Rhoda's quiet eyes flashed as she saw the new article and heard Vesta praise it, upon her head. The old bonnet had received a cruel blow, in spite of Mrs. Somers.
Tilghman, too, accused himself that he felt a little relieved when he escorted Rhoda back to Meshach's in another bonnet, and Vesta followed, with her great shaggy dog, Turk; she not unconscious—though serene and thoughtfully polite to all she knew—of people peering at her in wonder and excitement from every door and window of the town. The news was working in every household, from the servants in the kitchens to the aged people helped to their food with bib and spoon, that the famed daughter of Daniel Custis was the prize of the junk dealer and usurer in "old town" by the bridge, who had enslaved a wife at last.
THE DUSKY LEVELS.
The new son-in-law, left alone with Judge Custis, asked to be propped up in bed, and nothing was visible that would support his pillow but the aged leather hat-box that Custis, with a wry face, brought to do duty.
"My illness is unfortunate," he gasped; "not only to me, but to the new ties I have formed; to the mutual interest my wife and I have in making up your losses on Nassawongo furnace, which we are all the poorer by to that amount; and to a suitor whose cause I have taken up. I have bought an interest in a great lawsuit."
"Then the day of reckoning of your enemies has come, Milburn."
"Not yet," said the sick man, with a proud flash of his eyes, "unless I am no merchant and you are no lawyer, and the first I will not concede."
"Nor I the second," exclaimed the Judge, with some pride and temper.
"You were once a good lawyer, if visionary," resumed the money-lender, with scant ceremony. "Had we been able to respect each other we might have been confederated in things valuable to ourselves and to our time and place. But that is past, and you do not possess my confidence as my legal agent, my attorney. I wish you to get another advocate for me."
"I am willing to be useful, even without your compliments," the Judge said, remembering his Christian resolution. "We will not quarrel, if I can serve you."
"I do not wish to hurt your feelings, but my strength is not great enough for unmeaning flattery. This marriage was so dear to my heart that I have put it before a very large interest about which I have no time to lose, and still am helpless upon this bed. I will trust you to do my errand. Go to that chest, Judge Custis, and you will find a package of papers in the cedar till at the end. Bring them here."
As the Judge opened the old chest a musty smell, as of mummies wrapped in herbs, ascended into his nose, and he saw some faded clothes, as those of poor people deceased, male and female, lying within. The mocking-bird piped a noisy warning as he raised the lid of the till and saw the desired papers among a parcel of spotted and striped bird-eggs:
"Come see! come see! Meshach! he! he! sweet!"
"Now open the window yonder," said Meshach, taking the papers, "and let Tom fly out. He starts my nerves. Wh-oo-t, whi-it, Tom!"
The mocking-bird, spreading its wings and tail, and striking obstinately towards its master a minute, as he whistled, flew out of the window and settled in the old willow below, and had a Sunday-afternoon concert, calling the passing dogs by name, whistling to them, and deceiving cats and chickens with invitations they familiarly heard, to eat, to shoo, to scat, and to roost.
"If he regulates his wife like that bird," the Judge spoke to himself, "she will fly to heaven soon."
Milburn opened the papers, counted them, and handed them to his father-in-law.
"The papers will be plain to you, Judge Custis, after I have made a few words of explanation. You well know that the canal between the Delaware and Chesapeake is finished, and vessels are now passing through it from bay to bay. It is taking one hundred dollars a day tolls, and twenty vessels already go past between sun and sun, though the size of the shipping of the cities it connects has not yet been adapted to its proportions. It has been a cheap and quick work, costing something above two millions of dollars, taking only five years of time; and yet it has begun its mercantile life by a cheat upon a man to whom it is indebted as a promoter and contractor, and to whom I have advanced the means to compel justice and damages."
"Well, well, Milburn; I must pay tribute to your enterprise. The era of these great carrying corporations has barely begun, and you stake your little fortune against one of them that is backed by the great city of Philadelphia!"
"The canal passes through the state of Delaware, in which is three quarters of its little length of only fourteen miles, and there a suit will be free, to some extent, from the corruptions they might exercise in Pennsylvania; and, if successful there, we can more easily attach the tolls of the canal. I have no more faith in the Legislature of Delaware than of any other state; kidnappers sit in its responsible seats, and it licenses lotteries to make prizes of its own honor. But we shall try our case before a simple jury, which will be flax in the hands of one lawyer in that state, if we can secure him; but hitherto he has refused my contractor, and will not take the case."
"Why," said the Judge, "you must mean Clayton, the new senator."
"That is the man," Milburn continued, stopping for strength and breath. "He is finely educated, I hear, at the colleges and law schools, and possesses a remarkable power over the agricultural and mixed races of that small state, whom he thoroughly understands by sympathy and acquaintance. I heard him once in court, at Georgetown, wither and confound the confederated kidnapping influences of the whole peninsula, and, against the will and intention of the jury, prevail upon their fears and sensibilities to find a bold rogue guilty of stealing free men; of color—a rogue who was in this room, unless it is a delusion of my fever, this very day, and with whom I fancied I had been in collision somewhere."
"You only knocked him down with a brick, after Samson had done it with his fist, and then the fellow came to me for shelter, afraid you would pursue him at law, and I suppose he did an errand for my servants to this abode."
The Judge looked around upon the abode as if he had used the most respectable word he could possibly apply to it.
"I will compromise with such scoundrels as that one," Milburn spoke, "only when I am afraid of them. But, to conclude my statement; for reasons of timidity, or doubts of success, or political ambition—something I cannot fathom—Mr. Clayton will not hearken to my debtor, and I have not disclosed my own interest in the suit. He is at home from Washington, and an appointment has been made with him at his office in Dover to-morrow. You see I am unable to keep it, and I have no one else to send, and information reaches me that the canal company, discovering my money in the contractor's bank account, intends to retain Clayton forthwith. If you set out this afternoon, you can reach Laureltown for bedtime. It is at least forty miles thence to Dover, and you might ride it to-morrow by noon, with push, and in that case you have a chance to beat the Philadelphia emissary several hours. I have five thousand dollars at stake already; I believe I shall get damages of forty times five if I can retain that man."
"I am ready to start at once," said the Judge, rising up; "I can read these papers on the way. The saddle was my cradle, and I have a good horse. My valise can follow me on the stage to-morrow."
"Unless you see the best reasons for it, my name is not to be mentioned to any one as a party to this suit; I am not popular with juries."
"Then good-bye, Milburn," said the Judge, but did not extend his hand. "As you treat my daughter, may God treat you!"
"Amen," exclaimed the money-lender, as the Judge's feet passed over the door-sill below, and he sank back to the bed, exhausted again.
* * * * *
While the proceedings described occupied the white people, the servants, Roxy and Virgie, in their clean Sunday suits, loitered around the bridge behind the store, or strayed a little way up the Manokin brook, hearing the mocking-bird rend his breast in all the ventriloquy of genius.
"Virgie," said Samson Hat, meeting them under the willow-tree, "when I carries you off and marries you, I s'pect you'll be climbin' up in my loft, too, makin' it comf'able fo' me."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, you old, black, impertinent servant of darkness!" Virgie said. "Indeed, when I look at a man, he must be almost white—not all white, though, like Roxy's beau."
"Who's he, Roxy?" Samson asked.
Roxie blushed, and said she had no beau, and never wanted one.
"Roxy's beau," says Virgie, "is that poor, helpless Mr. Jack Wonnell. He comes to see her every day. He's devotion itself. Indeed, Samson, if you are going to marry me, and Roxy marry all those bell-crown hats, we shall cure the town of its two greatest afflictions."
"Bad ole hats?" asks Samson.
"Roxy'll burn all the bell-crowns for her beau, and I'll bury the steeple-hat and you that cleans it, and the people will be so glad they'll set me free and I can go North."
"Look out, Virgie; I'll put dat high-crown hat on you like Marster Milburn put de bell on de buzzard. He went up to dat buzzard one day wid a little tea-bell in his hand an' says, 'Buzzard, how do ye like music?' Says de buzzard, tickled wid de compliment, 'I'm so larnid in dat music, I disdains to sing; I criticises de birds dat does.' 'Den,' says Mars Milburn, 'I needn't say to ye, P'ofessor Buzzard, dat dis little bell will be very pleasin' to yo' refine taste.' Wid dat he takes a little piece o' wire an' fastens de tea-bell to de bird's foot an' says, 'Buzzard, let me hear ye play!' De buzzard flew and de bell tinkled, an' all de other buzzards hear some'in' like de cowbell on de dead cow dey picked yisterday, an' dey says, 'Who's dat a flyin' heah? Maybe it's a cow's ghose!' So dey up, all scart, an' cross'd de bay; an' de buzzard wid a bell haint had no company sence, becoz he stole a talent he didn't have, and it made everybody oncomfitable."
"I've heard about Meshach belling a buzzard," said Roxy, "but they say he's got something on his foot, too, like a hoof—a clove foot. Did you ever see it, Samson?"
"He never tuk his foot off," said the negro, warily, "to let me see it. Dat bell on de buzzard, gals, is like white beauty in a colored skin; it draws white men and black men, like quare music in de air, but it makes de pale gal lonesome. She can't marry ary white man; she despises black ones."
The shrewd lover had touched a chord of young pain in the hearts of both those delicate quadroons. Both were so nearly white that the slight corruption increased their beauty, rounded their graceful limbs, plumpened their willowy figures, gave a softness like mild night to their expressive eyes, and blackened the silken tassels of their elegant long hair. No tutor had taught them how to walk,—they who moved on health like skylarks on the air. Faithful, pure-minded, modest, natural, they were still slaves, and their place in matrimony, which nature would have set among the worthiest—superior in love, superior in maternity, superior in length of days and enjoyment—was, by the freak of man's caste, as doubtful as the mermaid's.
Roxy was a little the shorter and fuller of shape, the milder and more pathetic; in Virgie the white race had left its leaner lines and greater unrelenting. She said to Samson, with the pique her reflections inspired,
"I never thought the first man to make love to me would be as black as you."
"De white corn years," says Samson, "de rale sugar-corn, de blackbird gits. None of dem white gulls and pigeons gits dat corn. A white feller wouldn't suit you, Virgie."
"Why?" says Roxy, "Virgie was raised among white children; so was I. We didn't know any difference till we grew up."
"Dat was what spiled ye," Samson said; "de colored man is de best husban'. He ain't thinkin' 'bout business while he makin' love, like Marster Milburn. The black man thinks his sweetheart is business enough, long as she likes him. He works fur her, to love her, not to be makin' a fool of her, and put his own head full of hambition, as dey calls it. You couldn't git along wid one o' dem pale, mutterin' white men, Virgie. Now, Roxy's white man, he's most as keerless as a nigger; he kin't do nothin' but make love, nohow. Dat's what she likes him fur."
"He's as kind a hearted man as there is in Princess Anne," Roxy spoke up. "I never thought about him except as a friend. I know I sha'n't look down on him because he likes a yellow girl, for then I would be looking down on myself."
"Virgie," said Samson, "I reckon I'm a little ole, but you kin't fine out whar it is. Ye ought to seen me fetch dat white hickory of a feller in de eye yisterday, and he jest outen his teens. I know it's a kine of impedent to be a courtin' of you, Virgie, dat's purtier dan Miss Vesty herself—"
"Nobody can be as pretty as Miss Vesta," Virgie cried, delighted with the compliment; "she's perfection."
"As I was gwyn to say," dryly added Samson, "I never just knowed what I was a lettin' Marster Milburn keep my wages fur, till he married Miss Vesty, and then I sot my eyes on Miss Vesty's friend an' maid, and I says, 'Gracious goodness! dat's de loveliest gal in de world. I'll git my money and buy her and set her free, and maybe she'll hab me, ole as I am.'"
"She will, too, Samson, if you do that, I believe," Roxy cried; "see how she's a-smiling and coloring about it."
Virgie's throat was sending up its tremors to her long-lashed eyes, and a wild, speculative something throbbed in her slender wrists and beat in the little jacket that was moulded to her swelling form: the first sight of freedom in the wild doe—freedom, and a mate.
"My soul!" Roxy added, "if poor Mr. Wonnell could set me free, I think I might pity him enough to be his wife."
Samson used his opportunity to stretch out his hand and take Virgie's, while she indulged the wild dream.
"Dis han' is too purty," he said, "to be worn by a slave. Let me make it free."
She turned away, but the negro had been a wise lover, and his plea pierced home, and it struck the Caucasian fatherhood of the bright quadroon.
"Freedom is mos' all I got," the negro continued; "it's wuth everything but love, Virgie. Dat you got. Maybe we can swap' em and let me be yo' slave."
"Don't, don't!" pleaded Virgie, pulling her hand very gently. "I'm afeard of you; you clean the Bad Man's hat."
CASTE WITHOUT TONE.
Judge Custis was well out of town, riding to the north, when the little reading-circle assembled, without his patronage, over the old store, and the young minister directed it. In the warm afternoon the windows were raised till Milburn's chill began to set in again, and they could hear the mocking-bird, in his tree, tantalizing the great shaggy dog Turk by whistling to him,
"Wsht! wsht! Come, sir! come, sir! Sic 'em! sic 'em! wh-i-it! sic 'em, Turk! wsht! wh-i-i-t! Sirrah! Ha! ha!"
Turk would run a little way, run back, see nobody, watch all the windows of the store, and finally he seemed to think the spot was haunted, or unreliable in some way; for he would next run to the open store door, and bark, run back, and, from a distance, watch the hollow dark within, as if a vague enemy lived there, mocking his obedient nature and keeping his mistress captive. Turk was a setter with mastiff mixing, worth a little for the hunt and more for the watch, but as an ornament and friend worth more than all; he was so impartial in his favors as to like Aunt Hominy and Vesta about equally, and often slept in the kitchen before the great chimney fire.
"Do we worry you, Mr. Milburn, by reading here?" Vesta asked.
"No, my darling. It is so kind of you to bring music to my poor loft."
William Tilghman opened his Bible at a place marked by a little ribbon-backed bristol card, inscribed in Vesta's childhood by her learning fingers, "Watch with me." He thought of his cousin, now fluttering between her betrayal to this Pilate and her crucifixion, and caught her eyes looking at the Bible-marker, as if saying to him and to the forest maiden, "Watch with me."
Tilghman started the reading, Vesta followed, and Rhoda had to do her part, also; but she required to labor hard to keep up, as the chapter was in the Acts, descriptive of Paul's voyage towards Rome, and had plenty of hard words and geography in it. At one verse, Rhoda's reading was like this:
"And—when—we—had—sailed—slowl—li—many-days—and—scare—scare—skar —skurse—I declar', Aunt Vesty, this print is blombinable!—scace—Oh, yes, scacely—scarce—were—come—over—against—Ceni—Snide—Snid—Mr. Tilghman, what is this crab-kine of word? Cnidus? Well, I declar'! a dog couldn't spell that; it looks like Snyder spelled by his hired man—against Cnidus—the—wind—not—snuffers—no, snuffering (here Rhoda executed the double sniffle)—yes, didn't I say snuffering? I mean suffering—suffering—us—we—sailed—under—I can't spell that nohow; nobody kin!"
"'Sailed under Crete,' dear," assisted Vesta.
"Sailed under—Crety—over—against—Sal—Sal—Salm—oh, yes, psalms! No: Sal Money."
"Salmone," explained the rector, not daring to look up; "we sailed under Crete over against Salmone; and, hardly passing it, came unto a place which is called the Fair Havens, nigh whereunto was the city of Lasea.'"
"Lord sakes!" exclaimed Rhoda, putting out her crescent foot, on which was Vesta's worked stocking, "did they have Fair Havens in them days? Was it this one over yer on the Wes'n Shu?"
"No," answered Tilghman; "Fair Havens was always a ready name for sailors finding a good port in trouble."
"Thar ain't no good port out thar on the Oushin side now but Monroe's Inlet, outen Jinkotig. The rest of 'em gits filled up, an' kadgin's the on'y way to kadge through of 'em, Misc Somers says."
"She means warping, or pulling over a shoal inlet by a rope to an anchor, as the water lifts the vessel."
"Yes, you know, Mr. Tilghman," Rhoda cried, delighted; "that's kadgin'—pullin' over the bar by the anchor line. You're all agroun', can't git nowhar, air a-bumpin' on the bar, an' the breakers is comin' dreadful in your side: you'll break all up if you stay thar. So you git the little anchor—the little one is better than ary too big a one—an' put it in the yawl an' paddle acrost the bar an' sot her, an' them aboard pulls as the billers lifts ye, and so they keep her headed in, and, kadging, kadging, bumpety-bump, at las' you go clar of the bar an' come home to smooth haven in Sinepuxin."
"Yes, my sisters," appended the young minister, "we need often to kedge home, to warp over the bars of life, and Hope, in ever so little an anchor, helps a little, if we do not lose the line. Little hopes are often better than great ones, for o'er-great hopes swamp little vessels. Even hope must be artfully shaped and skilfully dropped to take hold of the unseen bottoms of opportunity. All of us have entertained burdensome hopes, heavy anchors, and they would not hold us against the breakers; but there may be little hopes, carried in advance of us, that will draw us into pleasant sounds and bays."
"We owe to you, Rhoda, this comforting hope," said Vesta, "and, while you are with us, we shall teach you to read more confidently."
Vesta then sang Charles Wesley's hymn:
"'Jesus, in us thyself reveal! The winds are hushed, the sea is still, If in the ship Thou art. Oh, manifest Thy power divine; Enter this sinking church of Thine, And dwell in every heart.'"
The sounds of her singing reached the people, rambling curiously around on Sunday afternoon to see the principals in the surprising marriage they had but lately heard of, and, as she ended, Mr. Milburn called her, saying,
"It is time for you to leave me till to-morrow."
"Is that your desire?"
"It is, kind lady. I have a servant-man, Samson, used to all my work, and you can hear of my condition through your slave girls, going and coming. I want you to feel free as ever, though my wife at last. I did not seek you to cloud your morning, but to share your sunshine. Go to Teackle Hall, and there I will come when I am stronger. At no time do I ever wish you to sleep in this old stable."
"May I come and sit with you to-morrow, sir?"
"Oh, do so! I must see you a little day by day."
"May I take Rhoda with me?"
"Yes, if you will do it. She is a poor girl, but that is not her fault."
Vesta bent and touched his forehead with her lips, and, as she drew back, he raised his cold hand and put a piece of paper in hers.
"Present my love to your mother," he said, in a chill; "and return her the losses Judge Custis has named to me as her portion in Nassawongo furnace. The amount is in this check, which I give you, although it is Sunday, because it represents no business among any of us, but an act of peace."
"You are an honorable man," Vesta said; "I have cost you dearly."
"It is the bumping of a few years on the bar," Meshach answered, trying to smile; "be you my anchor out in calm water, and I will try to draw to you some day. It is not the price I pay that troubles me; it is the price you are paying."
"I am deeply interested in you," Vesta said; "if I should say more than that, it would not now be true."
"Thank you for that much," Milburn said; "even your pity is a treasure, and I thank God that I have made so much progress. Before you go, let my bird come in, and then shut the window, to keep the night-hawks and owls from finding him."
He managed, between his rising paroxysms of the chill, to whistle a note or two, and Tom flew in the window and fluttered viciously around his head, as if to be revenged for exile, and then, leaping on the old hat-box, set up a show performance, in which were all the menagerie of town and field, and, stopping a little while to hear the bird sing her name again, Vesta and her friends withdrew.
Mrs. Custis was found in her bedroom, much improved in spirits, but highly nervous.
"Oh, my poor, martyred, murdered idol!" she screamed, as Vesta came in; "are you alive? Is the beast dead? Don't tell me he dares to live."
"Yes, mamma, here are his teeth," Vesta said, when she had kissed her mother warmly. "He has sent you a check for all your lost money, and his love, and me to live here with you in Teackle Hall. Liberty, restitution, as you name it, and his affection to both of us: is he not a gentleman now?"
Mrs. Custis eagerly took the check.
"Do you believe it is good, precious? Maybe he sent it to deceive me while he could take advantage of your gratitude. Oh, these foresters are devils! I wish I had the money for it."
"It is good for everything he has, mamma. Not to pay it would make him a bankrupt. He gave it to me almost with gallantry. Indeed, he is the most singular man I ever knew."
"That is the case with all pirates," said Mrs. Custis; "something in the female nature attracts us to lawless men, who take what they want—ourselves included. We were, I suppose, originally, just seized and appropriated, and are looking out for the appropriator to this day. But you, Vesta, with the Baltimore blood in you, do not expect to play the Sabine bride tamely like that—to defend your spoiler and reconcile him to your brethren?"
"I was thinking it was the Baltimore blood that made me appreciate Mr. Milburn, mamma. The Custises were not traders."
"Pshaw! the Custises were libertines, unless history belies them; they had else no popularity in the scamp court of Charley-over-the-water. He thought the daughter of any gentleman in his following was made for his mistress, and a large percentage of the said damsels thought he was right."
"Mr. Milburn is no Cavalier, I can see that," Vesta said; "I am attracted to him by elements of such strength and simplicity that I fancy he is a Puritan."
"Puritan fiddlestick!" Mrs. Custis said, putting Milburn's check in her bosom and pinning it in there, and looking vigilantly at the pin afterwards. "Now, my great comfort, my only McLane! do not idealize this forester as of any beginning whatsoever. It is all wrong. Thousands of convicts were exported to Chesapeake Bay from the slums of London, Bristol, Glasgow, and other places, and propagated here like the pokeweed. With instincts of larceny, and, possibly, a little rebellion in it, your man has robbed this house of your person; if he should also take your heart, the shame would be upon us."
"Oh, mother, you are unforgiving!"
"Of course I am; I am Scotch."
"You have not one son-in-law but this who would give you back the large amount your husband has misspent—not one who could do it but at a sacrifice you would not permit. For you and papa, to restore your faith in each other, I married our stranger creditor, forcing him to the altar rather than he me; and he has already proved himself of more delicacy than you, if I am to believe you are in your right mind. No, I am no McLane."
"You are not, if you do not use their Scotch-Irish perseverance to get the better of Meshach Milburn. You have obtained a marriage settlement with him, now have it confirmed, and sue out your divorce before the Legislature! Publicly as you have been profaned, ask the State of Maryland for reparation. The McLanes, the Custises, and all their connections, from the Christine River to the James, will storm Annapolis, make your cause, if necessary, a political issue, and the courts of this county will give you damages out of this beast's unpopular wealth."
Vesta looked at her mother with astonishment.
"What would become of my self-respect, my maiden name, if I made that show of my private griefs, mother?"
"Why, you would be a heroine. Every old lover, of whom there are so many eligible ones, would feel his zeal return. A romance would attend your name wherever the Baltimore newspapers are taken, and you would be as great a heroine as Betty Patterson."
"That disobedient girl?" Vesta, still in astonishment, exclaimed.
"I saw her when the bride of Jerome Bonaparte. She was not half as lovely as you! If Jerome had seen you—you were not born, then, and I was in society—he would never have looked at Betty. But, you see, she forced a settlement out of the Emperor, husbanded the income of it, and she is rich, and freer to-day than if she had become a French Bonaparte."
"Weak as they may be in many things, I am a Custis," Vesta spoke, with pale scorn. "I would not drag my name through the tobacco-stained lobbies of Annapolis to wear the crown of Josephine. The word I gave, in pity of my parents, to the man who is now my husband, to become his wife, I would not take back to my dying day, unless he first denied his word. I believe there is such a thing as honor yet. Mother, you fret my father by such principles."
"They are the principles of your uncle, Allan McLane."
"A man I shrink from," Vesta said, "although he is your brother. His unfeeling respectability, his unchangeableness, his want of every impulse but hate, his appropriation of our family honor, as if he was our lawgiver and high-sheriff, his secretiveness, formal religion, and mysterious prosperity, I do not appreciate, much as I have tried to be charitable to him. I do not like Baltimore as I do the Eastern Shore; it is fierce, hard, and suspicious."
"You shall not run down Baltimore before me," Mrs. Custis cried, hotly. "It is a paradise to this region; and comparing Meshach Milburn to your uncle is blasphemy."
"I have on my finger, mother, his mother's ring."
"A pretty object it is," said Mrs. Custis, taking a peep at it and another at her check; "it requires a microscope to find it. The next thing you will be walking through Baltimore on your bridal tour, followed by a mob of small boys, to see Meshach's old steeple-top hat. Then I shall feel for you, Vesta."
The cruel blow struck home. Vesta's reception, so unexpected, so acrimonious, affected her with a sense of gross ingratitude, and with a greater disappointment—she had failed to restore joy to her parents by her desperate sacrifice.
She began to feel that she might have done wrong. The broad sight of her act, looking back upon it from this momentary revulsion, seemed a frightful flood, like the mouth of one of the little Eastern Shore rivers that expands to a gulf in the progress of a brook. Last night she saw in an instant the misunderstandings and ruin she could prevent by her ready decision; now she saw the misunderstandings she never could correct, the prejudices stronger than parental sympathy, the wide separation her marriage had effected between two classes of her duty—to think with her husband's affection and her mother's interests at the same time.
It also occurred to her that her father, the darling of her thought, had seemed slow to appreciate her marriage sacrifice, and was testy at her willingness to loosen her heart with her vestal zone towards her husband.
The whole day had passed with such relief, such satisfaction, that she expected to end it in the tranquillity of Teackle Hall, like some young eagle returned to her nest with abundant prey for the old birds there, worn out with storm and time. In place of love and healing nature, Vesta had found worldliness, resentment, intrigue, and aspersion, concluding with a reference to the one object she feared and shrank from—the hat of dark entail, the shadow upon her future life. Her eyes filled up, she lisped aloud,
"I wish I had stayed with my husband!"
"Has he become so necessary to you already?" asked Mrs. Custis.
"He does appreciate my sacrifice," Vesta said, and her low sobs filled the room. In a moment Virgie entered, alert to her playmate's pains, and threw her arms around her mistress and kissed her like a child.
"Oh, missy," she spoke to Mrs. Custis, "to make her cry after what she has done for all of us—to save your home, to save me from being sold!"
No scruples of race made Vesta reject this sympathy, precious to her parched breast despite the quadroon taint as the golden sand in the brooks of Africa, giving at once wealth and cooling. The slave girl's long white arms, scarcely less pale than ivory—for she had slipped in at the sign of sorrow, while making her simple toilet—drew Vesta into her lap and laid her head upon the fair maiden shoulder, as if it was a babe's. On such a shoulder, only a shadow darker, Vesta had often lain in infancy, and sucked the milk that was sweet as Eve's—the common fount of white and black—at the breast of Virgie's mother. That faithful nurse was gone; the wild plum-tree grew upon her grave; but Virgie inherited the motherly instinct and added the sisterly sympathy, and her rich hair, half unbound, streamed down on Vesta's temples among the dark ringlets there, while she looked into her own spirit for a word to check those tears, and found it:
"People will say you have been crying, dear missy. The Lord knows you did right. Don't let anybody make you lose your faith till your master, your husband, does wrong to you; he wouldn't like to have you cry."
There was a nervous chord somewhere in the slave's throat that trembled on the key of the heroic, and her nostrils, slightly rounded, her head, free of carriage as the wild colt's, and a light from her soft eyes that seemed to be reflected on their long, silken lashes, bore out a spirit tamed by servitude, which still could kindle to everything that concerned woman in her birthright.
Vesta kissed Virgie, and ceased to sob; she rose and kissed her mother also.
"It was very wrong in me to say what I did not wish to say, about Uncle Allan, mamma. I hope papa was kind to you to-day."
"Dear me!" Mrs. Custis cried; "everything is turned upside down by that bog iron ore. A new element has come into the family to disturb it. Nobody believes anything respectable any more. Your father is an infidel, or a radical, or something perverse; you are defending those wild foresters! What will become of the Christian religion and society and good principles?"
"What did papa say before he left home?"
"He acted in the strangest manner, Vesta. He came right in and kissed me, like a great booby, and sat down and wanted to talk about our courting days. I thought at first he was drunk again, or that the Methodists had got hold of him and fed him on camp-meeting straw. How do you account for it?"
Virgie had slipped out as soon as the talk became confidential.
"He wants to do better, dear mamma. Do respond to his contrition and affection! If we could all humble our hearts, it would be so easy to start life better, and turn this accident to joy and comfort. I have found new engagements and reliefs already. There is a young girl, Mr. Milburn's niece, whom I shall bring home this evening and occupy myself teaching her. She is an orphan, without a mother's knowledge, barely able to read, but pretty and quaint."
"Bring a forester in here?" Mrs. Custis exclaimed, fairly shivering. "What will Allan McLane's daughters say? Your sister from Talbot has been here all this day, and you have scarcely given her an hour. Between this fatal marriage and your neglect, she left, with her husband, positively pale with horror. I do not know what is to follow this marriage. I have posted a letter already to my brother Allan, telling him of your betrayal by your father and this bridegroom. All our connection will be up in arms."
Vesta's heart sank again, but she felt no fears of her husband's ability to meet mere family opposition, secured by law and form in his rights. She only feared hostility might rouse in him severity and defiance which would neutralize her present influence upon him, and change his accommodating, almost gentle, disposition as a husband.
For, blacker than any object in her future path, she saw a little, trivial thing, like a wild boar closing her hitherto adventurous excursion into the forest where her husband grew—the hat that had covered his head!
Her mother's thoughtless mention of that object made it formidable to her fears as some iron mask locked round her husband's countenance, making day hideous and the world a dungeon to all who must walk with him.
She discerned that his combative spirit would start to the defence of his hat if it should become the subject of family rancor, because no man forgives an insult to his personal appearance; and this article of wear had ringed his brain with gangrene, and war made upon it would be met by war, while Vesta had expected to induce forgetfulness of the rusty old tile, to charm away the remembrance of it, and to have it laid forever aside.
"I am not the daughter of Uncle McLane," Vesta protested. "I am, besides, a woman, free of my minority. Mr. Milburn is hardly the man to submit to any trespass. I warn you, mamma, to put my uncle at no disadvantage; for my husband has already beaten papa, and he will smile at your brother when he knows that I do not support any of his pretensions."
"The first thing," answered Mrs. Custis, stubbornly, "is to see that he pays this check. Oh, my dear money!"—she pressed it to her heart—"how delightful it is to see you again. Science, love, glory, ideas: how vulgar they are without money. With this check paid, I think I shall never read a book again; and as for the bog ores, why, I shall scream if there is an iron article in the house. Vesta, this house, I believe, is yours now? I had forgotten. Well, no wonder you defend the man who took your father's roof from over his head and gave it to you!"
"That is unkind, mamma. I value it only as a sure home for you and papa. If I gave it to him it might be in risk again."
"But suppose you continue to defend this monster of a Milburn, he and you may require the whole house. I am too well-bred to be converted to any of his impious ideas. I am a Baltimorean, and stand by my colors."
"Let us speak of that no more," Vesta said, almost in despair, "but talk of dear papa. I know he loves you."
"It is too late," Mrs. Custis remarked, solemnly, with another fondling of her check; "he has neglected me too long. I expect his attention and respect, and that he shall behave himself; but no lovey and no honey for me now. Life has passed the noon and the early afternoon for him and me, and I live to be respectable, to appreciate my security, to keep upstarts at arm's-length, to enjoy my life in its appointed circle, taking care of my income, and never—no, never!—giving any human being the opportunity to make me a beggar again."
"Oh, mamma," Vesta said, "think of Judge Custis! Have you not made home cold to him by this formalism? We must study men, and please them according to their tastes, and therein lies our joy; else we are false to the companionship God gave us to man for. Yield to your husband's boyish-heartedness; fly with him, like the mate by the bird! He has repented; welcome him to your love again, and stay his feet from truant going, or he may dash down the precipice this sorrow has arrested him before, of everlasting dissipation and the death of his noble soul!"
Vesta stood above her mother, deeply moved, deeply earnest. Her mother stole another look at the bank check.
"Well, daughter, I will be humbugged by him if you desire it," she said, but with slight answering emotion. "If I had my life to go over again I would marry a business man, and let the aristocracy go. There is the second knock at the front-door. I believe I will dress myself and go down-stairs too."
There were two ladies in the parlor when Vesta went there—Grandmother Tilghman and the Widow Dennis.
"Good-evening, Vesta," said the old lady, who was stone-blind, but easily knew Vesta's footstep. "William thought you would not go to evening service on account of Mr. Milburn's illness, so I came around to sit till church was over, when he will take me home. But what is that I hear in this parlor, like somebody sniffling?"
"It's me, Aunt Vesty," said the voice of Rhoda Holland from the background.
"This is Mr. Milburn's niece, who has come here to stay with me," Vesta said.
"Ah! then it is no Custis. The last sniffle I heard was at the ball to Lafayette in the spring of 1781. The marquis had marched from Head of Elk to the Bald Friars' ferry up the Susquehanna and inland among the hills to Baltimore, and we gave him a ball which, at his request, was turned into a clothing-party. He snuffed so much that he kept up a sniffle all the evening, like—"
Here Rhoda's sniffle was heard again.
"Yes, that's a good imitation," said Grandmother Tilghman, "but I don't like it."
"Did the gineral dance at the ball?" asked Rhoda. "What did he do with his swurd? Did he dance with it outen his scibburd?"
"He danced like a gentleman," Mrs. Tilghman replied, as if she would rather not, "and led me out in the first set. You danced with him, Vesta, at the ball in '24, forty-three years afterwards. Does he sniffle yet?"
"I don't recollect, grand-aunt. I was a little girl, and so much flattered that I thought everything he did was perfect."
"Ah me!" exclaimed Mrs. Tilghman, pulling the feather of her turban up, and looking as much like an old belle as possible at eighty years of age; "you danced before Lafayette with my grandson Bill. Bill hardly remembers Lafayette at all, thinking of you that night, so wonderful in your girl's charms. I told him Vesta would never marry him, as he was too plain and poor. But I never thought you would marry that—"
Here Rhoda sniffled warningly.
"Yes," exclaimed the old lady, catching the sniffle; "I never thought you would marry that! But Bill is as dear a fool as ever. He says now that Meshach Milburn is a good man, too. I never thought he was above a—"
Rhoda sniffled earnestly.
"Precisely that," exclaimed the old lady; "that was my estimate of the stock. Bill says he is a financial genius. I don't see what is to become of girls in this generation. Here is Ellenora, too good to marry Phoebus, the sailor man, too poor to marry anybody else; now, if Milburn had married her and taken her son Levin into his business, it would have been reasonable; but to take you and pervert your happiness, almost makes me—"
Sniffle from Rhoda.
"Yes," said the old lady, snappishly; "almost! But I never did do it yet."
"Did you ever see Gineral Washin'ton, mem?" Rhoda asked. "I thought, maybe, you was old enough. Misc Somers, she see him up yer to Kint River a-crossin' to 'Napolis. He was a-swarin' at the cappen of the piriauger and a dammin' of the Eas'n Shu, and he said they wan't no good rudes in Marylan' nohow; that the Wes'n Shu was all red mud, an' the Eas'n Shu yaller mud, an' the bay was jus' pizen. Misc Somers say she don't think it was Gineral Washin'ton, caze he cuss so. She goin' to find out when she kin git a book an' somebody to read outen it to her, caze she dreffle smart."
"Grand-aunt Tilghman," Vesta interposed to the blank silence of the room, "knew General Washington intimately."
"Do tell us!" cried Rhoda. "You kin be a right interestin' ole woman, I reckon, ef you air so quar."
In the midst of a smile, in which the blind old lady herself joined, and Mrs. Custis at the same time entered the room, Mrs. Tilghman spoke as follows:
"I went to visit Cousin Martha Washington several years before the Revolution, at Mount Vernon. I had seen her while she was the widow of Cousin Custis, and we occasionally corresponded. In those days we visited by vessel, so a schooner of Robert Morris's father set me ashore at Mount Vernon. Colonel Washington was then having his first portrait painted by Wilson Peale, and he was forty years old. Peale and Washington used to pitch the bar, play quoits, and fox-hunt, while Cousin Martha, who was only three months younger than the colonel, knitted and cut out sewing for her colored girls, and heard her daughter, Martha Custis, play the harpsichord. Poor Martha had the consumption; she was dark as an Indian; Washington often carried her along the piazza and into the beautiful woodlands near the house; but she died, leaving him all her money—nearly twenty thousand dollars. We Custises rather looked down on Colonel Washington in those days; he was not of the old gentry; his poor mother could barely read and write, and once, when we went to Fredericksburg to see her, she was riding out in the field among her few negroes as her own overseer, wearing an old sun-bonnet, and sunburned like a forester."
"Dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Custis. "I should think she was a great impediment to Washington."
"I reckon that's the way her son got big," exclaimed Rhoda; "if his mar had laid down in bed all day, he couldn't have killed King George so easy with his swurd."
"I often said to Cousin Martha, 'What did you see in this big horse of a man?' 'Oh,' she replied, 'he's the best overseer in Virginia. He looks after my property as no other man could.'"
"Then," said Mrs. Custis, emphatically, "he was one man out of a thousand."
"That's the kind of man you married, Vesta," spoke up Mrs. Dennis.
"Her husband," said Mrs. Custis, "looked after her father's property, I am sure, for he got it all."
"And returned it all," exclaimed Vesta.
Mrs. Custis remarked that Washington certainly was a blue-blooded man.
"Is thar people with blue blood comin' outen of 'em?" asked Rhoda Holland. "Lord sakes! I should think it would make 'em cold."
"I wonder if men are ever great?" asked Vesta; "or whether it is not great occasion and trial that project them. A crisis comes in our lives, and, finding what we can endure, we incur greater risks, and finally delight in such adventure."
"That is the way with my poor boy, Levin," said Mrs. Dennis, quietly, to Vesta. She was a pretty woman, somewhat past thirty, with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, neat but rather poor attire, and a simple, artless manner, and might have passed for the sister of her son.
"Is Levin coming for you to-night?" Vesta asked.
"No," blushed the widow; "James Phoebus will see me home. Levin has gone off in his boat, and I have been worried about him all day. Some time, I am afraid, he will go and never return. Oh, Cousin Vesta, this waiting for a husband neither alive nor dead is very trying."
Overhearing the remark, Mrs. Custis remarked, "Norah, you ought to be ashamed to keep that faithful fellow waiting on you, when you could give yourself a good husband and reward him so easily."
"I think you had better look out for old age," Mrs. Tilghman also said, "while you have youth and good looks to obtain the provision. Oden Dennis is probably dead; if not dead, he does not mean to return, for I can think of no circumstances in this age which would forcibly detain a man from his wife fifteen years. Even if he was in a prison, he would be allowed to write to you. He may not be dead, Norah, but he is not coming back. Get a father for your son; you cannot manage Levin."
"Maybe he has been stoled by Injins," exclaimed Rhoda, with great fervor; "thar was a Injin captive in a shew at Nu-ark, that had been kept nineteen years. He forgot his language, and whooped dreffle. Misc Somers say he was an imploster, an' worked on the Brekwater up to Lewistown. She's always lookin' behind the shew to find out somethin'." (Slight sniffle.)
"Do get that girl a pocket-handkerchief, and show her how to use it," exclaimed Mrs. Tilghman, breaking out. "Ah! girls, I have been a widow thirty years. I never gave up the expectation of marrying again till I lost my eyesight; and even after that, at sixty-five, I had an offer of marriage; but I said to my gallant old beau, 'I will not take a man I cannot compliment by seeing him and admiring him every day. I love you, but my blindness would give you too much pain.' In our quiet towns, all the life worth living is domestic joy. Do not lose it, Ellenora; do not put it off too long!"
"I could love Mr. Phoebus, plain as he is," the widow spoke, "if I could persuade myself that Oden is dead. But that I cannot do. A real person—spirit or man—is watching over me closely. My very shoes I wear to-night came from that mysterious agent. It is not my son; it is not James Phoebus. No other stranger would so secretly assist me. I am bound up in the fear and wonder that it is my husband."
"That does beat conjecture," said old Mrs. Tilghman. "Have you no friend you might suspect?"
"None," the widow answered. "None who have not worn out their means of giving long ago. Can I marry, with this ghostly visitation coming so regularly? Should I not have faith in a husband's living if I receive a wife's care from an unseen hand?"
"Oden Dennis," Mrs. Custis remarked, "was hardly a man to do charity and not be seen. He was rather self-indulgent, demonstrative, and restless. I cannot think of his nocturnal visits in the body. Besides, he would not supply you in that way, Norah, if he meant to come back; and if he cannot himself come to you, neither could he send."
Not altogether relishing Mrs. Tilghman's reproof, Rhoda was again heard from, saying:
"Lord sakes! all the women has to talk about when they is gone is the men. When the men comes, they talks as if they never missed of 'em. Misc Somers, she never had no man, an' she talks mos' about the women that has got one. I think Aunt Vesty has got the best man in Prencess Anne. He's the richest. He's the freest. He never courted no other gal. He ain't got no quar old women runnin' of him down—caze Misc Somers is dreffle afraid of him!" This last remark seemed apologetic and an afterthought.
"I am beginning to think my fortune is better than I deserve," Vesta replied, to soften the application, as wine, tea, and cake were brought in. "Now, dear friends, as I am Mr. Milburn's wife, let us all be Christians this Sunday night, and drink his health and happy recovery, and that he may never repent his marriage."
They drank with some hesitation, except the bride, Rhoda, and Mrs. Dennis. Mrs. Tilghman needed the wine too much to wait long, and Mrs. Custis, finding she was observed, took a sip from her glass also, excusing herself on the ground of a recent headache from drinking heartily.
As the conversation proceeded, now by general participation, again by couples apart, and Vesta found herself more and more a subject of sympathy, with no little curiosity interwoven in it, she also imagined that an undertone of belief was abroad that she had made a mercenary marriage.
Old Mrs. Tilghman—in her prime a most caustic belle, and worldly as three marriages, all shrewdly contracted, could make her—seemed determined to hold that Vesta had rejected her grandson for the money-lender on the consideration of wealth. Vesta's own mother, too, who should have known her well, had twice hinted the same. Even the inoffensive Ellenora had accepted that idea, or another kin to it, and Rhoda Holland had remembered that her uncle was the richest of bridegrooms in Princess Anne. Vesta felt the injustice, but said to herself:
"I must make the sacrifice complete, and incur any harsh judgment it may bear. I see that I shall be driven for sympathy to the last place in the world I anticipated: to my husband's heart. Yes, there is something besides love in marriage: if I cannot love him, he can understand me."
Vesta had come to a place all come to who volunteer an act of great sacrifice—to have it put upon a low motive from the lower plane of sacrifice in many otherwise kind people. We give our money to an institution of charity, and it is said that it was for notoriety, or self-seeking, or at the expense of our kin. We lead a forlorn hope in politics, or some other arena, to establish a cause or assist a principle, with the certain result of defeat, and we are said to be jealous or malignant. Perhaps we make a book to illustrate some old region off the highways of observation, drawn to it by kindred strings or early patterings, and the politician there regards it as an attack, the old family fossil as an intrusion, the very youth as if it were a queer and gratuitous thing from such an outer source. So we wince a little, but feel that it was necessary to be misunderstood to complete the sacrifice.
The feeling of despondency increased after the little company separated, and Vesta went to her room and laid herself upon her still maiden bed. She had said her prayer and asked the approval of God, but her nervous system, under the tension of almost two days' excitement and events such as she had never known, was alert and could not fall to slumber. Old passages of Testament lore haunted her soul, such as: "Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee;" "A man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife." She began to see that marriage was not merely the solution of a family trouble, and the giving of her body as a hostage for a pecuniary debt, but that it was a rendition of all her liberty, even the liberty of sympathy and of sorrow, to the man to whom she must cleave.
In marrying him she had left friendship, father and mother, everything, at a greater distance than she ever dreamed; and they resented the desertion to the degree that they now confounded her with her new interest, let go their claim upon her, and could scarce conceive of her except in the dual relation of a woman subject to her husband, and selfish as himself.
"I wonder if he will grow weary of me, too," she thought, with anguish, "after his possession is established and I shall have no other source of confidence? What did I know of this world only yesterday? Then every way seemed clear and open for me, my friends abundant, and love profuse; to-day I am in awful doubts, and yet I must not lose my will and drift with every passing fear and confusion into the fickleness which makes woman contemptible after she has given her hand. I will never give up two persons—my father, and my husband!"
As she turned down the lamp, it being nearly midnight, a short, fierce cry, quickly stifled, as if some wild animal had howled once in nightmare and fallen asleep in his kennel again, seized on her ears and chilled her blood.
Vesta started up in bed and listened. It seemed to her that there were footsteps, but they passed away, and she listened in vain for any other sounds, till sleep fell deep and dreamless upon her, like black Lethe winding through a desert wedding-day.
Vesta was awakened by Roxy, Virgie, and her mother all standing around her bed at once, exclaiming something unintelligible together. It was late morning, the whole family having slept long, after the several experiences of two such days, and the sun was shining through the great trees before Teackle Hall and burnishing the windows, so that Vesta could hardly see.
"The kitchen servants have run away," Mrs. Custis shrieked, on Vesta's request that her mother only should talk. "Old Hominy is gone, and has taken all her herbs and witcheries with her; and all the young children bred in the kitchen, Ned and Vince, the boys, and little Phillis, the baby, they, too, are gone."
"I heard a strange cry or howl last night, as I dropped to sleep," Vesta exclaimed, rubbing her eyes.
"Dear missy," cried Virgie, falling upon the pillow, "it was your poor dog Turk; his throat has been cut upon the lawn."
"Yes, missy," Roxy blubbered, "poor Turk lies in his blood. There is nobody to get breakfast but Virgie and me. Indeed, we did not know about it."
"That is not very likely," said the suspicious Mrs. Custis.
"I know you did not, girls," Vesta said, "you have too much intelligence and principle, I am sure; nor could Hominy have been so inhuman to my poor dog."
Vesta at once rose up and threw on her morning-gown.
"The first thing to be done is to have breakfast. Roxy, do you go at once to Mr. Milburn's and bring his man Samson here, and awake Miss Holland to take Samson's place by her uncle. Tell Samson to make the fire, and you and he get the breakfast. No person is to speak of this incident of the kitchen servants leaving us on any pretence."
"Won't you give the alarm the first thing?" cried Mrs. Custis, not very well pleased to see Vesta keep her temper. "They may be overtaken before they get far away, daughter. Those four negroes are worth twelve hundred dollars!"
"They are not worth one dollar, mamma, if they have run away from us; because I should never either sell them or keep them again if they had behaved so treacherously."
"I say, sell them and get the money," Mrs. Custis cried; "are they not ours?"
"No, mamma, they are mine. Mr. Milburn and papa are to be consulted before any steps are taken. Papa deeded them to me only last Saturday; why should they have deserted at the moment I had redeemed them? Virgie, can you guess?"
Virgie hesitated, only a moment.
"Miss Vesty, I think I can see what made Hominy go. She was afraid of Meshach Milburn and his queer hat. She believed the devil give it to him. She thought he had bought her by marrying you, and was going to christen her to the Bad Man, or do something dreadful with her and the little children."
"That's it, Miss Vessy," plump little Roxy added. "Hominy loved the little children dearly; she thought they was to become Meshach's, and she must save them."
"Poor, superstitious creature!" Vesta exclaimed.
"More misery brought about by that fool's hat!" cried Mrs. Custis. "If I ever lay hands on it, it shall end in the fire."
"No wonder," Vesta said, "that this poor, ignorant woman should do herself such an injury on account of an article of dress that disturbs liberal and enlightened minds! Now I recollect that Hominy said something about having 'got Quaker.' What did it mean?"
The two slave girls looked at each other significantly, and Virgie answered,
"Don't the Quakers help slaves to get off to a free state? Maybe she meant that."
"Do you suppose the abolitionists would tamper with a poor old woman like that, whose liberty would neither be a credit to them nor a comfort to her? I cannot think so meanly of them," Vesta reflected. "Besides, could she have killed my dog?"
"A gross, ignorant, fetich-worshipping negro would kill a dog, or a child, or anything, when she is possessed with a devil," Mrs. Custis insisted.
"I don't believe she killed Turk," Roxy remarked, as she left the room. "There was a white man in the kitchen last Saturday night: I think he slept there; master gave him leave."
"Yes, missy," Virgie continued, after Roxy had gone to obey her orders; "he was a dreadful man, and looked at me so coarse and familiar that I have dreamed of him since. It was the man Mr. Milburn knocked down for mashing his hat; he was afraid Mr. Milburn would throw him into jail, so he asked master to hide in the kitchen. But Hominy was almost crazy with fear of Mr. Milburn before that."
Vesta held up her beautiful arms with a look of despair.
"What has not that poor old hat brought upon every body?" she cried. "Oh, who dares contest the sunshine with the tailor and hatter? They are the despots that never will abdicate or die."
"The idea of your father letting a tramp like that sleep in the kitchen among the slaves!" cried Mrs. Custis. "What obligation had he incurred there, too, I should like to know? Teackle Hall is become a cave of owls and foxes; it is time for me to leave it. Here is my husband gone, riding fifty miles for his worst enemy, leaving us without a cook and without a man's assistance to discover where ours is gone. I know what I shall do: I will start this day for Cambridge, to meet my brother, and visit the Goldsboroughs there till some order is brought out of this attempt to plant wheat and tares together."
Vesta stopped a moment and kissed her mother: "That is just the thing, dear mother," she said. "Let me straighten out the difficulties here; go, and come back when all is done, and you can be yourself again."
"I shall do it, Vesta. Brother Allan gets to Cambridge to-morrow afternoon; I will go as far as Salisbury this day, and either meet him on the road to-morrow or find him at Cambridge. Oh, what a house is Teackle Hall—full of male and female foresters, abolitionists, runaways, and radicals! All made crazy by the bog ores and the fool's hat!"
Descending to the yard, Vesta found Turk lying in his blood, his mastiff jaws and shaggy sides clotted red, and, as it seemed, the howl in which he died still lingering in the air. The Virginia spirit rose in Vesta's eyes:
"Whoever killed this dog only wanted the courage to kill men!" she exclaimed. "James Phoebus, look here!"
The pungy captain had been abroad for hours, and the masts of his vessel were just visible across the marshy neck in the rear of Teackle Hall. He touched his hat and came in.
"Early mornin', Miss Vesty! Hallo! Turk dead? By smoke, yer's pangymonum!"
"He's stabbed, Jimmy!" Samson Hat remarked, coming out of the kitchen; "see whar de dagger struck him right over de heart! Dat made him howl and fall dead. His froat was not cut dat sudden; it's gashed as if wid somethin' blunt."
"Right you are, nigger! The throat-cuttin' was a make believe; the stab will tell the tale. But who's this yer, lurkin' aroun' the kitchen do'; if it ain't Jack Wonnell, I hope I may die! Sic!"
With this, active as the dog had been but yesterday, Jimmy rushed on Jack Wonnell, chased him to the fence, and brought him back by the neck. Wonnell wore a bell-crown, and his hand was full of fall blossoms. As Wonnell observed the dead dog, pretty little Roxy came out of the kitchen, and stood blushing, yet frightened, to see him.
"What yo' doin' with them rosy-posies?" Jimmy demanded. "Who're they fur? What air you sneakin' aroun' Teackle Hall fur so bright of a mornin', lazy as I know you is, Jack Wonnell?"
"They are flowers he brings every morning for me," Roxy spoke up, coming forward with a pretty simper.
"For you?" exclaimed Vesta. "You are not receiving the attentions of white men, Roxy?"
"He offered, himself, to get flowers for me, so I might give you as pretty ones as Virgie, missy. I let him bring them. He's a poor, kind man."
"I jess got 'em, Jimmy," interjected Jack Wonnell, with his peculiar wink and leer, "caze Roxy's the belle of Prencess Anne, and I'm the bell-crown. She's my little queen, and I ain't ashamed of her."
"Courtin' niggers, air you!" Jimmy exclaimed, collaring Jack again. "Now whar did you go all day Sunday with Levin Dennis and the nigger buyer? What hokey-pokey wair you up to?"
"Mr. Wonnell," Roxy had the presence of mind to say, "take care you tell the truth, for my sake! Aunt Hominy is gone, with all the kitchen children, and Mr. Phoebus suspects you!"
"Great lightnin' bugs!" Jimmy Phoebus cried. "The niggers stole, an' the dog dead, too?"
"I 'spect Jedge Custis sold 'em, Jimmy," Jack Wonnell pleaded, twisting out of the bay captain's hands. "He's gwyn to be sold out by Meshach Milburn. Maybe he jess sold 'em and skipped."
"Where is Judge Custis, Miss Vesty?" Phoebus asked.
"He has gone to Delaware, to be absent several days."
"Is what this bell-crowned fool says, true, Miss Vesty?"
"No. There was some fear among the kitchen servants of being sold; there was no such necessity when they ran away, as it had been settled."
"It is unfortunate that your father is gone. He has been seen with a negro trader. That trader and he disappear the same evening. The trader lives about Delaware, too, Miss Vesty."
Vesta's countenance fell, as she thought of the suspicion that might attach to her father. The great old trees around Teackle Hall seemed moaning together in the air, as if to say, "Ancestors, this is strange to hear!"
"Who told you, Jack Wonnell," spoke the bay sailor, "that Judge Custis was to be sold out?"
"I won't tell you, Jimmy."
"I told him," Roxy cried, after an instant's hesitation, while Jimmy Phoebus was grinding the stiff bell-crown hat down on Wonnell's suffocating muzzle. "I did think we was all going to be sold, and had nobody to pity me but that poor white man, and I told him as a friend."
"And I never told anybody in the world but Levin Dennis yisterday," Jack cried out, when he was able to get his breath.
"Whar did you go, Jack, wid the long man and Levin all day yisterday?" Samson asked.
"Yes, whar was you?" Jimmy Phoebus shouted, with one of his Greek paroxysms of temper on, as his dark skin and black-cherry eyes flamed volcanic. "Whar did you leave Ellenora's boy and that infernal soul-buyer? Speak, or I'll throttle you like this dog!"
"You let him alone, sir!" little Roxy cried, hotly, "he won't deceive anybody; he's going to tell all he knows."
"Let go, Jimmy," Samson said; "don't you see Miss Vesty heah?"
"Don't scare the man, Mr. Phoebus," Vesta added; "but I command him to tell all that he knows, or papa shall commit him to jail."
Jack Wonnell, taking his place some steps away from Phoebus, and wiping his eyes on his sleeve, whimpering a few minutes, to Roxy's great agitation, finally told his tale.
"I'm sorry, Jimmy, you accused me before this beautiful lady an' my purty leetle Roxy—bless her soul!—of stealing Jedge Custis's niggers. Thair's on'y one I ever looked sheep's eyes at, an' she's a-standin' here, listenin' to every true word I says. I'm pore trash, an' I reckon the jail's as good as the pore-house for me, ef they want to send me thair, fur it's in town, and Roxy kin come an' look through the bars at me every day."
Roxy was so much affected that she threw her apron up to her face, and Vesta and Phoebus had to smile, while Samson Hat, looking indulgently on, exclaimed,
"Dar's love all froo de woods. Doves an' crows can't help it. It's deeper down dan fedders an' claws."
"That nigger trader," continued Jack Wonnell, bell-crown in hand, "hired me an' Levin to take him a tarrapinin'. He had a bag of gold that big"—measuring with his hand in the crown of the hat—"an' he give Levin some of it, an' I took it to Levin's mother las' night, an' told her Levin wouldn't be back fur a week, maybe. I thought Mr. Johnson was gwyn to give me some gold too, so I could buy Roxy, but yer's all he give me. Everybody disappints me, Jimmy!"
Jack Wonnell showed an old silver fi'penny bit, and his countenance was so lugubrious that the sailor exclaimed,
"Jack, he paid you too well for all the sense you got. Now, whar has Levin gone with the Ellenora Dennis?"
"I don't know, Jimmy. He made Levin sail her up to the landin' down yer below town, whair Levin's father, Cap'n Dennis, launched the Idy fifteen year ago. I left Levin thar, and he said, 'Jack, I'm goin' off with the nigger trader to git some of his money fur mother!'"
"Poor miserable boy!" Phoebus exclaimed; "he's led off easy as his pore daddy. The man he's gone with, Miss Vesty, is black as hell. Joe Johnson is known to every thief on the bay, every gypsy on the shore. He steals free niggers when he can't buy slave ones, outen Delaware state. He sometimes runs away Maryland slaves to oblige their hypocritical masters that can't sell 'em publicly, an' Johnson and the bereaved owner divides the price. Go in the house, yaller gal!" Jimmy Phoebus turned to Roxy, who obeyed instantly. "Jack Wonnell, you go too; I'm done with you!" (Jack slipped around the house and made his peace with Roxy before he started.) "You needn't to go, Samson; I know you're true as steel!"
"I must go an' git de breakfast, Jimmy," the negro said, going in.
"Now, Miss Vesty"—Phoebus turned to the mistress of Teackle Hall—"Joe Johnson has got old Hominy and the little niggers, by smoke! That part of this hokey pokey is purty sure! Did he steal them an' decoy them, or wair they sold to him by Judge Custis or by Meshach Milburn?"
"By neither, I will risk my life. Mr. Milburn was taken to his bed Saturday evening, and on Sunday father went to Delaware on legal business for my husband."
"That is Meshach Milburn, I hear," the bay sailor remarked, with a penetrating look. "Shall I go and see him on this nigger business?"
"No," Vesta replied; "he is too sick, and it is a delicate subject to name to him. My girls, Virgie and Roxy, think old Hominy ran away from a superstitious fear she had of Mr. Milburn, who had become the master of Teackle Hall by marriage."
"Yes, by smoke! every nigger in town, big and little, is afraid of Milburn's hat."
"He has no ownership in those servants, nor has my father now. I will tell you, James—relying on your prudence—that Hominy belonged to me, and so did those three children, having passed from my father to my husband and thence to me and back to my father, and from him to me again in the very hour of my marriage. I fear they have been persuaded away, to be abused and sold out of Maryland."
Jimmy Phoebus looked up at the sighing trees and over the wide facade of Teackle Hall, and exclaimed "by smoke!" several times before he made his conclusions.
"Miss Vesty," he said, finally, "send for your father to come home immediately. People will not understand how Joe Johnson, outlaw as he is, dared to rob a Maryland judge of his house servants, Johnson himself bein' a Marylander, unless they had some understanding. Your sudden marriage, an' your pappy's embarrassments, will be put together, by smoke! an' thar is some blunt enough to say that when Jedge Custis is hard up, he'll git money anyhow!"
The charge, made with an honest man's want of skill, battered down all explanations.
"I confess it," said Vesta. "Papa's going away on a Sunday, and these people disappearing on Sunday night, might excite idle comment. It might be said that he endeavored to sell some of his property before his creditor could seize it."
"I have seen you about yer since you was a baby, Vesty, an' Ellenora says you're better game an' heart than these 'ristocrats, fur who I never keered! That's why I take the liberty of calling you Vesty. Now, let me tell you about your niggers. If they was a-gwyn to freedom in a white man's keer, I wouldn't stop 'em to be cap'n of a man-of-war. But Joe Johnson, supposin' that he's got of 'em, is a demon. Do you see the stab on that dog? well, it's done with one of the bagnet pistols them kidnappers carries—hoss pistols, with a spring dagger on the muzzle; and, when they come to close quarters, they stab with 'em. Johnson killed your dog; I know his marks. He sails this whole bay, and maybe he's run them niggers to Washin'ton, or to Norfolk, an' sold 'em south. It ain' no use to foller him to either of them places, if he has, with the wind an' start he's got, and your pappy's influence lost to us by his absence. But thar is one chance to overhaul the thief."
"What is that, James?" said Vesta, earnestly. "I do want to save those poor people from the abuse of a man who could kill my poor, fond dog."
"Joe Johnson keeps a hell-trap—a reg'lar Pangymonum, up near the head of Nanticoke River. It's the headquarters of his band, and a black band they air. He has had good wind"—the pungy captain looked up and noted the breeze—"to get him out of Manokin last night, and into the Sound; but he must beat up the Nanticoke all day, and we kin head him off by land, if that's his destination, before he gits to Vienna, an' make him show his cargo. Then, with a messenger to follow Jedge Custis an' turn him back, we can swear these niggers on Johnson—and, you see, we can't make no such oath till we git the evidence—an' then, by smoke! we'll bring ole Hominy an' the pore chillen back to Teackle Hall."
"Here is one you love to serve, James," said Vesta, as the Widow Dennis came in the gate.
"I came to meet you at the landing, James," said the blue-eyed, sweet-voiced widow, with the timid step and ready blush. "Levin is gone for a week with a negro trader; he sends me so much money, I fear he is under an unusual temptation, and Wonnell says the trader is giving him liquor. What shall I do?"
"Make me his father, Ellenory, and that'll give me an interest over him, and you will command me. You want a first mate in your crew. Levin kin make a fool of me if I go chase him now, and I can't measure money with a nigger trader, by smoke!"
"Oh! James," the widow spoke, "you know my heart would be yours if I could control it. When my way is clear you will have but to ask. Do go and find Levin!"
"Norah, we suspect the same trader of having taken off Hominy, our cook, and the kitchen children, in Levin's boat."
The widow listened to Vesta, and burst into tears. "He will be accessory to the crime," she sobbed. "Oh, this is what I have ever feared. James Phoebus, you have always had the best influence over Levin. If you love me, arrest him before the law takes cognizance of this wild deed. Where has he gone?"
Virgie appeared upon the lawn to say that Mrs. Custis wanted to know who should drive her as far as Salisbury, where she could get a slave of her son-in-law to continue on with her to Cambridge.
"I have been thinking all the morning where I can find a reliable man to go and bring back papa," Vesta answered; "there are a few slaves at the Furnace, but time is precious."
"Here is Samson," Virgie said, "and he has got a mule he rides all over the county. Let him go."
"Go whar, my love?" asked Samson.
"To Dover, in Delaware," Vesta answered. "You can ride to Laurel by dark, Samson, and get to Dover to-morrow afternoon."
"And I can ride with him as far as Salisbury," Jimmy Phoebus said, "and get out to the Nanticoke some way; fur I see Ellenora will cry till I go."
"You can do better than that, James," Vesta said, rapidly thinking. "Samson can take you to Spring Hill Church or Barren Creek Springs, by a little deviation, and at the Springs you will be only three miles from the Nanticoke. Even mamma might go on with the carriage to-night as far as the Springs, or to Vienna."
"If two of them are going," Virgie exclaimed, "one can drive Missy Custis and the other ride the mule."
Samson shook his head.
"Dey say a free nigger man gits cotched up in dat ar Delawaw state. Merrylin's good enough fur me. I likes de Merrylin light gals de best," looking at Virgie.
"Go now, Samson, to oblige Miss Vesty," Virgie said, "and I'll try to love you a little, black and bad as you are."
"I'se afraid of Delawaw state," Samson repeated, laughing slowly. "Joe Johnson, dat I put dat head on, will git me whar he lives if I go dar, mebbe."
"No," Phoebus put in, "I'll be a lookin' after him on the banks of the Nanticoke, Samson, while you keep right in the high-road from Laurel to Georgetown, and on to Dover. Joe Johnson's been whipped at the post, and banished from Delaware for life, and dussn't go thar no more."
"If you go, Samson," little Roxy put in, having reappeared, "Virgie'll feel complimented. Anything that obliges Miss Vesty counts with Virgie."
"If you are a free man," Virgie herself exclaimed, her slight, nervous, willowy figure expanding, "are you afraid to go into a freer state than Maryland? If I was free I would want to go to the freest state of all. Behave like a free man, Samson Hat, or what is freedom worth to you?"
"It's wuth so much, pretty gal, dat I don't want to be a-losin' of it, mind, I tell you, 'sept to my wife when she'll hab me."
Samson watched the quadroon's delicate, high-bred features, her skin almost paler than her young mistress's, her figure like the clove's after a hard winter—the more active that a little meagre—her head small, and its tresses soft as the crow blackbird's plumage, and the loyalty that lay in her large eyes, like strong passion, for her mistress, was turned to pride, and nearly scorn, when they listened to him.
"A slave, Miss Vesty says"—Virgie spoke with almost fierceness—"is not one that's owned, half as much as one that sells himself—to hard drink, or to selfishness, or to fear. You're not a free man, Samson, if you're afraid, and are like these low slave negroes who dare nothing if they can only get a little low pleasure. All that can make a black man white, in my eyes, is a white man's enterprise."
Vesta felt, as she often had done, the capable soul of her servant, and did not resent her spirit as unbecoming a slave, but rather felt responsive chords in her own nature, as if, indeed, Virgie was the more imperious of the two. Coming now into full womanhood, her race elements finding their composition, her character unrestrained by any one in Teackle Hall, Virgie was her young mistress's shield-bearer, like David to the princely Jonathan.
"Why, Virgie," Samson answered, with humility, "I never meant not to go, lady gal, after marster's wife asked me, I only wanted you to beg me hard, an' mebbe I'd git a kiss befo' I started."
"Wait till you come back, and see if you do your errand well," Virgie spoke again. "I shall not kiss you now."
"I will," cried little Roxy, to the amusement of them all, giving Samson a hearty smack from her little pouting mouth; "and now you've got it, think it's Virgie's kiss, and get your breakfast and start!"
As they went to their abodes to make ready, Jimmy Phoebus found Jack Wonnell playing marbles with the boys at the court-house corner.
"Jack," he said, "I'm a-going to find Levin an' that nigger trader. I may git in a peck of trouble up yonder on the Nanticoke. Tell all the pungy men whair I'm a-goin', an' what fur."
"Can't I do somethin' fur you, Jimmy? Can't I give you one o' my bell-crowns; thair's a-plenty of 'em left."
"Take my advice, Jack, an' tie a stone to all them hats and sink' em in the Manokin. Ole Meshach's hat has made more hokey-pokey than the Bank of Somerset. Pore an' foolish as you air, maybe your ole bell-crowns will ruin you."
The road to Salisbury—laid out in 1667, when "Cecil, Lord of Maryland and Avalon," erected a county "in honor of our dear sister, the Lady Mary Somerset"—followed the beaver-dams across the little river-heads, and pierced the flat pine-woods and open farms, and passed through two little hamlets, before our travellers saw the broad mill-ponds and poplar and mulberry lined streets of the most active town—albeit without a court-house—in the lower peninsula. Jimmy Phoebus, driving the two horses and the family carriage, and Samson, following on his mule, descended into the hollow of Salisbury at the dinner-hour, and stopped at the hotel. The snore of grist-mills, the rasp of mill-saws, the flow of pine-colored breast-water into the gorge of the village, the forest cypress-trees impudently intruding into the obliquely-radiating streets, and humidity of ivy and creeper over many of the old, gable-chimneyed houses, the long lumber-yards reflected in the swampy harbor among the canoes, pungies, and sharpies moored there, the small houses sidewise to the sandy streets, the larger ones rising up the sandy hills, the old box-bush in the silvery gardens, the bridges close together, and the smell of tar and sawdust pleasantly inhaled upon the lungs, made a combination like a caravan around some pool in the Desert of the Nile.
"If there is any chance to catch my negroes," Mrs. Custis said, "I will go right on after dinner. Samson, send Dave, my daughter's boy, to me immediately; he is working in this hotel."
Samson found Dave to be none other than the black class-leader he had failed to overcome at the beginning of our narrative, but changes were visible in that individual Samson had not expected. From having a clean, godly, modest countenance, becoming his professions, Dave now wore a sour, evil look; his eyes were blood-shotten, and his straight, manly shoulders and chest, which had once exacted Samson's admiration and envy, were stooped to conform with a cough he ever and anon made from deep in his frame.
"Dave," said Samson, "your missis's modder wants you, boy, to drive her to Vienny. What ails you, Dave, sence I larned you to box?"
"Is you de man?" Dave exclaimed, hoarsely; "den may de Lord forgive you, fur I never kin. Dat lickin' I mos' give you, made me a po', wicked, backslidin' fool."
"Why, Dave, I jess saw you was a good man; I didn't mean you no harm, boy."
"You ruined me, free nigger," repeated the huge slave, with a scowl, partly of revenge and partly remorse. "You set up my conceit dat I could box. I had never struck a chile till dat day; after dat I went aroun' pickin' quarrels wid bigger niggers, an' low white men backed me to fight. I was turned out o' my church; I turned my back on de Lord; whiskey tuk hold o' me, Samson. De debbil has entered into Class-leader Dave."
"Oh, brudder, wake up an' do better. Yer, I give you a dollar, an' want to be your friend, Davy, boy."
"I'll git drink wid it," Dave muttered, going; and, as he passed out of the stable-door he looked back at Samson fiercely, and exclaimed, "May Satan burn your body as he will burn my soul. I hate you, man, long as you live!"
Jimmy Phoebus remarked, a few moments afterwards, that Dave, dividing a pint of spirits with a lean little mulatto boy, put a piece of money in the boy's hands, who then rode rapidly out of the tavern-yard upon a fleet Chincoteague pony.
At two o'clock they again set forward, the man Dave driving the carriage and Jimmy Phoebus sitting beside him, while Samson easily kept alongside upon his old roan mule, the road becoming more sandy as they ascended the plateau between the Wicomico and Nanticoke, and the carriage drawing hard.
"If it is too late to keep on beyond Vienna to-night," said Mrs. Custis, "I will stop there with my friends, the Turpins, and start again, after coffee, in the morning, and reach Cambridge for breakfast."
"I will turn off at Spring Hill," Samson spoke, "and I kin feed my mule at sundown in Laurel an' go to sleep."
In an hour they came in sight of old Spring Hill church, a venerable relic of the colonial Established Church, at the sources of a creek called Rewastico; and before they crossed the creek the driver, Dave, called "Ho, ho!" in such an unnecessarily loud voice that Mrs. Custis reproved him sharply. Dave jumped down from the seat and appeared to be examining some part of the breeching, though Samson assured him that it was all right. As Dave finished his examination, he raised both hands above his head twice, and stretched to the height of his figure as he stood on the brow of a little hill.
"Missy Custis," he apologized, as he turned back, "I is tired mighty bad dis a'ternoon. Dat stable keeps me up half de night."
"Liquor tires you more, David," Mrs. Custis spoke, sharply; "and that tavern is no place to hire you to with your appetite for drink, as I shall tell your master."
At this moment Jimmy Phoebus observed the lean little mulatto boy who had left the hotel come up out of the swampy place in the road and exchange a look of intelligence with Dave as he rode past on the pony.
"Boy," cried Samson, "is dat de road to Laurel?"
The boy made no answer, but, looking back once, timidly, ground his heels into the pony's flank and darted into the brush towards Salisbury.
"Samson," spoke Dave, "you see dat ole woman in de cart yonder?"—he pointed to a figure ascending the rise in the ground beyond the brook—"I know her, an' she's gwyn right to Laurel. She lives dar. It's ten miles from dis yer turn-off, an' she knows all dese yer woods-roads."
"Good-bye, den, an' may you find Aunt Hominy an' de little chillen, Jimmy, an' bring dem all home to Prencess Anne from dat ar Joe Johnson!" cried Samson, and trotted his mule through the swamp and away. Jimmy Phoebus saw him overtake the old woman in the cart and begin to speak with her as the scrubby woods swallowed them in.
"What's dat he said about Joe Johnson?" observed Dave, after a bad spell of coughing, as they cleared the old church and entered the sandy pine-woods.
Mrs. Custis spoke up more promptly than Jimmy Phoebus desired, and told the negro about the escape of Hominy and the children, and the hope of Mr. Phoebus to head the party off as they ascended the Nanticoke towards the Delaware state-line.
"You don't want to git among Joe Johnson's men, boss?" said the red-eyed negro; "dey bosses all dis country heah, on boff sides o' de state-line. All dat ain't in wid dem is afraid o' dem."
"How fur is it from this road to Delaware, Dave?" asked Phoebus.
"We're right off de corner-stone o' Delawaw state dis very minute. It's hardly a mile from whar we air. De corner's squar as de stone dat sots on it, an' is cut wid a pictur o' de king's crown."
"Mason and Dixon's line they call it," interpreted Mrs. Custis.
"Do you know Joe Johnson, Dave?"
"Yes, Marster Phoebus, you bet I does. He's at Salisbury, he's at Vienna, he's up yer to Crotcher's Ferry, he's all ober de country, but he don't go to Delawaw any more in de daylight. He was whipped dar, an' banished from de state on pain o' de gallows. But he lives jess on dis side o' de Delawaw line, so dey can't git him in Delawaw. He calls his place Johnson's Cross-roads: ole Patty Cannon lives dar, too. She's afraid to stay in Delawaw now."
"Why, what is the occupation of those terrible people at present?" asked Mrs. Custis.
No answer was made for a minute, and then Dave said, in a low, frightened voice, as he stole a glance at both of his companions out of his fiery, scarred eyes:
"Kidnappin', I 'spect."
"It's everything that makes Pangymonum," Jimmy Phoebus explained; "that old woman, Patty Cannon, has spent the whole of a wicked life, by smoke!—or ever sence she came to Delaware from Cannady, as the bride of pore Alonzo Cannon—a-makin' robbers an' bloodhounds out of the young men she could git hold of. Some of' em she sets to robbin' the mails, some to makin' an' passin' of counterfeit money, but most of 'em she sets at stealin' free niggers outen the State of Delaware; and, when it's safe, they steal slaves too. She fust made a tool of Ebenezer Johnson, the pirate of Broad Creek, an' he died in his tracks a-fightin fur her. Then she took hold of his sons, Joe Johnson an' young Ebenezer, an' made 'em both outlaws an' kidnappers, an' Joe she married to her daughter, when Bruington, her first son-in-law, had been hanged. When Samson Hat, who is the whitest nigger I ever found, knocked Joe Johnson down in Princess Anne, the night before last, he struck the worst man in our peninsula."
Dave listened to this recital with such a deep interest that his breath, strong with apple whiskey, came short and hot, and his hands trembled as he guided the horses. At the last words, he exclaimed:
"Samson knocked Joe Johnson down? Den de debbil has got him, and means to pay him back!"
"What's that?" cried Jimmy Phoebus.
The sweat stood on the big slave's forehead, as if his imagination was terribly possessed, but before he could explain Mrs. Custis interrupted:
"I think it was said that old Patty Cannon corrupted Jake Purnell, who cut his throat at Snow Hill five years ago. He was a free negro who engaged slaves to steal other slaves and bring them to him, and he delivered them up to the white kidnappers for money; and nobody could account for his prosperity till a negro who had been beaten to death was found in the Pocomoke River, and three slaves who had been seen in his company were arrested for the murder. They confessed that they had stolen the dead negro and he had escaped from them, and was so beaten with clubs, to make him tractable, that when they gave him to Purnell his life was all gone. Then he was thrown in the river, but his body came up after sinking, and the confession of the wretched tools explained to the slave-owners where all their missing negroes had gone. They marched and surrounded Purnell's hut, and he was discovered burrowed beneath it. They brought the dogs, and fire to drive him out, and as he came out he cut his throat with desperate slashes from ear to ear."
During this narrative the man Dave had listened with rising nervous excitement, rolling his eyes as if in strong inward torment, till the concluding words inspired such terror in him that he dropped the reins, threw back his head, and shouted, with large beads of sweat all round his brow:
"Mercy! mercy! Have mercy! Save me, oh, my Lord!"
"He's got a fit, I reckon," cried Jimmy Phoebus, promptly grasping the reins as the horses started at the cry, and with his leg pinning Dave to the carriage-seat. At that moment the road descended into the hollow of Barren Creek, and, leaping down at the old Mineral Springs Hotel, a health resort of those days, Phoebus humanely procured water and freshened up the gasping negro's face.
"I declare, I am almost afraid to trust myself to this man," Mrs. Custis observed, with more distaste than trepidation.
"Every nigger in this region," exclaimed Jimmy Phoebus, "thinks Pangymonum's comin' down at the dreaded name of Patty Cannon; an' this nigger's gone most to ruin, any way."
"Oh, marster," exclaimed the slave, recovering his speech and glaring wildly around, "I hain't been always the pore sinner rum an' fightin' has made of me. I served the Lord all my youth; I praised his name an' kept the road to heaven; an' thinkin' of the shipwreck I'se made of a good conscience, an' hearin' missis tell of the end of Jake Purnell, it made me yell to de good Lord for mercy, mercy, oh, my soul!"
His frightful agitation increased, and Jimmy Phoebus soothed him, good-naturedly saying:
"Mrs. Custis, I reckon you'd better let him come in the tavern and take a little sperits; it'll strengthen his nerves an' make him drive better."
As they drank at the old summer-resort bar, at that time in the height of its celebrity, and the only spa on the peninsula, south of the Brandywine Springs, Phoebus spoke low to the negro:
"Dave, somethin' not squar and fair is a-workin' yer, by smoke! I've got my eye on you, nigger, an' sure as hokey-pokey thair it'll stay. You know my arrand yer, Dave: to save a pore, ignorant, deluded black woman from Joe Johnson's band. Now, you've been a-cryin 'Mercy!' I want you to show mercy by a-tellin' of me whar I'm to overtake an' sarch Levin Dennis's cat-boat if it comes up the Nanticoke to-night with them people and Joe Johnson aboard!"
Having swallowed his liquor greedily, the colored man replied, with his former lowering countenance and evasive eyes:
"You can't do nothin' as low down de river as Vienny, 'case de Nanticoke is too wide dar, and if you cross it at Vienny ferry, den you got de Norfwest Fork between you and Johnson's Cross-roads, wid one ferry over dat, at Crotcher's, an' Joe Johnson owns all dat place. But you kin keep up dis side o' de Nanticoke, Marster Phoebus, de same distance as from yer to Vienny, to de pint whar de Norfwest Fork come in. Sometimes Joe Johnson sails up dat big fork to get to his cross-roads. In gineral he keeps straight up de oder fork to Betty Twiford's wharf, right on de boundary line."
"How far is that?"
"It's five miles from yer to Vienny, and five miles from yer to a landin' opposite de Norfwest Fork. Four miles furder on you're at Sharptown, an' dar you can see Betty Twiford's house on de bank two miles acrost de Nanticoke."
"Nine miles, then, to Sharptown! He's had the tide agin him since he entered the Nanticoke, and it's not turned yit. By smoke! I'll look for a conveyance!"
"You can ride with me to the first landing," spoke up a noble-looking man, whip in hand; "and after delaying a little there, I shall go on the Sharptown ferry and cross the river."
Phoebus accepted the invitation immediately, and cautioning Mrs. Custis to speak with less freedom in that part of the country, he bade her adieu, and took the vacant seat in the stranger's buggy.
When Mrs. Custis came to Vienna ferry, and the horses and carriage went on board the scow to be rowed to the little, old, shipping settlement of that name, the negro Dave, standing at the horses' heads, exchanged a few sentences with the ferry-keeper.
"Dave," called Mrs. Custis, a little later on, "you have no love, I see, for old Samson."
"He made a boxer outen me an' a bad man, missis."
"Do you know the man he works for—Meshach Milburn?"
"No, missis. I never see him."
"He wears a peculiar hat—nothing like gentlemen's hats nowadays: it is a hat out of a thousand."
"I never did see it, missis."
"You cannot mistake it for any other hat in the world. Now, Samson is the only servant and watchman at Mr. Milburn's store, and he attends to that disgraceful hat. If you can ever get it from him, Dave, and destroy it, you will be doing a useful act, and I will reward you well."
The moody negro looked up from his remorseful, brutalized orbs, and said:
"Oh, no, I do not advise a theft, David—though such a wretched hat can have no legal value. It is an affliction to my daughter and Judge Custis and all of us, and you might find some way to destroy it—that is all."
"I'll git it some day," the negro muttered; and drove into the old tobacco-port of Vienna.
A map would be out of place in a story, yet there are probably some who perceive that this is a story with a reality; and if such will take any atlas and open it at the "Middle States" of the American republic, they will see that the little State of Delaware is fitted as nicely into a square niche of Maryland as if it were a lamp, or piece of statuary, standing on a mantelpiece. It stands there on a mantelshelf about forty miles wide, and rises to more than three times that height, making a perfectly straight north and south line at right angles with its base. Thus mortised into Maryland, its ragged eastern line is formed of the Atlantic Ocean and the broad Delaware Bay.
The only considerable river within this narrow strip or Hermes of a state is the Nanticoke, which, like a crack in the wall,—and the same blow fractured the image on the mantel,—flows with breadth and tidal ebb and flow from the Chesapeake Bay through the Eastern Shore of Maryland into Delaware, and is there formed of two tidal sources, the one to the north continuing to be called the Nanticoke, and that to the south—nearly as imposing a stream—named Broad Creek.
Nature, therefore, as if anticipating some foolish political boundaries on the part of man, prepared one drain and channel of ingress at the southwestern corner of Delaware to the splendid bay of Virginia.
Around that corner of the little Delaware commonwealth, in a flat, poor, sandy, pine-grown soil, Jimmy Phoebus rode by the stranger in the afternoon of October, with the sun, an hour high in the west, shining upon his dark, Greekish cheeks and neck, and he hearing the fall birds whistle and cackle in the mellowing stubble and golden thickets.
The meadow-lark, the boy's delight, was picking seed, gravel, and insects' eggs in the fields—large and partridge-like, with breast washed yellow from the bill to the very knees, except at the throat, where hangs a brilliant reticule of blackish brown; his head and back are of hawkish colors—umber, brown, and gray—and in his carriage is something of the gamecock. He flies high, sometimes alone, sometimes in the flock, and is our winter visitor, loving the old fields improvidence has abandoned, and uttering, as he feeds, the loud sounds of challenge, as if to cry, "Abandoned by man; pre-empted by me!"
Jimmy Phoebus also heard the bold, bantering woodpecker, with his red head, whose schoolmaster is the squirrel, and whose tactics of keeping a tree between him and his enemy the Indian fighters adopted. He mimics the tree-frog's cry, and migrates after October, like other voluptuaries, who must have the round year warm, and fruit and eggs always in market. Dressed in his speckled black swallow-tail coat, with his long pen in his mouth and his shirt-bosom faultlessly white, the woodpecker works like some Balzac in his garret, making the tree-top lively as he spars with his fellow-Bohemians; and being sure himself of a tree, and clinging to it with both tail and talons, he esteems everything else that lives upon it to be an insect at which he may run his bill or spit his tongue—that tongue which is rooted in the brain itself.