servants who had not slept all night, and looked at her as their obdurate hostage, and the prying constables lodged upon the premises to see that nothing was smuggled out, the ring of the auctioneer's bell, and the fingering of boors and old gossips over the cherished things of the family, even to her heirlooms, jewelry, and hosiery; the vast old house a hollow barn when these were done, and she and her mother visitors at the jail where her poor father looked through the bars, and bent his head in shame!
Then the servants, one after another, mounted upon the court-house block, the old gray servitors mocked, the little children parted, like calves by the butcher, and the young girls feeling the desperate apprehensions of abuse and violation, that were the other alternative to herself, with whom purity was like the whiteness of the lily, prized more than its beauty of form or its perfume.
She glanced in her mirror by the light that flamed in her brazen grate, and saw the blushes climb like flying virgins at the sack of towns, up the white ramparts of her neck and temples.
The form which had altered so little from childhood, supple and straight, and moulded to perfection, was to fall like the young hickory-tree in the August hurricane, twisted from its native grove. The breath of the man she was to yield her life to, irresistible and hot as that storm, she had felt already, when he held her for a moment in his arms in the transport of passion, and heard his fearless avowal of desire.
To marry any man now seemed hard; to marry this one was inexpressible shame, and at the thought of it she could not shed a tear, such paralysis came over her. She had read of the recent Greek revolution, where elegant ladies of Scio, and other isles of the AEgean Sea, educated in the best seminaries of Europe, had been sold by thousands as common slaves in the markets of Constantinople, and carried to their estates by brutal Turks, with all the gloating anticipation of lust and tyranny.
On this vivid episode started a procession of all the ages of women who had been the sport of conquest since their common mother, Eve, lost Paradise by her simplicity: the Jewish maidens carried to Babylon, the Gothic virgins dragged at the horse-tails of the Moors, the daughters of Palestine and Byzantium consigned to Arab sensualists, and made to follow their nomadic tents, and the almond-eyed damsels of China surrendered by their parents to the wild Kalmucks, to be beaten and starved on every cold plain of Asia, till life was laid down with neither hope nor fear.
"I am happier than millions of my sex," Vesta said; "my captor does not despise me, at least. Perhaps he will treat me kinder than I think, and give me time to draw towards him without this deadly pain and shame."
Then she almost repented of her hasty decision to marry this night, instead of after longer acquaintance, which Mr. Milburn, no doubt, would have granted, and his words were remembered with accusation: "What will the world say to your marriage after a single day's acquaintance with me?" "Will this haste not be repented, or become a subject of reproach to you?" Was it too late to recall her words, and ask for delay?
"No," thought Vesta, "I am to keep, at least, my mind maiden and chaste, instead of playing the unstable coquette with that. I will not let him begin to think me weak and changeful already."
To see if there was the least glimmer of relief from this marriage Vesta crossed to her mother's room, and found Mrs. Custis with her head wrapped in handkerchiefs steeped in cologne, and a vial of laudanum in her hand, and in a condition bordering on hysteria.
"Mamma," said poor Vesta, "are you in pain?"
"Oh!" screamed Mrs. Custis, "I am just dying here of cruelty and brutality. Your father is a villain. I'll have that rascal, Milburn, killed. Go get me ink and paper, daughter, and sit here and write me a letter to my brother, Allan McLane, in Baltimore. He shall settle with Judge Custis for this robbery, and take you and me back to Baltimore, leaving your father to go to the almshouse or the jail, I don't care which."
"Mother," exclaimed Vesta, "what a sin! to abuse poor father now in all his trouble!"
"Trouble!" echoed Mrs. Custis, mockingly, "what trouble has he had, I would like to know? Living in the woods like a Turk among his barefooted forest concubines! Spending my money, raked and scraped by my poor father in the sugar importation, to make puddle iron out of the swamp, and be considered a smart man! The family is broken up. We are paupers, and now 'it is save yourself.' I'll take care of you if I can, but your father may starve for any aid I will give him."
"Then he shall have the only aid in my power, mother," said Vesta, decisively.
"Your aid!" Mrs. Custis exclaimed. "What have you got? Your jewels, I suppose? How long will they keep him? You had better keep your jewels, girl, for your wedding, and have it come quickly, for marriage is now your only salvation."
"My last jewel shall go, then," Vesta said, with a pale resolution that darted through her veins like ice.
"Save your jewels," Mrs. Custis continued, "and choose a husband before this thing is noised abroad! You have a good large list to select from. There is your cousin, Chase McLane, crazy for you, and with an estate in Kent. There is that young fool Carroll, with thousands of acres on the western shore, and the widower Hynson of King George, Virginia, with eighty slaves and his stables full of race-horses. You can marry any of these Dennis boys, or take Captain Ringgold of Frederick, who lives in elegance at West Point, or be mistress of Tench Purvience's mansion on Monument Square in Baltimore. All you have to do is to write a letter, saying: 'I expect you,' or, what is better, take to-morrow's steamer for Baltimore and use your Uncle Allan's house and become engaged and married there."
"Mamma," Vesta spoke without rebuke, only with a sad, confirmed feeling of her destiny, "I could be capable of deceiving any of those gentlemen if I could so heartlessly leave my father."
"Deceiving!" Mrs. Custis remarked, filling her palm and brow with the cologne. "What is man's whole work with a woman but deceit? To court her for her money, to kiss her into taking her money out of good mortgages and putting it into bog iron ore? To tell her when past middle life that she has nothing to live upon, except the charity of the public, or her reluctant friends. All this for an experiment! The Custis family are all knaves or fools. Your father is a monster."
Vesta went to her mother's side and bathed her forehead.
"Dear mamma," she said, "let you and I do something for ourselves, while papa looks around and finds something to do. We can rent a house in Princess Anne and open a seminary. I can teach French and music, you can be the matron and do the correspondence and business, and if papa is at a loss for larger occupation he can lecture on history and science. Our friends will send their children to us, and we shall never be separated. I will give up the thought of marriage and live for you two."
Mrs. Custis made a gesture of impatience.
"And be an old maid!" she blurted. "That is insufferable. What are all these accomplishments and charms for but a husband, and what is he for but to provide bread and clothes. Don't be as crazy as your unprincipled father! Try no experiments! Drop philanthropy! Money is the foundation of all respectability."
Vesta thought to herself: "Can that be so? Does it not, then, justify the man who solicits me in his means of getting money? Mother"—Vesta spoke—"you would have me marry, then?"
"There is no would about it," answered Mrs. Custis. "You must marry!"
"Yes, the sooner the better, to a rich man. Have you picked out one?"
"Give me your blessing, and I will try," Vesta said; "I think I know such a one."
Mrs. Custis kissed her daughter, and moaned about her poor head and lost marriage portion, and Vesta set out to look for her father.
She found him as described, in the luxury of tears and squab, as comfortable among his negro servants as in the state legislature or at the head of society, and they wrapped up in his condescension and misfortunes.
As Vesta saw the curious scene of such patriarchal democracy in the old kitchen, she wondered if that voluptuous endowment of her father was not the happy provision to make marriage unions tolerable, and social revulsions philosophical. Something of regret that she had not more of the animal faintly grew upon her sad smile when she considered that wherever her father went he made welcome and warmth, as she already felt at the picture of him, after parting with her apathetic mother.
"Roxy," said Vesta, as she left the kitchen, "do you go up to my mother and stay with her all this night. Make your spread there beside her bed. Virgie, put on your hood and carry a letter for me,—I will write it in the library."
She sat before her father, he too undecided to speak, and seeing by her fixed expression that it was no time for loquacity. She sealed the letter with wax, and, Virgie coming in, her father heard the direction she gave with curiosity greater than his embarrassment:
"Take this to Rev. William Tilghman. Give it to him only, and see that he reads it, Virgie, before you leave him. If he asks you any questions, tell him please to do precisely what this note says, and, as he is my friend, not to disappoint me."
The girl's steps were hardly out of hearing when Vesta opened the drawer of the library-table and took out a package of papers tied with a string. She unloosed it, and her father recognized from where he sat his notes of hand and mortgages.
"Gracious God, my darling!" exclaimed Judge Custis, "how came you by those papers?"
"They are to be mine to-night, father—in one hour. The moment they become mine they will be yours."
"Why, Vessy," said the Judge, "if they are yours even to keep a minute, the shortest way with them is up the chimney!"
He made a stride forward to take them from her hand. She laid them in her lap and looked at him so calmly that he stopped.
"You may burn the house, papa," she said, "it is still your own. But these papers you could only burn by a crime. It would be cheating an honorable man."
"Honorable! Who?" the Judge exclaimed.
"He who is to be my husband."
"You marry Meshach Milburn!" shouted the Judge, "O curse of God!—not him?"
"Yes, this night," answered Vesta; "I respect him. I hold these obligations by his trust in me. They are my engagement ring."
Judge Custis raised a loud howl like a man into whom a nail is driven, and fell at his daughter's feet and clasped her knees.
"This is to torture me," he cried; "he has not dared to ask you, Vesta?"
"Yes, and my word is passed, father. Shall that word, the word of a Custis, be less than a Milburn's faith. By the love he bore me, Mr. Milburn gave me these debts for my dower—a rare faith in one so prudent. If I do not marry him, they will be given back to him this night."
"Then give them back, my child, and save your soul and your purity, lest I live to be cursed with the sight of my noble daughter's shame? This marriage will be unholy, and the censure to follow it will be the bankruptcy of more than our estate—of our simple fame and old family respect. We have friends left who would help us. If you marry Milburn, they will all despise and repudiate us."
"I do not believe it," said Vesta. "The sense and courage of that gentleman—he is a gentleman, for I have seen him, and a gentleman of many gifts—will compel respect even where false pride and family pretension appear to put him down. Who that underrates him will make any considerable sacrifice to assist us? Your sons,—will they do it? Then by what right do they decide my marriage choice? No, father, I only do my part to support our house in its extremity, as these gentlemen and others have done before."
She pointed to the old portraits of Custises on the wall. If any of them looked dissatisfied, he met a countenance haughty as his own.
"Vesta," her father called, "you know you do not love this man?"
Looking back a minute at the longing in his face, which now wore the solicitude of personal affection, she melted under it.
"No, father," she said, with a burst of tears. "I love you."
She threw her arms around him and kissed him long and fondly, both weeping together. He went into a fit of grief that admitted of no conversation till it was partly spent, and at last lay with his gray hairs folded to her heaving bosom, where the compensation of his love made her sacrifice more precious.
"I feel that I am doing right, father," she said tenderly "Till now I have had my doubts. No other young heart is wronged by my taking this step; I have never been engaged, and it now seems providential, as I could not then have gone to your assistance without injuring myself and another; and your debts are too great for any but this man to settle them. Your life has been one long sacrifice for me, and not a cloud has darkened above me till this day, giving me the first shower of sorrow, which I trust will refresh my soul, and make its humility grow. Oh, father, it would rejoice me so much if you could respond to my sacrifice with a better life!"
"God help me, I will!" he sobbed.
"That is very comforting to me. I will not enumerate your omissions, dear father, but if this important step in my life does not arrest some sad tendencies I see in you, the disappointment may break me down. Intemperance in you—a judge, a gentleman, a husband, and a father—is a deformity worse than Mr. Milburn's honest, unfashionable hat. Do you not feel happier that my husband is not to be a drunkard?"
"He has not that vice, thank God!" admitted the Judge.
"Be his better example, father, for I hope to see you influence him to be kind to me, and the sight of you walking downward in his view will degrade me more than bearing his name or sharing his eccentricities. Oh, if you love me, let not your dear soul slide out of the knowledge of God!"
"Pray for me, dear child! My feet are slippery and my knees are weak."
"Begin from this moment to lean on Heaven," said Vesta. "It is better than this world's consideration. Oh, what would strengthen me now but God's approval, though I go into a captivity I dreamed not of. Even there I can take my harp beneath the willows, like them in Babylon, and praise my Maker."
She sat at her piano and sang the hymn the young consumptive, Rev. Mr. Eastburn, composed in her grandmother's house, taking it from the Episcopal collection:
"O holy, holy, holy Lord! Bright in Thy deeds and in Thy name, Forever be Thy name adored, Thy glories let the world proclaim!
"O Jesus, Lamb once crucified To take our load of sins away, Thine be the hymn that rolls its tide Along the realms of upper day!
"O Holy Spirit from above, In streams of light and glory given, Thou source of ecstacy and love, Thy praises ring through earth and heaven!"
As her voice in almost supernatural clearness and sweetness filled the two large rooms, and died away in melody, she rose and kissed her father again, and said, "Courage, love! we shall be happy still."
A knock at the door and there entered the young clergyman she had sent for, a sandy-haired, large-blue-eyed, boyish person, with a fair skin easily freckled, and a look of youthful chivalry under his sincere Christian humility.
"Good-evening, William," Vesta spoke; "I did not expect to see you till we reached the church. But sit, and I will answer your questions. Father, you are to go with me to the church—you and Virgie. Mr. Tilghman is to marry us."
"Now, Vesta," spoke the young man, as her father left the room, "whom are you going to marry, cousin, in such haste as this?"
"Did you have the church made ready, William, as I requested?"
"I did. The sexton is there now, lighting the fire."
"I thought you were loyal as ever, William, and depended upon you. Thanks, dear friend! I am to marry Mr. Meshach Milburn at nine o'clock."
A cloud came over the young man's serene face, though his features retained their habitual sweetness.
"I can marry you, cousin, even to Meshach Milburn," he said, "if that is your wish. Why do you marry him?"
"It is not loyal in you to ask, William, but I will give you this answer: he has asked me. He is also devoted and rich. To avoid excitement, possibly some opposition, though it would be vain, we are to be married without further notice, and papa is to give me away."
Silent for a moment, the young rector exclaimed:
"Cousin Vesta, have I lived to see you a mercenary woman? Has this man's asserted wealth found you cold enough to want it, when love has been so generously offered you by almost every young man of station in this region, and from abroad—even by me?" he said, after a pause. "The scar is on my heart yet, cousin. No, I will not believe such a thing of you. There is a reason back of the fact."
"William, if you respected me as you once said you ever would, like your sister, you would not add this night the weight of your doubt to my other burdens, but take my hand with all the strength of yours, and lift me onward."
"I will," said the rector, swallowing a dry spot in his throat. "Though it was a bitter time I had when you refused me, cousin, the pain led me to my vows at the altar where I minister, and I have had the assistance of your beautiful music there, like the angel I seem to have seen reserved for me, in place of you, sitting at your side. And I know that this marriage is, on your part, pure as my sister's. No further will I inquire—what penalty you are paying for another, what mystery I cannot pierce."
He raised his hands above her head: "The peace of God that passeth understanding, abide with you, dear sister, forever!"
He went out with his eyes filled with tears, but hers were full of heavenly light, feeling his benediction to be righteous.
PRINCESS ANNE FOLKS.
The Washington Tavern, or, rather, the brick sidewalk which came up to its doors, and was the lounging-place for all the grown loiterers in Princess Anne, had been in the greatest activity all that Saturday afternoon, since it was reported by Jack Wonnell, who set himself to be a spy on Meshach's errand, that the steeple-hat had disappeared in the broad mansion of Judge Daniel Custis.
Jack Wonnell had a worn bell-crown on his head, exposed to all kinds of weather, as he was in the habit of fishing in these beaver-hats, and never owned an umbrella in his life. He lived near Meshach, in the old part of Princess Anne, near the bridge, and was the subject of the money-lender's scorn and contempt, as tending to make a mutual eccentricity ridiculous. Milburn had been willing to be hated for his hat, but Jack Wonnell made all unseasonable hats laughable, the more so that he was nearly as old a wearer of his bell-crowns as Milburn of the steeple-top. Although he had no such reasons of reverence and stern consistency as his rich neighbor, he seemed to have, in his own mind, and in plain people's, a better defence for violating the standard taste of dress.
The people said that Jack Wonnell, being a poor man, could not buy all the fashions, and was merely wearing out a bargain; that he knew he was ridiculous, and set no such conceit on his absurdity as that grim Milburn; and they rather enjoyed his playing the Dromio to that Antipholus, and turning into farce the comedy of Meshach's error.
Jack Wonnell had partly embraced his bargain by the example of Meshach. A frivolous, unambitious, childish fellow, amusing people, obliging people, running errands, driving stage, gardening, fishing, playing with the lads, courting poor white bound girls, incontinent, inoffensive, he had been impelled to bid off his lot of old hats by Jimmy Phoebus saying:
"Jack, dirt cheap! Last you all your life! Better hats than old Meshach Milburn's. You'll drive his'n out of town."
To his infinite amusement and dignity, his appearance in the bell-crown hats attracted the severe regard of Milburn, and set the little town on a grin. The joke went on till Jimmy Phoebus, Judge Custis, and some others prompted Jack Wonnell, with the promise of a gallon of whiskey, to ask Meshach to trade the steeple-top for the bell-crown. The intense look of outrage and hate, with the accompanying menace his townsman returned, really frightened Jack, and he had prudently avoided Milburn ever since, while keeping as close a watch upon his movements and whereabouts as upon some incited bull-dog, liable to appear anywhere.
In this way Jack Wonnell had followed Meshach to the court-house corner, where stood Judge Custis's brick bank—which, of late, had done little discounting—and, from the open space between it and the court-house in its rear, he peeped after Milburn up the main cross street, called Prince William Street, which stopped right at Judge Custis's gate. There, in the quiet of early afternoon, he heard the knocker sound, saw the door open, and beheld the Entailed Hat disappear in the great doorway. Then, scarcely believing himself, Wonnell ran back to the tavern, and exclaimed:
"May I be struck stone dead ef ole Meshach ain't gwyn in to the Jedge's!"
"You're a liar!" said Jimmy Phoebus, promptly, catching Jack by the back of the neck, and pushing his bell-crown down till it mashed over his nose and eyes, "What do you mean by tellin' a splurge like that?"
"I seen him, Jimmy," was the bell-crowned hero's smothered cry; "if I didn't, hope I may die!"
"What did he go there for?"
"I can't tell, Jimmy, to save my life!"
"Whoo-oo-p!" cried Phoebus, waving his old straw hat, itself nearly out of season. "If this is a lie, Jack Wonnell, I'll make you eat a raw fish. Levin"—to Levin Dennis—"you slip up by Custis's, and see if ole Meshach hain't passed around the fence, or dropped along Church Street and hid in the graveyard, where he sometimes goes. I'll stay yer, and make Jack Wonnell account for sech lyin'!"
Levin Dennis, a boyish, curly-haired, graceful-going orphan, walked up the cross street, passing Church lane and the Back alley, and slowly turned the long front of Teackle Hall, and went out the parallel street towards the lower bridge on the Deil's Island road, till he could turn and see the three great-chimneyed buildings of Teackle Hall lifting their gables and lightning-rods to his sight in their reverse, the partly stripped trees allowing that manorial pile to stand forth in much of its length and imposing proportions. Lest he might not be suspected of curiosity, Levin continued on to the bridge at Manokin landing, and counted the geese come out of a lawn on a willowy cape there, and take to water like a fleet of white schooners. He ascended the rise beyond the bridge, and looked over to see if Meshach might have taken a walk down the road. Then returning, he swept the back view of Princess Anne, from the low bluff of cedars on another inhabited cape on the right, which bordered the Manokin marshes, to the vale of the little river at the left, as it descended between Meshach's storehouse and the ancient Presbyterian church of the Head of Manokin, seated among its gravestones between its hitching-stalls and its respectable parsonage manse. Nothing was visible of the owner of the distinguishing hat.
So Levin Dennis returned more slowly around the north wing of Teackle Hall, looking at every window, as if Meshach might be there; but nothing did he see except the dog, which, to Levin's eye, appeared uneasy, and ran out of the gate to make friends with him.
"So, Turk!" Dennis muttered, patting the dog's head, "no wonder you're scared, boy, to see old Meshach Milburn come in."
Teackle Hall, according to rumor, was built at the close of the revolutionary war by an uncle, or grand-uncle, of Judge Custis, who came from Virginia, somewhere between Accomac and Northampton counties, and went into shipbuilding on the Manokin, adding some privateering and banking, too, and once, going abroad, he brought back from some ducal residence the plan of Teackle Hall, as Judge Custis found it on his coming into the property.
It was nearly two hundred feet in length, and would have made three respectable churches, standing in line, with their sharp gables to the front, the bold wings connected with the bolder centre by habitable curtains or colonnades, in which panels of slate or grained stone made an attic story above the lines of windows, and lintels and sills of the same stone, with high keystones, capped every window in the many-sided surface of the whole stately block, all built of brick brought over in vessels from the western shore, or possibly from the North, or Europe, and painted a gray stone color.
Its central gable had deep carved eaves, and a pediment-base to shed rain, and a large circular window in that pediment. The two mighty chimneys of that centre were parallel with the ridge of the roof, and rose nearly from the middle of the two opposite slopes, bespeaking four great fireplaces below, and a flat, low-galleried observatory upon the roof gave views of portions of the bay on clear days.
The wings of Teackle Hall had similar, but lower, chimneys, astraddle of their roofs, and forest trees—oak, gum, holly, and pine, with a great willow, and some tawny cedars, and bushes of rose and lilac—dotted the grassy lawn. The Virginia creeper and wild ivy climbed here and there to the upper windows, and a tall, broad, panelled doorway, opening on a low, open portico platform with steps, seemed to say to visitors: "Men of port and consideration come in this way, but inferiors enter by some of the smaller doors!"
Levin Dennis, who had never sounded that knocker, though he had often taken his terrapins to the kitchen, stared in concern at the door where it was reported Meshach Milburn had gone in, and would hardly have been surprised if that intruder had now appeared at one of the three deep windows over the door with a firebrand in his hand.
Levin muttered to himself: "Rich folks, I reckon, must make a trade. Maybe it's hosses—maybe not. I know it ain't hats."
He then turned down to the Episcopal Church, only a square from Teackle Hall, and on a street between it and the main street, though in a retired situation, its front turned from the town, and looking over the fields and farms, like a good pastor who is warming at the fire with his hands behind him.
A single-storied, long, low edifice of British bricks, with its semicircular choir next the street, and, adjoining the choir, a spire of more modern brickwork built up to an open bell cupola, and open ribbed dome, also of brick, tipped with a gilded cross, the ivy was greenly matted all round the choir, and ran along the side of the church, where Levin Dennis walked under four tall, round-topped windows of stained and wired glass, till he came to the end gable or front of the church, standing in unworldly contemplation of the graveyard and the back fields.