Not one of the four had an intellectual ambition. Mary 'Liza's scholarship did not excite their envy because she was quiet and inoffensive. Proficiency in her studies was "one of her ways." I was talkative and aggressive, and needed taking down. They set themselves systematically about the performance of the duty. The work was done deftly and discreetly, out of the sight and hearing of our elders. Young and raw as I was, I was too wise to tell tales on them. By the time I was four years old that lesson was rubbed into my consciousness by the gruesome rhyme:—
"Tell-tale tit! Your tongue shall be slit, And every dog in our town Shall have a little bit!"
This apparently tedious preamble yet leads by an air-line to the first Agricultural Fair ever held at Powhatan Court House. The date was October fifteenth, and all the gentlemen and ladies in the county were entreated to send exhibits of plantation products and feminine handiwork. Enthusiasm ran from homestead to homestead with the speed and heat of a March fire in pine woods. Cattle, tobacco, grain, vegetables, fruit, flowers, bedquilts, poultry, bees, knitting, embroideries,—nothing was talked of but the finest specimens of these that would be "in strong and beauteous order ranged," upon the important day.
Madeline Pemberton had "done" a chair-cover in cross-stitch that her mother said ought to get the first prize, and was dead sure to take the third; Mary 'Liza was knitting a pair of shell-pattern, openwork stockings as fine as a cobweb, in which there would not be a knot or a dropped stitch, and Paulina Hobson was putting her eyes out over a linen-cambric handkerchief under Miss Davidson's direction. Fine sewing and embroidery were taught by governesses then. Sarah Hobson had pieced a crib quilt containing one thousand and twelve tiny squares. I was supposed to be left out in the cold. I would not knit, and to sew I was ashamed because I did it so badly. Nobody paid any attention to me when comparing notes and queries touching the great show.
Yet I nursed an ambition of my own to which no one was privy except Spotswoode, a gray-headed, and proverbially taciturn field-hand, without whose knowledge and cooperation the purpose could not have been carried out.
Wandering, one July afternoon, on the outskirts of a corn-field—the same in which I once lost Musidora—I happened upon a "volunteer" mangel-wurzel beet that had sprung up in a fence corner, a quarter of a mile away from any of its kindred. Attracted by the beauty of the translucent, red-veined leaves, I called to Spotswoode who was ploughing between the corn rows, and asked him what it was. Adopting the waif, then and there, I dug what I called "my little garden" about it, Spotswoode tugging up the stoutest roots and clearing out the wire-grass. With an occasional hand's turn and toss from him I cultivated the vagrant into extraordinary size and vigor. Not a day passed in which I did not visit it. Not a blade of grass or a weed was allowed to invade the charmed circle, and many a spadeful of fresh mould, black with fatness, was worked about the swelling tuber by my kind field-hand. He knew that it was to be sent to the Fair in the fulness of time, and believed with me that "not another beet there could hold a candle to it."
As the air thickened and heated with rumors of the prodigies to be revealed on the fifteenth to the lasting honor of Old Powhatan, it was harder and harder to keep what I knew to myself. I had purposed not to reveal the secret until my father's wagons were in loading with other mammoth esculents and his finest corn and tobacco. Then—so ran the programme—I would march up, bearing my beet with me. It was to be dug up and cleaned by Spotswoode on the evening of the fourteenth, and kept safely in hiding for me. I could depend upon his literal obedience, albeit he never had an original idea.
Temptation befell, and overcame me, on the afternoon of October thirteenth, a date I was not likely, thenceforward, to forget. All six of us girls were gathered in the porch, listening to, and relating, stories of what this one had raised, and that one had made. Mr. Pemberton had a seven-hundred-pound pig, and Mr. Hobson a rooster more beautiful than a bird of Paradise. The syrup of Mrs. Hobson's preserves was as clear as spring water, and Mrs. Pemberton's water melon-rind sweetmeats had as good as taken the prize.
Paulina Hobson sat on the top step of the porch. She was very fair, and her hair was nearly as white as her skin. She was fourteen years old, and wore a grass-green lawn frock. Her eyes were of a paler green, she had a nasty laugh, and her teeth were not good.
"Isn't it nice that all five of us are going to send something?" she said complacently. "You know that nobody but exhibitors can go into the tent for the first hour—from eleven to twelve—so's they can see everything before the crowd gets in. Who'll you stay with, Miss Molly Mumchance, when we all leave you?"
I had not spoken while the talk went on, for fear something might slip out and betray me, prematurely, but I took fire at this.
"I'm going in, myself!" I snapped out.
"Oh, you are? What are you going to exhibit, may we ask?" with her nasty laugh.
"The biggest beet in the world! It measures a yard around."
"Hoo! hoo! hoo!" squealed Paulina so loudly that my father, who was coming in the gate with my mother, Miss Davidson, Uncle Carter, and Aunt Eliza, said pleasantly:—
"What is the joke, young ladies? Mayn't we laugh, too?"
Madeline Pemberton answered. Miss Davidson had to reprove her every day for forwardness.
"Why, Mr. Burwell,"—laughing with affected violence,—"Molly says she is going to send some beets to the Fair that measure ever so many yards around."
"I didn't!" cried I, in a passion. "You know that isn't true!"
My father moved toward me.
"What did you say, daughter?"
I hung my head. If I told, where would be the surprise and the visioned triumph?
"What did you say, Molly?" repeated my father, in quiet gravity.
"I said one beet, and that it measured one yard," stammered I, reluctantly.
"That was bad enough. When so many older people are trying to see who can tell the biggest story, little girls ought to be especially careful."
His eyes did not go to Madeline, but his emphasis did. The thought of being classed with her lent me coherence and courage. I looked up.
"I have one beet, father, that is a yard 'round. I raised it myself. If you don't believe me, you can ask Spotswoode."
"I don't ask my servants if my daughter is telling the truth. Where is your beet?"
"Away over yonder—the other side of the corn-field."
Paulina and Rosa tittered, Madeline giggled,—then all three pretended to smother the demonstration with their handkerchiefs and behind their hands. Mary 'Liza looked scared and sorry. My father took hold of my hand.
"Take me to see it!"
The others fell into Indian file behind us, as we marched outside of the garden fence and past the Old Orchard where the rays of the sinking sun shot horizontal shafts under the trees to our very feet, and so to the corn-field. I did not glance behind to see who entered it after us, but pushed right ahead between the stalks, the stiff blades switching my cheeks. When we neared the "garden," I ran forward, flushed and impatient, not to display my prize, but to clear myself by proving my words. An envious, jagged blade slashed my forehead as I tore by. I did not feel it at the moment, or for half an hour after it began to bleed.
For—the beet was gone!
The cleared space was there to show where something had been cultivated; the bare earth was raked level. Not so much as the hole from which my beet had been ravished remained in circumstantial evidence. The rest of the party arrived while I stood transfixed, the picture of detected guilt. To the rustle of the corn, and the shuffle of feet over the furrows succeeded a horrible hush. Then, a chorus of mocking girlish cackles, led by Paulina Hobson's discordant screech, smote the sunset air and covered me with a pall of infamy. Paulina caught at the fence for support as she laughed; Madeline bent double and reeled sideways.
I clutched my father's hand, drowning and suffocating in the waves of despairing agony; I shook my tight fist at the insulting quartette.
"They—they—took it! It was here this morning. It was here just after dinner to-day!"
"Be quiet, girls!" ordered my judge-advocate. "Molly! I want the exact truth. If you accuse them, you must prove what you say. Things have gone too far to stop here. Didn't you say that Spotswoode knew something about the affair?"
"He knows all about it. He helped me, ever so many times, and he saw how big it was," I ejaculated vehemently.
"We shall probably find him at the stables, feeding the horses."
Back we trudged by my air-line, well-worn but narrow. I fancy that my father took note of my familiarity with the path, but he did not speak of it. I marched in front of him, gloomy and desperate. Some of the others talked low as they straggled along. The girls kept up a hissing whispering, for which I hated them with my whole soul. I think that my mother and Miss Davidson shed some furtive tears, for my case was black, and they were tender-hearted.
Spotswoode was looking after his plough-horses, as my father had conjectured. At his master's shout, he emerged from the stalls and presented himself in the stable door. Ungainly, dirty, bare-footed, his ragged wool hat on the back of his unkempt woolly poll, his jaw dropping in idiotic amazement at sight of the party—he was a ludicrous figure in the bath of late sunshine that brought out every uncomely item of the picture. Preoccupied and distraught as I was, I saw how the dust from the stable floor floated in golden clouds to the cobwebbed rafters, as the sun struck past the man in the doorway and glorified the murky interior.
I rushed through the yard, heedless of manure heaps, and young pigs and calves scattered by my impetuous approach.
"Oh, Spotswoode!" in a voice that cracked and went to pieces as I ran, "somebody has stolen my beet! You can tell father—"
A hot valve closed in my windpipe and shut out the rest.
Spotswoode's jaw hung more loosely; his eyes were utterly vacant.
"Ya-as, little Mistis!" he drawled, and slunk back into the stable.
"What do you mean, sir? Come back here, this minute!" called his master.
When he reappeared, he carried in both hands, extended, after the similitude of a pre-historic monkey making a votive offering—something dark-red and pot-bellied, and more immense than I had dreamed it could look. A cluster of cropped leaves crowned it, a taper root, a foot long, depended from the bottom.
"I done been dig it up fo' you an' wash it, dis ebenin', 'stid o' termorrer," drawled my vindicator. "So's ter hab it all ready fur the Fyar."
Mute and triumphant, I received it in a rapturous embrace, set it on a bench by the stable door, and passed the hem of my muslin apron about it. The ends just met.
"That's how I knew how big it was," I said simply. "Mother told me that my apron was a yard wide. I measured it while it was in the ground."
The beet—and its history—went to the Fair, and a prize was awarded to "Miss Mary Hobson Burwell, For best specimen of Mangel Wurzel, raised by Herself."
In a country neighborhood where half the people were cousins to the other half, gossip could not but spring up and flourish as lushly as pursley,—named by the Indians, "the white man's foot."
The gossip was usually kindly; sometimes it was captious, now and then it was almost malicious. Everything depends upon the medium through which the floating matter in the air is strained.
Cousin Molly Belle's best friends thought and said that she chose judiciously in marrying the clean-lived, high-minded gentleman who had loved her before she was grown and whom she loved dearly in return. Her next best friends intimated that the most popular girl in the county might have done better for herself than to take Frank Morton, as fine a fellow as ever lived, but whose share of his father's estate was a small plantation with a tolerable house upon it, a dozen "hands" and, maybe, a thousand dollars or so in bonds and stocks. The girls she had out-belled, the girls' mothers, and sundry youths to whom Mrs. Frank Morton had given the mitten in her singlehood, said openly that she had quite thrown herself away in settling down to house-keeping, poultry-raising, and home-making in an out-of-the-way farmstead, with little society except that of a man ten years older, and thirty years soberer, than herself.
What a different story I could have told to those who doubted, and those who pitied! Nowhere in all our broad and bonny State did human lives flow on more smoothly and radiantly than in the white house nestled under the great oak that was a landmark for miles around. It had but five rooms, kitchen, store-room, smoke-house, and other domestic offices being in detached buildings, as was the custom of the region and times. If there had been fifty they could not have held the happiness that streamed through the five as lavishly as the sunshine, and, like the sunshine, was newly made every day.
I was going on ten years old when my sweet mother gave a little sister to Bud and me. She had been with us but three days when Cousin Molly Belle drove over for me and the small hair trunk that meant a visit of several days when it went along. This time it signified four of the very loveliest weeks of my life, and two Adventures.
The blessed grandchildren, at whose instance these tales of that all-so-long-ago are written with flying pen and brimming heart, and sometimes eyes so moist that the lines waver and swim upon the page, will have it—as their parents insisted before them—that "we never, never can have such good times and so many happenings as you had when you were new."
If I smile quietly in telling over to myself the simple elements and few, out of which the good times were made, and how tame the happenings would be to modern young folk, I cannot gainsay the truth that my daily life was full and rich, and that every hour had a peculiar interest.
For one thing, there was a baby at Oakholme, a bouncing boy, sturdy of limb and of lung, and so like both his parents in all the good qualities possible to a baby, as to leave nothing to be desired by the best friends aforesaid, and no room for criticism on the part of the malcontents. Out-of-doors were chickens, ducks, turkeys, guinea-fowls, pigs, calves, pigeons, and a couple of colts,—all, like the baby boy, the best of their kind. What time was left on our hands after each had had its meed of attention, was more than consumed by a library such as few young planters had collected in a county where choice literature was as much household plenishing as beds, tables, and candlesticks.
It was July, and the days were at their longest according to the Warrock's Almanac that hung over Cousin Frank's desk in a corner of the dining room. They were never so short to me before.
Adventure No. 1 befell us one forenoon, as Cousin Molly Belle and I were topping and tailing gooseberries for tarts, on the side porch. Baby Carter was on the mat at our feet, bulging his eyes and swelling his cheeks in futile efforts to extort a squeak from a chinquapin whistle his father had made for him. The kind that, as you may recollect, kept the whistle in them over night, and did not shrivel up.
"It's there, old fellow, if you really know how to get it out," Cousin Frank told his son and heir. "Everything depends upon yourself."
"Like other things that people fret for," moralized the mother.
Nevertheless, she reached down for the whistle, wiped the mouthpiece dry, and sent the baby into ecstasies by executing "Yankee Doodle" flourishingly upon it. A chinquapin fife lends itself more readily to the patriotic, step-and-go-fetch-it melody than to any other in the national repertoire. Carter crowed, opened his mouth wide, and beat his fat pink palms together.
"Just as they applaud the clown at the circus!" said the performer. "He already recognizes his mother's talents."
"If he ever fails to do that, I'll flog him out of his boots!" retorted the father.
A wild commotion at "the quarters" cut his speech short. Women shrieked, children bellowed, men roared, and two words disentangled themselves from the turmoil.
"Mad dog! mad dog!" pronounced, as the warning cry is spoken everywhere at the South, with a heavy accent on the first word.
Cousin Frank whipped up the baby; Cousin Molly thrust her hand under the collar of Hector, a fine pointer who lay on the floor, and, urging me before them, they hustled us all into the house in the half twinkle of an eye. In another, Cousin Frank was driving a load of buckshot into his gun faster than it was ever loaded before, even by him, and he was a hunting expert.
"Dear!" his wife caught the hand laid on the door-knob; her eyes were wild and imploring.
"Yes, my darling!"
He was out and the door was shut.
We flew to the window. Right up the path leading by the quarters from the spring at the foot of the hill, trotted an enormous bull dog. Half a dozen men were pelting him with stones from a respectful distance. He paid no attention to stones or shouts. Keeping the straight path, his brute head wagging drunkenly, he was making directly for the open yard-gate, from which a gravel walk led to the porch where we had been sitting. Snap, his master's favorite hunter, and the petted darling of his mistress, was hitched to the rack by the gate, ready-saddled for Cousin Frank's morning round of the plantation. At the noise behind him, the intelligent creature threw up his handsome head, glanced over his shoulder, and began to plunge and snort, as if aware of the danger. His master spoke soothingly as he planted his own body between him and the ugly beast.
"Steady, old boy! steady!"
In saying it he raised the gun to his shoulder. It was all done so quickly that I had hardly seen the livid horror in Cousin Molly Belle's face when the good gun spoke, the muzzle within ten yards of the dog's head, and he rolled over in the path.
"What if you had missed him! He would have been upon you before you could reload!" shuddered the wife, as we ran out to meet Cousin Frank.
"I did not mean to miss him. If I had, I should have clubbed my gun and brained him. No, dear love! it would not 'have done as well had I fired at him over the palings.' Snap was on the other side of the gate. And"—with an arch flash he might have learned from her—"you and Namesake and I think the world and all of Snap, you know."
It was the only allusion he ever made in my hearing to the escapade that won him his wife.
We learned, within a few hours, that the dog had bitten several cows, five other dogs, and a valuable colt, before he reached Oakholme.
I was always very fond of Cousin Frank. Henceforward, he stepped into the vanguard of my heroes. I did not believe that Israel Putnam could have done anything more daring than what I had witnessed in the safe place in which he put us "before he sallied forth into the very jaws of death." That was the way I described it to myself.
Tramping through the lower pasture at his side that afternoon I tried to voice my admiration to him, but used less inflated language. I dearly enjoyed these long walks over the plantation in his company. He was an excellent farmer, and kept no overseer. I learned a great deal of forestry and botany from his talk. If he adapted himself, consciously, to my understanding, he did not let me perceive it. The recollection of his unfailing patience and his apparent satisfaction in the society of the child who worshipped him and his wife, has been a useful lesson to me in my intercourse with the young. I had told Cousin Molly Belle, a long time ago, that he "talked straight to children," with none of the involved meanings and would-be humorous turns of speech with which some grown-uppers diverted themselves and mystified us.
When he smiled at my well-mouthed, "Do you know, Cousin Frank, that your bravery may have saved at least four lives—Cousin Molly Belle's, and baby's, and Snap's, and mine?"—I felt that he was not laughing at me inside, as the manner of some is.
"I don't know about that, Namesake." Nobody but himself and his wife was allowed to call me that. They were one, you know. "All of you would probably have got out of the way, except Snap. It would have been a great pity to have him bitten. But here is a wee bit of a thing that could, and would, save a good many lives if people were as well acquainted with it as they ought to be. I am surprised that it is so little known in a part of the country where snakes abound as they do about here."
He stooped to gather, and gave to me, some succulent sprigs from a plant that grew in profusion along the branch running through the meadow.
"It is a cure for a snake-bite if bruised into a poultice and bound upon the place soon after one is bitten. My father showed it to me a great many years ago, when I was a little shaver, and told me how he had learned about it from an old Indian herb-doctor. He tried it several times for moccasin-and adder-and copperhead-bites among his servants, and it was a cure in every instance. It grows on both sides of this branch, and nowhere else that I know of on the plantation. My father was an admirable botanist."
"So are you," said I, stoutly.
"Oh, no. As the saying is, his chips were worth more than my logs."
No law of nature is more nearly invariable than that Events are twins, and often triplets. That very evening, after supper, Cousin Frank was on his way from the stables to the house, and saw what he mistook for a carriage whip lying in the walk. The moon was shining and he had no doubt as to what the thing was when he stooped to pick it up. Before he touched it, it made one swift writhe and dart and struck him on the wrist.
Cousin Molly Belle was laying Carter in the cradle, the last note of her lullaby upon her lips when her husband entered. He clutched his right wrist tightly with the left hand and was pale, but his voice was steady and gentle.
"Dear," he said, "don't be frightened, but I have been bitten by a snake. A copperhead, I think. Get me some whiskey, please."
"The whiskey, Flora! Quick!" called the wife to her maid who stood by. "Pour out a tumblerful and give it to him."
For herself, she fell upon her knees, seized her husband's wrist and carried it to her mouth. This I saw, and heard the first words of his startled protest as the dear lips closed upon the wound. I was out of the room and clear of the house the next minute and speeding down the path and hill to the lower pasture.
The snake was at large, and might waylay me from any bush or tuft of grass. The moonbeams were ghostly and the stillness of the wide solitude was eerie. Being but a child,—and a girl-child,—I thought of these things, and of the likelihood of meeting runaway negroes, and mad dogs, and stray sane curs whose duty it was to attack nocturnal trespassers, and of a vicious bull never let out to roam the pasture except at night. I was afraid of them all, intellectually. My heart was too full of a mightier dread to let bugbears turn me back. I ran right on until the branch, a silver ribbon on the dark bosom of the meadow, was before me. Grasses and weeds were laden with dew, and the water whirled and whispered about the roots. I could have believed that the purling formed itself into words when I knelt down to fumble for the snake-bite cure. I would not let myself be scared. I kept saying over and over—"To save his life! to save his life!"
In the intensity of my excitement, language that I was afraid was blasphemous, yet could not exclude from my mind, pressed upon me:—
"He saved others. Himself he cannot save!"
He might be dying now. He had said that the poultice ought to be applied at once. Horrid stories of what had happened to people who were bitten by rattlesnakes and cobras tormented me, and would not be beaten off.
"A copperhead, I think he said. How could he know that it was not a cobra? Would he swell up, turn black, and expire in convulsions before I could reach him?" I said "expire in convulsions," out of a book. Everyday Virginia vernacular fell short of the exigency.
My feet were drenched, my pantalettes and skirts were bedraggled up to the knees, my eyes were large and black in my colorless face, when I burst into the chamber, and threw the bunch of priceless herbs into Cousin Molly Belle's lap. I was too spent for speech.
Cousin Frank's coat and vest were off; his right shirt-sleeve was rolled up to the shoulder, and he was holding his hand and wrist in a deep bowl of warm water. The air reeked with the fumes of whiskey and hartshorn.
I concluded, when I came to think of it the next day, that the whiskey must have been doing antidotal work by getting into his head, for he laughed outright at sight of the specific I had brought. Then, tears—real tears and plenty of them—suffused his eyes and made his voice weak and husky. Or—was it the whiskey?
"You are a dear, brave, thoughtful Namesake!" he said, clearing his throat. "Darling!" to his wife who was eyeing the herbs wonderingly,—"She has been all the way to the lower meadow for those. I showed her the snake-bite cure to-day. Bruise them and put them on my wrist. Then Namesake must get off her wet clothes and go to bed. The danger is over."
I was thirty years old before I found out that what I had risked so much to procure was not the panacea he had showed me, but common jewel-weed, or wild touch-me-not, a species of the Impatiens of botanists, harmless, but not curative.
And they had never let me guess what a blunder I had made!
Miss Nancy's Nerves
The Gateses were our distant relatives. Not nearer than fourth cousins-in-law, I fancy, but we counted them among our "kinfolks" in Virginia, calling Mrs. Gates "Cousin Nancy," and Captain Gates, "Cousin 'Ratio." His proper name was Horatio, of course, and he belonged to the family that gave the Revolutionary hero, Horatio Gates, to his country.
I was slowly getting over the whooping-cough, having taken it, as I took most "catching" things that fell in my way,—with all my might. I began to whoop the last of April, and kept it up all summer, when every other child on the plantation was entirely well.
Captain Gates drove over to our house by the time the breakfast-table was cleared one sultry August day, bringing in his roomy double buggy a basket of Georgia peaches—brunettes with crimson cheeks—and the biggest watermelon I had ever seen, as a neighborly gift to my mother.
"Miss Nancy gave me no peace of my life till I got off with them," he said in his loud, breezy tones. "There's none of her kin she sets more store by than by Cousin Ma'y Anna Burwell. And she's as proud as a peacock of our fruit. I tell her a judgment will come upon her for it. As I take it, Old Marster sends the rain upon the unjust as well as upon the just, and if it's our turn this year, somebody else's turn will come next year, and yet we'll be as good Christians then as we are now. It's one of His ways that's past finding out. Howdy'e, little lady!" putting out a brawny hand to pull me between his knees.
I was standing a yard or so away, but right in front of him, my hands behind me, my eyes and ears, and, I'm afraid, my mouth, open to his hearty talk. I had never heard God called "Old Marster" before, and if I had not been taught that children ought not to criticise what grown people say and do, I should have been quite sure that it was wrong. I did not want to think any harm of Cousin 'Ratio, and determined that I would not, when he drew a great finger gently over my thin cheek, and looked down at me with kindly, pitying eyes.
"Tut! tut! tut! this is too bad! too bad! We must fill up this gulley somehow, Cousin Ma'y Anna. Other folks' victuals are the best physic I know for that sort of work. Miss Nancy would cry her eyes out if I was to go home with the story that little Molly Burwell had coughed her bones pretty near as bare as barrel-staves, and I didn't try to cover them up again. A week in my peach-orchard and watermelon-patch, with quarts of cream and Miss Nancy's breakfasts, dinners, and suppers—is what she wants. Get her bonnet, and stick a tooth-brush and a pocket-handkerchief into a bandbox, Chloe, for I'm going to take her home with me, right straight off."
My mother shook her head smilingly at the thought of the week's visit.
"The child coughs so badly at night that I don't like to have her away from me, Cousin 'Ratio. But change of air, even for a day, would do her good. Her father and I will come for her about sundown."
Thus it happened, that, decked in a clean pink calico frock and white muslin apron, I was hoisted to my perch in the high gig beside Cousin 'Ratio, and set off to spend a whole day at Cold Comfort.
The name was so out of keeping with Cousin 'Ratio's kind, red face and funny ways, and the warm, sweet-smelling day, that I couldn't help asking him on the way "why he called his house such a shivery name?"
The gig swayed and creaked under his laugh.
"That was just the reason my grandmother gave for naming it. You see, the house stands on the top of a hill, and all the winds from three counties get at it in winter. The house my grandfather put up was of wood, and none too tight in the joints, and the poor old lady, his wife—my step-grandmother she was—had rheumatism, and suffered a heap all the year 'round. So, nothing would do but it must be 'Cold Comfort,' and Cold Comfort it has been ever since. We Gateses have a way of giving in to our wives in 'most everything. Everything that's reasonable, I mean. And we don't pick out unreasonable girls for wives."
The fat, sleek horse was taking his own lazy pace in a mile of shady road, cut through the heart of a pine forest. The ground was brown and soft with pine needles, and the high gig swung and creaked a sort of drowsy tune. Cousin 'Ratio tapped the wheel nearest him with his whip, and fell into talk with himself, rather than with the child under his elbow.
"Now, there's Miss Nancy! There's been a heap of fun poked at me, first and last, for building my house in the shape I did. Though, for the life of me, I can't see why I should be obleeged to live in a four-square box because every other man-Jack in Pow'tan County builds his in that way. Miss Nancy was always mighty nervous from the time she was a child; I knew it when I married her. Fact is, she says to me: 'Cap'n Gates, I'm as nervous as a witch, and I'm afraid you'll get out of patience with me sometimes, and I wouldn't blame you if you did.' And, says I,—my hand right on my heart,—'Miss Nancy Miller! if you'll take me as I am, I'll be proud and happy to take you as you are, nerves and all!' says I. 'The proudest man in the State of Virginia,' says I. 'Call it a bargain.'
"And she did—bless her soul! It was the best bargain that ever I made, or ever expect to make, too. Some men marry Temper, and some Extravagant Notions, and some Vanity, and some Jealous, Suspicious Dispositions, and some, again, Stinginess—Good gracious! there's no end to the disagreeable things men do marry! I married Nerves! and with them, the best and sweetest and, to my way of thinking, the prettiest woman in the County and State, and the Universe, and I've been thankful for it every day and every hour since—God bless her!"
I waited for him to say something more until I began to wonder, then to get impatient, that he let the horse jog along, the soft creak of the gig keeping time with the leisurely motions of the pampered beast, the master's eyes fixed upon the wheel he was tapping with his whip, as if he had forgotten me entirely.
I made a bold effort to reopen the conversation.
"I suppose Cousin Nancy asked you to build your house round, instead of square?"
I had heard so many different stories about the odd structure which was one of the county curiosities that I was anxious to get at the truth.
He laughed low and pleasantly:—
"Ask me! Not she, bless your soul! She would never have thought of such a thing. 'Twas me that studied it out, lying awake on windy nights because I knew she couldn't sleep for the roaring and whistling around the corners of the old house, and the wind humming in the chimneys and between the window-sashes like a bumblebee as big as a whale. It made her feel so lonesome and blue that many's the time I've heard her crying to herself when she thought I was sound asleep. We were going to pull down the old house, anyhow. It was a rickety concern, and inconvenient as could be. So I got Miss Nancy to tell me how many rooms and closets and all that she'd like to have in a house that was to be built on purpose for her, and for nobody else, and I made a plan of it all on paper, and then I sent her up to stay with her mother in Buckingham County for six months, going up to see her myself every Saturday to spend Sunday—like a nigger going to his 'wife-house,'"—here he stopped to laugh again—"until the last window-shutter was hung, and all the furniture put back and in order—Jerewsalem! how I did work! Then I brought her home. I wish you could have seen her face when we came in sight of the solid brick house—round as a cheese box—and I told her I had it built in that shape, so's she should never be made sorrowful, nor kept awake again by the wind a-cutting up shines around sharp corners, so long as we both should live—Amen!"
He jerked a blazing red bandanna handkerchief out of his pocket, turning his face clear away from me to do it, and blew his nose until the woods rang as with the echoes of a foxhunter's horn, then rolled the handkerchief into a ball and polished his face with it in the oddest possible fashion.
Most of the tales current about the round brick house had something to do with Cousin Nancy's whims, especially with her dislike to hearing the wind blow around the corners. Young as I was, I felt, after hearing Cousin 'Ratio's story, that he had done a beautiful thing in planning the ingenious surprise for his delicate wife. It crossed my mind, too, that she might have thought the house as ridiculous as other people did, yet pretended to like it sooner than hurt his feelings. She must be a good and devoted wife. Furthermore, I got into my foolish head the notion that it was nice and interesting to have Nerves. I resolved to get a set of my own at an early opportunity and to work them well. To this end, I would watch Cousin Nancy's ways and copy them as closely as a little girl could copy the behavior of a grown-up heroine.
She met us in the porch of the house, crying out with pleasure at sight of me.
"That's a little lady, not to be afraid to come all by herself to see two quiet old folks!" she said as she kissed me. "I ought to have had a dozen girls and boys for you to play with by this time—but I haven't a single one."
She laughed in saying it, yet with such sincere regret of face and accent that I answered, without taking time to think:—
"I'm mighty sorry you haven't!" Catching myself up, I blundered on: "Not that you and Cousin 'Ratio are not company enough for me. But it seems a pity that, in this pretty place, with so many peaches and watermelons and flowers—and pigeons—and chickens—and all that—there are not any children to eat, and to play with them—and keep you company. I've heard mother say, 'Home wouldn't be Home without the babies.'"
"Your mother is right, child! Your mother is right!"
The words seemed to stick in her throat, and to scrape it as she got them out. Then, to my horror, she sank into a rocking-chair, and, throwing her hands over her face, began to cry, with queer little squeals between the sobs that shook her all over.
Malviny, her mulatto maid, ran to her with a bottle of hartshorn, and Cousin 'Ratio knelt upon the floor by her and put his arm about her, and fanned her with a turkey-tail fan, and another colored woman rushed off to the kitchen, and was back in a jiffy with a bunch of feathers all on fire, and making a dreadful smell, and stuck them under her mistress's nose. I backed to the door with a wild notion of getting out of the way, and running back home, yet could not tear myself away from the unusual scene.
As soon as Cousin Nancy could speak, she laughed at sight of my face,—the tears still dripping all the way to her chin,—and held out her arms:—
"Poor little lammie! did I frighten the life out of her? You mustn't mind my nervous turns, dear. They don't mean anything."
"I was afraid I had said something I oughtn't to," I faltered, on the verge of tears. "I'm sorry if I did!"
Whereupon I was drawn close to her, and kissed three times to assure me that I was the "best little girl in the world, and that she wouldn't give way again."
"But, you see, I had got so nervous because you were gone so long, and you drove that skittish colt, and I was sure something had happened," she explained to her husband, who still stood by her, stroking the back of her hand, in awkward fondness. He stooped to lay his bearded face against hers.
"That's like you! Always thinking of other people, and never of yourself!" he said admiringly.
She thought a great deal of me for the rest of my visit, ordering Malviny to cut out and make a doll's pelisse for me of a lovely piece of red silk, saying that she would have done it herself if sewing did not make her so nervous.
"I haven't darned a sock or hemmed a pocket-handkerchief for Cap'n Gates in ten years. If he were not the best man on earth, he would have sent me packing long ago."
She despatched another servant to the garret for some toys her sister's children had left with her last year, and gave me permission to pull all the flowers I wanted in the garden. I carried three maimed dolls, a headless horse, a three-legged cat, and a Britannia tea-set to a summer-house at the end of a long walk, and made believe that I was Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, of whom I had read in a tattered copy of Shakespeare I found in a lumber closet. By and by, Malviny brought out to me a pretty china plate with four sugar cakes, shaped like ivy leaves, and a glass of very sweet lemonade. Awhile later, Dovey, a half-grown girl, appeared with a large saucer of peaches and cream, plentifully sugared.
"Mistis says you must eat 'em all, for she knows you mus' be mighty thirsty, and peaches is coolin' for little ladies whar's been sick."
There were still some cake crumbs and a spoonful of peaches left when I saw Cousin Nancy herself come sailing down the walk.
Side-Blades & Water-Melons
My far-away cousin could never have been pretty except to a fond husband's eyes. I should have liked to think her tolerably good-looking now, since he loved her so dearly and praised her so enthusiastically, and she was so much more than good to me. I could not help using and believing the eyes that showed me a tall, lean woman whose skin, once fair, was now nearly as yellow as the freckles spattered all over her forehead, nose, cheeks, and chin. Nose and chin were long, her cheek-bones were high, her eyes were pale, the lashes so light and thin as to be scarcely visible at all, and her scanty flaxen hair was dragged tightly away from a high bony forehead. Her gown to-day was white cambric, as clean, as glossy, and as opaque as cream-laid letter-paper. Her head was bare, and she carried over it a green parasol which made her complexion livid. Her voice was soft and sweet, and her manners were liked by everybody. I was glad to think of these things, and to feel the charm of tone and manner, as she asked if I "would not like to pay a visit to the peaches and watermelons."
I should have preferred to stay where I was, having got very well acquainted with my attendant fairies, and eaten enough sweets to take the edge from my appetite, even for ripe, fresh fruit. Still, I got up with a tolerable show of cordiality, comprehending that she meant to please me, took the hand she offered, and was soon out of the cool shade in the open field separating garden from orchard. Captain Gates was really as proud of his reputation as the most successful fruit-grower in the county as his wife was, although he affected to ridicule her weakness in the same direction. There were two acres of peach trees, most of them laden with fruit. When pressed to "eat all I could swallow," I managed to do away with three immense globes of crimson-and-gold, and then gave out, shamefacedly:—
"You see I am so little, and the peaches are so big!" I urged. "I hold just so many and no more."
"Of course, you comical little thing!" interrupted Cousin Nancy, highly amused. "By and by, on our way back from the watermelon patch, maybe there will be more room. I shan't ask you to pick the melons from the vines and eat them by the dozen. Come along!"
She did not seem to mind the heat that struck upon my face and head like the breath of an oven, as we crossed another open field, to that in which Captain Gates's famous melons lay by the hundred, growing larger and more luscious in the August sunlight that warmed them through and through. Some were dark green, some light green, some were streaked and mottled with white-and-green.
"Oh, Cousin Nancy!" I cried, "I did not know there were so many in the world! What will you do with them all?"
She led the way farther into the network of vines, the rank leaves and starry blossoms bobbing about her feet. The fruit and flowers of Cold Comfort did something toward filling the place left void in her heart by the lack of the children that had never come. She stood still and looked over the wide patch as if she had made every melon there, and meant to have the full credit for her work.
"Do with them, monkey! Why they are as good as a silver mine—the beauties! Every full-grown one stands for a quarter of a dollar. We send six wagon-loads to Richmond every week, and people come for them from every direction—as far as across the river in Goochland; and we give dozens away to our neighbors, and the negroes come at night to steal them—Oh! oh!! OH!!!"
She gathered her skirts tightly and high above her ankles with both hands, letting the green parasol tumble, head foremost, to the ground, and screeched as if she had trod upon a yellow-jacket's nest. She was going to have Nerves again, with no hartshorn, or burnt feathers, or turkey-tail fan, or Cousin 'Ratio near. I started to run to the house for help, but she grabbed my frock frantically.
"If you budge one inch you are a dead child!" she wheezed, her pale eyes bulging from the sockets. "Cap'n Gates and the overseer came out here last night and just sowed all this patch with side-blades!" (Scythe-blades.) "Edges up! Sharp as razors and thick as thieves! Hundreds of them! To keep the negroes from stealing any more of them! I heard Cap'n Gates tell them he was going to do it, and the overseer told them this morning that they had done it. And I haven't an atom of an idea where a solitary one of the murderous things is! We are as good as dead if we try to get out. We might tread upon one, at the first step! How could I forget it? Oh, how could I?"
I felt the blood drain away from my face, and I trembled as violently as she. Then a thought came to me, and I got it out between chattering teeth.
"We didn't tread on any of them coming into the patch."
"That was sheer providence, honey. We might have been cut in two before we had gone ten yards."
"But, Cousin Nancy!" catching at her hands as she began to wring them again, and to sob and squeal as she had done in the morning. "Listen! I am sure I could go out by the very same path! Let's try! We can't stay here always."
"Path! There isn't a sign of a path! Look!"
She pointed a bony finger in the direction we had come. The leaves and blossoms disturbed by our feet and skirts were as still as the hundreds and thousands of other leaves on all sides of us. We had not bruised a vine, or left a footprint, that we could see. The sun poured down upon us like fire from heaven; we were in the middle of the patch that seemed, to my horrified eyes, miles and miles in extent, and not another creature was in sight.
"Our only hope is to scream as loud as ever we can," said Cousin Nancy. "Nobody knows where we are; the hands are all in the tobacco, a mile on the other side of the house, and Cap'n Gates and Mr. Owen may be even farther off, for all I know. If we can't make anybody hear us, the Lord have mercy upon our souls! We shall have sunstroke inside of an hour."
I picked up the green parasol, and with clumsy, shaking fingers opened it, and stood on tiptoe to hold it over her head, crying, meantime, as piteously as she, such was the contagion of hysterical terror. Then, with one accord, we lifted up our voices, weak with weeping, in a thin screech. I said "Help! help! help!" she cried, "Murder! murder!" and "Cap'n Ga-a-tes!" We made enough noise to startle the dogs in the house-yard and at the stables, and brought from the nearer "quarters" and corn-field a gang of negroes, of all sizes and ages, all running at the top of their speed, and the faster as they descried us. It would have been excruciatingly funny at any other time, and to one that was not an actor in the drama, to observe that not one man, woman, or pickaninny of the excited crowd offered to pass the confines of the melon patch. Each one was mindful of the hundreds of buried side-blades with their edges uppermost, and almost all were bare-footed.
"Run! some of you-all, for Marster an' Mr. Owen!" shrieked Malviny, getting her wits together before the others could rally theirs. The shrill order arose above the chorus of groans and cries and pitying exclamations, and Cousin Nancy, on hearing it, gave one wild cry, and dropped where she stood, a heap of white cambric, head, arms, and green parasol, crushing the vines, and her head just grazing a mammoth melon.
I had never been so frightened in all my life as when I got hold of her head, and tried to lift it. It was as heavy as lead. Too much terrified and too foolish to bethink myself that a cut would bleed, I concluded that she had struck one of the murderous blades, and it had killed her. Her eyes were closed; her jaw had fallen; her cheek lay close against that of the big melon, and the vines met over her nose. It was a ghastly and a grotesque spectacle, and I behaved as any other nine-year-old would—jumped up and down and screamed, beating my palms together, and calling alternately for "Father!" and "Cousin 'Ratio!"
Since that horrible moment I have believed stories read and heard of people being scared to death, or into insanity. In the great, round world, there was nothing present to me but a cruel expanse of green below, a white-hot sky above, and at my feet a dead woman, killed by the razor-like blades thick-set under every leaf, and guarding every melon. Then all this was swept out of sight by a black wave that took me off my feet.
I awoke in the shade of the peach orchard. Mr. Owen, the overseer, had laid me down on the grass, and I heard him say, "She's all right now." I sat up and stared around me. Cousin Nancy, still in a dead faint, was stretched upon the ground a little way off, a fluttering swarm of women about her, with water, brandy, hartshorn, cologne, fans, and burning feathers, and Cousin 'Ratio, kneeling over her, was calling in her ear, the tears running down his bristly cheeks.
"Miss Nancy! honey! sugar-lump! wake up! it's me, dearie! The danger is all over. What a doggoned fool I was to put the side-blades there!"
When she at last revived, she was taken to the house and put to bed. She was not yet able to sit up when my father and mother drove over for me in the cool of the afternoon.
"My tomfoolery came near to being the end of the poor dear," said Cousin 'Ratio, walking with us to the carriage, when we had taken leave of his wife. "I feel mighty bad about it, too, as you may suppose, for it was my fault in not reminding her of those cussed side-blades. Between ourselves, Burwell,"—coming nearer to my father and glancing over his shoulder to be sure none of the servants were within hearing,—"Owen and I put just exactly two in the whole patch, and they were near the fence. Miss Nancy never went within a Sabbath day's journey of them. We made a mighty parade of toting twenty of them past the quarters, taking two of the hands along to help. They laid them down by the fence, and we came down after dark and carried all but two off to the old tobacco barn, and hid them there. I wasn't likely to rust my best side-blades by burying them in the dirt. But I'd rather have ruined them all and lost every blessed melon on the place, than have given Miss Nancy's Nerves such a shock."
Old Madam Leigh
Nobody seemed to know how everybody got into the way of calling her "Old Madam Leigh." It was not a Virginia custom, and there was not another old lady in the neighborhood to whom the title of "Madam" was ever given. After she had lived to be the oldest woman in the county, the "Old" was prefixed, naturally enough.
I got to know her through Cousin Molly Belle.
"I declare, Frank, Molly has never seen Queen Mab and her hummers!" she said at dinner one day. "I'm ashamed of myself for not having taken her there. It's just the sort of thing she would enjoy."
When Mrs. Frank Morton was ashamed of having done anything, or having left anything undone, the next, and a quick step with her, was to mend the fault without further waste of words. We went over to Old Madam Leigh's that same afternoon,—she, Cousin Frank, and I,—on horseback, "the road to Queen Mab's palace being the vilest in the State," as my hostess averred.
I thought it a delightful road. It left the main highway a mile beyond Cousin Frank's plantation gate, and lost its way in oak and hickory woods, where the trees touched over our heads. I said they were "trying to shake hands with one another."
"They will be hugging one another before we go much farther," said Cousin Frank.
As they did when we began to climb a long hill, washed into crooked gullies by the water that tore down to the creek at the bottom whenever it rained hard. After this was a short and steeper hill, and then another long one, and we were on the edge of a clearing, very bright and sunny after the green glooms of the forest.
"Does Queen Mab drive this way, often, in her chariot-and-four?" I inquired, as we struck into a gentle gallop along a grassy lane.
"Queen Mab's chariot has not been out of the carriage-house in twenty-five years," answered Cousin Molly Belle. "There is another road from her house to where everyday people live, but it would take us a long way around. Mother can recollect when this was a good road, and much travelled."
"Doesn't she make any visits?"
"Never to human beings."
"Doesn't she go to church?"
"Not that I have ever heard of."
"Cousin Molly Belle!" in an awed tone. "Is she a heathen?"
"She is very old, Namesake. Nearly ninety."
She said it gravely and gently, and Cousin Frank repeated a verse of poetry I did not know then:—
"He prayeth best who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all."
It was so nice that I turned it over in my mind several times before I asked another question. My mother sometimes called me "an animated interrogation-point."
"Is Old Madam Leigh married?"
"She has been married. She would not be 'Madam' if she had not been. She has been a widow for a long, long time. She had two children—twins—a boy and a girl. They lived to be twenty years old, and then died."
"Not both at the same time, Cousin Molly Belle?" for her tone suggested something very sorrowful.
"Yes, Molly dear. The sister fell into the river and the brother, in swimming out to save her, was seized with the cramp and sank before he could reach her. The mother has lived alone ever since, except for her servants. They are very good and faithful. Then, she has her hummers and her pygmies, who are a great deal of company to her."
"Pigs!" in intense disgust. "She can't be a very neat person."
A peal of laughter from my companions broke off the speech.
"You'll change your mind shortly," said Cousin Frank, cantering ahead to open a gate in the rail fence.
We saw the house from the gate,—a wee bit of a gray cottage, one story high, literally covered with honeysuckles of every kind I had ever heard of, and now in fullest bloom. An enormous catalpa tree, also in flower, stood in front of the cottage, shading all but one gable, and that looked as if it were made of glass. Between this gable and the garden were two spreading acacia trees, tufted with the tassel-like blossoms. The deep front porch was curtained with white jessamine, and as we walked up the gravelled path leading to it, Madam Leigh stood in the doorway.
She was a tiny old lady, no taller than I was, and wore a white dress, fine and sheer. Cousin Molly Belle told me afterward that it was India muslin, and that she wore white, winter and summer. The waist of the gown was very short, the skirt was straight, and fell to the in-step of a foot no bigger than a baby's. Her cap was also old-fashioned, made of lace, with a full crimped border under which her hair, silvery-white, was dressed in short, round curls on each side of her forehead. Her skin reminded me of a bit of rice-paper I had picked up from the floor one day. It had dropped out of the back of my father's watch, and Bud had found it and played with it until it was creased and cracked all over like "crazed" china, yet not torn. Old Madam Leigh's face could not be said to be wrinkled, for the lines were shallow. They were as fine as if made with an inkless crow quill, and so close together you would have thought there was not room for another. Her eyes were dark and bright She had French blood in her veins, and showed it in her quick glance and lively motions.
She took us directly into "the chamber" on the left side of the hall that cut the house in two. Everything there was white, too,—bed and curtains and chair-covers being of white dimity, trimmed with lace. The walls were almost covered with portraits. Some were very old. Two of the brightest hung opposite the bed where Madam Leigh must see them as soon as she opened her eyes in the morning. One was of a pretty girl in a white frock, low-necked and short-sleeved, with a red rose in the bodice, making the fair skin it rested against all the fairer. Her eyes were dark and sweet; short brown curls, like Madam Leigh's white ones, clustered about her temples. The other picture was that of a handsome boy of twenty, or thereabouts, and strikingly like his sister. A dog, with silky ears, leaned his head against his young master's arm.
I tried hard not to stare at these portraits,—to me the most interesting things in the room,—for I knew they must be the twin-children who had died together, ever and ever so many years ago. The instinct of kindly breeding told me that it would not be polite to remind the mother of her loss by looking inquisitively at them. But I could not help stealing a glance at one and the other when the grown people were intent in talk. Looking led to dreaming, as I was left to myself and the thoughts suggested by the portraits. I arranged it in my mind that brother and sister were very fond of each other; that the sister had fallen into the river where the current was strong, from some such place as Maiden's Adventure, on Mr. Pemberton's plantation, where the water was deep above a roaring fall. I thought how she called to her brother, and how he answered, and I wondered—a chill running down my spine and catching at my heart—who carried the awful news to the mother. How could she bear it? how live in this lonely place with nobody to keep her from thinking of, and missing, her husband and her children, nobody to care whether she were glad or sorry, sick or well, alive or dead?
I did not know that my mouth was drawn down at the corners, that my eyes were mournful, and my whole aspect that of a sadly bored little girl, who felt herself to be left entirely out of the thoughts of her friends and the hostess—until Madam Leigh's voice made me start, as if I had been asleep.
"I am afraid this little lady finds all this mighty stupid."
I think the old-time practice of calling girl-children "little ladies," kept them in wholesome remembrance of the necessity of behaving as such. At any rate, I was instantly aware that I ought to be sitting up straight upon my cricket, and seeming to be interested in what was going on. Had not my mother reproved me, times without number, for dreaming in company and for absent-minded ways that made me heedless of others' comfort? "It is selfish and rude not to pay attention to what people are saying when you are with them"—was a nursery rule I ought to have had well by heart.
It was natural, then, that I should turn as red as a cardinal flower, and fidget uneasily, and stutter when I tried to set myself right with my venerable hostess:—
"Oh, no, ma'am. I'm not a bit tired. I'm sorry—if—"
"There's nothing to be sorry for, my dear. If anybody has been rude it is I who ought to have provided some other entertainment for you than sitting still, and trying with all your might to understand big folks' talk."
Her voice was clearer than one would have expected in such an old lady, and she did not mumble as if she were chewing her words, as a great many old people do. She spoke very distinctly, pronouncing every syllable in each word. She told me, when we were better acquainted, that she read aloud for an hour every day, for fear she might fall into careless ways of speaking, seeing, as she did, so few educated white people, and, sometimes, talking with nobody but her colored servants for a week at a time. She held herself very straight when seated, and in walking, and stepped as lightly as a young person, as she got up and took me by the hand, smiling at me in the friendliest way imaginable, and, saying "I must introduce you to my family," led me across the hall, and opened a door on the other side.
As soon as we were inside of the door, she shut it quickly behind us, and I stood stock-still with amazement at what I saw and heard.
It was a large room, with two windows at the front and two at the back, while the gable we had seen from the lane was almost filled with sashes, as in a greenhouse. Close against these sashes, now so bright with the Southern sun that I was half-blinded for an instant, were rows of shelves, crowded with cut flowers in vases, and growing flowers in pots. Most of the sashes were open, and the space thus left was screened by twine netting, something like fine fish seines. Old Madam Leigh had netted each of these squares herself, as I learned afterward. The same protected back and front windows. About the open windows, and around the flowers, flew and floated what I thought, at first, were at least one hundred humming-birds. Madam Leigh said there were but twenty-five, all told. The whir of their rapid wings filled the air, the gleam of their brilliant breasts and backs was like living jewels.
"Oh-h-h-h!!" was all I could utter, as I clasped my hands in admiring wonder at the beauty and the strangeness of it all, and a queer lump came into my throat, as if I were frightened or sorry, and I knew I was only delighted past speaking. Madam let me alone for a minute, before she laid her small, wrinkled hands upon my shoulders and turned me about to see something I had not observed in my raptures over the marvellous birds.
Against the wall beyond the door was a long, broad table, or rather counter, and upon it was a village of small houses, rows upon rows of them. Outside of the village and the streets were other and larger houses, in groups of two and three, with dooryards and gardens, and then came half a dozen farm-houses surrounded by fields and gardens. In the village there were stores and a Court House, and a Clerk's Office and a Jail, surrounded by a Public Square, exactly like that at Powhatan Court House, and two taverns with signs hanging outside of them. Trees lined the streets, and vines were running over the houses. Then, there were wells, and wood-piles with men chopping wood at them, and cow-pens with cows and calves, and pig-pens filled with pigs. Men were driving wagons along the roads, and a fine carriage with four horses harnessed to it and a coachman on the box stood before the larger of the two taverns. The footman, hat in hand, was helping two elegantly dressed ladies out of the carriage, and the landlady, with two colored maids behind her, was upon the portico waiting to receive them. Men were digging in the corn and tobacco fields; there were turkeys, chickens, ducks, and geese, and boys riding horses to water and driving the cows home to be milked.
Was ever such another Wonderland revealed to a child who had never been in a toy-shop and never owned a doll that was not home-made?
I screamed and capered with joy, like the crazy thing I was, for a whole minute after my eyes fell upon the mimic settlement. Then I fell to examining the "entertainment" more closely, and discovered that everything, except the mosses that imitated the trees, vines, and other growing things, was made of corn-stalks and corn-husks—"shucks" as Virginians call them. The human creatures and the dumb animals were carved out of the firm, dried pith of the stalks, and afterward painted with water colors. The clothes of men and women were made of the soft inner shucks, dried carefully to the pliability of silk. Log and frame houses were built of the canes themselves; the smallest were used whole, the larger were split. Peeping into the open doors and windows I saw that each house was furnished with beds, tables, and chairs, also made of corn-stalks, pith, and shucks.
At the far end of the counter were six bird-cages, constructed of thin strips of corn-canes, each supplied with perches and water vessels.
"Those are my reform prisons," Madam Leigh said to my cousins, who had followed and begged to be let in. "You see,"—to me,—"when one of my hummers becomes cross or quarrelsome, I separate him from the rest and shut him up in one of these cages until he is in a better humor. I am sorry to say that they have pretty peppery tempers, and hardly a day passes in which I do not have to interfere to stop their fighting."
I had no reason to feel myself slighted now. She went all round the room with me, showing her pets and telling me interesting stories of their habits and dispositions. Each had a name, and some answered to their names when she called them. At least, she thought that they did, and I did not doubt it when I saw them swoop down to dip their bills in the flowers she held up, as she called "Sprite" and "Bright," and "Sweet" and "Swift," and the like crisp, short names in a voice that was like the tinkle of a little bell. It was a pretty sight,—the tiny woman, all white from cap to toe, standing in the full tide of sunbeams, bunches of honeysuckle and catalpa flowers, half as big as herself, in her arms, the elf-like face smiling out of them at the eagerness of her feathered darlings, darting and glancing and gleaming and humming about her, as if she had been a larger edition of themselves, and not of a different genus. She made me stand by her while this was going on, saying that the hummers were "too well-bred to be afraid of her friends, and were especially fond of little people."
"The honeysuckles first made me think of collecting them," went on the pleasant tinkle. "When they are in full bloom the frisky little creatures swarm in them all day long. They like white and yellow jessamine, too, and catalpa flowers and lilies and acacia blossoms. Ten years ago I found one of their nests upon a low limb of a tulip-poplar tree. Here it is! It looks like a knob of mossy bark, you see. There were two eggs in it. I cut off the limb carefully, and set it in a pot of water in this room. It was full of blossoms, and the water kept these alive. The window was left open and nobody—not even myself—came in here for a week. As I had hoped, the mother and father bird found the nest, and went on sitting on the eggs as if it had not been moved. One night, after the baby birds were hatched, I went softly to the outside of the window and let down the sash. That was the beginning of my aviary. That's a hard word for you—isn't it, Molly? It means a family of birds, such as I have here."
"I don't believe there is another like it in the world," said Cousin Molly Belle. "I've always declared that you are a fairy, and charm your hummers. I described it and them once to a famous ornithologist. That's a real jaw-breaker, Namesake, and means one who knows everything about all sorts of birds—or thinks he does. I met this or-nith-ol-o-gist in New York last May. He said it was impossible to tame and raise families of wild birds, especially humming-birds. And when I said I had seen it with my own eyes, times without number, he looked polite—and unbelieving."
Madam Leigh was so much amused that the flowers shook in her shrivelled mites of hands.
"Many learned strangers have been to see the 'impossibility,'" she said, her voice shaken by laughter.
(Cousin Molly Belle had the knack of saying just the thing that would please everybody, and saying it in the right way and at the right time.)
"Of course I have not raised them all from the eggs," continued Madam. "We catch new birds every year, and some are never quite tame. So your or-nith-ol-o-gist"—pronouncing it in the same comical way that Cousin Molly Belle had done—"was not altogether in the wrong. But they get used to their new life much sooner because there are so many of their own kind about them. When I find that a couple are thinking of going to house-keeping, I root a branch of poplar, or hickory, or maple, in a tub of moist earth, and curtain off a corner where they will not be disturbed in the nesting-time."
"That was the very thing the celebrated or-nith-ol-o-gist said was absolutely impossible," cried Cousin Molly Belle. "Even though I told him that, if he would pay us a visit, I would show him the cosey corner, and the pretty bride and gallant bridegroom building their nest."
"A great many things happen to each of us that others would not believe, no matter how solemnly we might declare them to be true," said Madam Leigh, very seriously.
I had a notion that she was thinking of other things in her strangely desolated life besides the aviary and the learned man who knew all about birds.
"To me, the most singular part of my management of my hummers is that I succeed in making them comfortable and contented in the winter," she said. "For their forefathers and foremothers have been going South at the first sign of frost for six thousand years or so. I have a stove put up in here, covered with wire netting to hinder the little dears from flying against it; then I keep an even temperature and fill the room with flowers. It has, as you see, a southern exposure. I live here with them all day long. When it begins to grow dark, I say, 'Good night' and go across to my chamber. At bedtime I look in to make sure the fire will keep in until morning, and that my darlings are all right. While daylight lasts we are very happy together. I am busy with my pygmies and my flowers. I feed the hummers with sugar-and-water in winter, with a taste of honey on Sundays"—laughing cheerily. "To make them glad that Sunday has come, you know. I've an idea that they need stronger food in cold weather than in summer. It helps tame them to make them eat from the tip of my finger. I take a great deal of pains to keep a succession of plants in flower, for, after all, hive-honey isn't quite as pure and delicate after it has gone through the bee's body as when the hummer sips it fresh from the flower-cup. You must come over next winter, Molly Belle, and bring the little lady to see my nasturtiums, and hyacinths, and morning-glories. Roses and cape-jessamines, and the like are of no use to us. Our flowers must be shaped like wine-glasses, with a drop of honey-dew in the bottom, to please us perfectly. The hummers and I understand that. You wouldn't believe how much company we are for one another, or how much I learn from them. Even my silly mannikins give work to my fingers and keep my thoughts steady."
Cousin Molly Belle put her arms around the wee old lady and hugged her hard—the honeysuckles and catalpas falling to the floor.
"All this is the loveliest thing I ever heard!" laughing to keep from crying. "I hope you will live to be a hundred years old, and give the lie to or-nith-ol-o-gists every day you live. And Molly and I will come to see you, often and often, whenever she is at our house. You dear, brave, sensible, lion-hearted, royal Queen Mab!"
She kept her word. It was one of her many ways to do more than she had promised. I never paid a visit to my dearest cousins, the Frank Mortons, without riding, or driving, up through the woods, and across the creek, and up the two long, and the one short, hill, and along the grass-grown lane to the gray cottage that always reminded me of a "hummer's" nest masked with moss. I spent a good deal of that summer with Cousin Molly Belle, and one week in the very middle of December.
The weather was very mild for midwinter, and the great south room felt too warm to me. So warm that I began to feel sleepy and a little dizzy, and Madam Leigh noticed the yawn I could not quite swallow.
"Put on your hood and cloak, little lady," she said, "and run into the garden to see if you cannot find some roses for your cousin. Betty tells me there has been so little frost this season that the rose-bushes are still all in leaf."
I scampered off willingly, and did not show myself in the house again until the sun almost touched the tree-tops. I gathered chrysanthemums and nasturtiums and late heartsease, and at least a dozen roses and buds, and, wandering farther and farther down the quiet paths, I saw what I had never noticed before—that there was a small graveyard at the back of the garden, of which it formed a part. An arbor, thickly curtained with a Florida honeysuckle that kept its leaves all winter, was at one side of the burial-place; a walk, edged with box, stretched from it straight up to the house-yard. Now that the trees were bare, I saw that old Madam Leigh could have a full view, through the windows in the south gable, of the arbor, and the two white headstones before it:—
JOHN AND RUTH LEIGH.
TWIN-CHILDREN OF EDWARD AND JUDITH LEIGH.
BORN SEPTEMBER 3, 1790.
DIED AUGUST 1, 1810.
"I was dumb; I opened not my mouth, because THOU didst it."
I sat down in the summer-house and had a long thinking spell, all by myself. Too young to word the emotions that swelled my heart, the thoughts that oppressed my brain, there was, all the while, in heart and head, the recollection of the story she had told of her manner of getting the first pair of humming-birds—and how she had stolen softly around to the window after dark, and shut the parents in with their nestlings.
I never saw her again. On Christmas morning the maid, who came as usual to awake and dress her mistress, found that she had died in her sleep.
Out into the World
Cousin Burwell Carter fell in love with our handsome, amiable Boston governess, Miss Davidson, and married her when I was ten years of age. She comforted my mother for her loss by sending for her younger sister, who was even prettier than herself, and had such winsome ways that Mr. John Morton, Cousin Frank's bachelor brother, married her at the end of her first session in our school-room.
My father looked quizzically grave when the two sisters recommended a Miss Bradnor of Springfield, Massachusetts, as a person who was sure to please our parents and to bring us on finely in our studies.
"Is she pretty and marriageable?" he asked. "My business, nowadays, seems to be providing the eligible bachelors of Powhatan with wives. It is pleasant enough from one standpoint, and that is the young men's. But my children must be educated."
Both young matrons assured him, earnestly, that Miss Bradnor was "a predestined old maid—a man-hater, in fact—and was likely to remain a fixture in our school-room as long as we needed her." When she arrived I was surprised to see a prim, quiet little personage who looked too gentle to hate any one. She fitted easily into her place in our family and soon proved herself the prize we had been promised, being a born instructor, and loving her profession. She awoke my mind as nobody else had done. I fancied that I could feel it stretch, and grow, and get hungry while she taught me. The more it was fed, the hungrier it grew, and the more eagerly it stretched itself. I studied Comstock's Natural Philosophy with Miss Bradnor, and Vose's Astronomy, and Lyell's Elements of Geology, Bancroft's History of the United States, and Watts on the Mind, and began French and Latin. It was such a busy, happy year that I was actually sorry when vacation began.
I was sorrier yet when a letter was received from Miss Bradnor, saying that she "had been betrothed for ten years to an exemplary gentleman who now claimed the fulfilment of her pledge. Before the letter could reach us she would (D. V.) have become Mrs. Calvin Chapin. She hoped the unforeseen reversal of her plans for the ensuing year would not occasion serious inconvenience to her dear and respected friends, Mr. and Mrs. Burwell."
"It takes the prim sort to give us such surprises!" exclaimed my mother.
"It takes all sorts and conditions of women, I think!" rejoined my father, dryly. "I foresee that the Richmond plan will have to be carried out, after all. Governesses are kittle cattle, at the best. And we have had three of the very best."
As may be supposed, I was consumed by curiosity to know what "the Richmond plan" could be. The city I had never yet seen had been made tenfold more interesting to me within a year by the removal of the Frank Mortons to that place. Cousin Frank had gone into the Commission business there with an uncle who had no son to succeed him in the firm. But, although I pricked up my ears smartly at my father's unguarded remark, I had to smother my excitement as best I could, and study patience—surely the hardest lesson ever set for the young. When older people were talking with one another, it was esteemed an impertinence in children to interrupt them by questions.
"If it were best for you to understand what we were saying, we would take pains to explain it to you," my mother would say when we broke this one of her rules. And, still oftener, "Little girls should trust their fathers and mothers to tell them at the right time all that they ought to know."
The right time in this instance was one moonlight September night, soon after Mary 'Liza and I had gone to bed. My mother had a habit of coming up to our room, and sitting down by the bed in the dark, or without other light than the moon, to have a little talk with us. "To give us a good appetite for our dreams," she would say in her merry way. We dearly enjoyed these visits, especially on Sunday nights, when we told her what we had been reading and thinking that day, and repeated the hymns we loved best.
This was on Monday night, and she began by telling us that Miss Judy Curran was coming the next day, to make our fall and winter frocks, and that there would be a pretty busy time with us all for the rest of the month, as we were going to school in Richmond, the fifth day of October.
"Your father and I do not believe in boarding-schools," she continued. "We think that God gives our children to us to be brought up and educated, as far as possible, by us, their parents, and not to be made over to hirelings at the very time when they are most easily led right or wrong. There are, however, excellent reasons why you should begin now to know more of the world than you can learn in a quiet country neighborhood such as this. We are thankful to be able to give you the advantages of a city school, without depriving you of good home-training. You are to live with your Cousin Molly Belle, and be day-scholars in Mrs. Nunham's seminary."
Even Mary 'Liza gave a little jump under the sheet at the astounding news, while I leaped clean out of bed, and danced around the room in my night-gown, clapping my hands and uttering small shrieks of ecstasy.
"Hurrah! hurrah! goody! goody! mother! it is like a fairy tale!"
I was somewhat abashed, and decidedly ashamed of my transport when the blessed mother said gently, after a little sigh:—
"Of course I shall miss my daughters sadly, but I hope what we are doing is for their good. If I were less sure of this, I could not part with them."
From the hour in which her first-born baby was laid in her arms, until she closed her eyes in the sleep from which our wild weeping could not awaken her, her ever-present thought was the children's best good. Nothing that could secure that was self-denial on her part.
* * * * *
I have come to Richmond to write this chapter. From my window I look down upon the pavement trodden by my feet twice a day for ten months out of twelve, during four school years. The house in which I sojourn belongs to a younger brother of him who figures in my story as "Bud." It occupies the site of the large, yellow frame building in which Mrs. Nunham taught her "young ladies," more than forty years ago.
I smile, as fancy reconstructs the group that turned the corner into this street, a block away, on the fifth of October of that memorable year in the forties. My father walked between Mary 'Liza and myself, each of us holding to one of his arms, as gentlemen and ladies in the country walked together then. He was a well-built, clear-eyed, clean-lived, upright gentleman, whom God had made and whom the world had not spoiled. My cousin and I were dressed exactly alike. Into every detail of daily life my mother carried her principle of treating the orphan as her own child. Our country-made frocks were of dark-green merino, becoming to my blond companion, and anything but becoming to my sun-browned skin. Over the frocks were neat black silk aprons with pockets. White linen-cambric frills, hemstitched by hand, and carefully crimped, were at our throats and wrists, and sunbonnets upon our heads, or rather, "slatted" hoods that could be folded at pleasure. These were of dark-green silk, to match the merinos, and ribbon of the same color was quilled around the capes, crowns, and brims. Our silk gloves were also dark green, and my mother had knit them herself.
Every item of our school costume was prescribed by her before we left home. I comprehend now, why the water stood in Cousin Molly Belle's eyes, while dancing lights played under the water, when we presented ourselves at breakfast-time, dressed for the important first day in the Seminary. I appreciate, furthermore, as it was not possible I should then, the tact and delicacy with which she gradually modified our everyday and Sunday attire into something more in accordance with that of our school-fellows.
As we found out for ourselves, before the day was over, we were little girls in the midst of young ladies, so far as dress and carriage went. We were imbued with the idea—gathered from the talk of friends and acquaintances, and our much reading of English story-books—that we were to be "polished" by our city associations. It was a shock and a down-topple of our expectations to be thrown, without preparation, into the society of girls whose manners were very little, if at all, more refined than those of the quartette who with us constituted Miss Davidson's home school. We were even more confounded at the discovery that our home-education had so rooted and grounded us in the rudiments of learning that we were classed, after the preliminary examination, with girls older than we by four and five years. The circumstance did not make us popular with our comrades.
As if my cheeks had tingled under the assault but to-day, I recall the exclamation of a girl of fifteen who sat next to me while the examination in history was held. Her father was a distinguished citizen of Richmond, and her mother a leader in fashionable society.
"Lord, child! how smart you think yourself, to be sure!" she said aloud, turning squarely about to look into my face.
I had answered as quietly and briefly as I could, the questions put to me, and tried politely not to look scandalized at her flippant failures.
"I'm sure I don't know!" "Never heard of him!" "If I ever knew, I've forgotten all about it!"—were, to my notion, a disgrace, and her cool effrontery would have been severely rebuked by our governess, and have met with still sterner judgment from my mother.
At recess this offensive young person headed a coterie that surrounded us, criticised our clothes, and catechised us as to our home, our family, and our mode of home living. Among other choice bon mots from the Honorable Member's daughter was the inquiry—"if we got the pattern of our wagon-cover hoods from Mrs. Noah?"
I told Cousin Molly Belle that night, that "the whole pack were ill-bred, rude, and unbearable."
She agreed heartily with two of my epithets, and took me up on the third:—
"Nothing is 'unbearable,' Namesake, except the thought of our own folly or sin. Still, this is a part of the discipline of life I would spare you, if I could. Endure hardness as a good soldier, and shame their want of breeding by the perfection of yours. An unmannerly schoolgirl is the cruellest of tormentors, and"—with a ring of her voice and a snap of her eyes that were refreshing and characteristic—"I should like to have the handling of that crew for an hour or two!"
I snuggled up close to her, already measurably consoled, and ready as usual, with one of the speeches that stamped me as "old-fashioned."
"We are like two wild pigeons, tied by the foot, in a yard full of peacocks. I would rather be a pigeon than a peacock. But pecks and struts and screamings are not agreeable, for all that."
Nor was it agreeable to be the only girls in our class-room who were not invited to a party given the middle of November, by one of the nicest of our new acquaintances. She had been quite friendly with us, and the very day the invitations were sent out, laid a sprig of citronaloes silently on my lap, during a French lesson. The smile that went with the scented leaves was sweeter still, and made my heart and face glow. When we were getting our wraps and bonnets in the cloak-room, at the close of the afternoon session, I edged nearer and nearer to her, pretending to hunt for my overshoes, meaning to say a word of thanks as soon as the group about her thinned. I got so near to her that I caught what she was saying in a low voice to her intimates:—
"I just hated not to invite the Burwells, but they do look so countryfied! like little old women cut short after they were made. And I don't believe either of them has a party dress to her name. They would be a pair of sights in a roomful of well-dressed people."
I slipped away with a barbed arrow in my self-love, and a hard, resentful pain at my heart, on my mother's account. Fierce tears scalded the inside of my eyelids as I recalled her weeks of loving preparation for our school life, the thousand of stitches set by her dear hands, the gentle smile of satisfaction with which she had surveyed our finished wardrobe. When I was in my own room at Cousin Molly's, I hugged and kissed and cried over the slatted hood, vowing vengefully to study so hard, and to rise so fast in my classes, and to acquit myself so nobly in the sight of my teachers, as to compel the admiration of the proud who rose up against me, and who compassed me about like bees. David's "cussing psalms" came readily and forcibly to my help in the hour of bitter humiliation.
If my wrath was unhallowed, it wrought the peaceable fruits of righteousness. The barb had gone too deep to be uncovered even to Cousin Molly Belle, but the hurt made a student of me. Giving up all thought of popularity and polish, I devoted myself to my school work with assiduity that threatened injury to my health before the half-term was over. But for my best and most clear-sighted of cousins I might have become a misanthropic invalid.
On the very day of the now hateful party, she took us for a long drive,—the whole length of Main Street, the sidewalks of which were thronged with promenaders and shoppers. She stopped the carriage—a handsome equipage, with a smart coachman and two spanking grays—at Samanni's and bought us a whole pound, apiece, of delicious candy, and treated us to Albemarle pippins to take home with us, and ice-cream eaten on the spot. Next, we went to Drinker and Morris's, the fashionable bookstore, and she told us to pick out, each for herself, the books we would like best to have. Mary 'Liza chose The School-girl in France, and I, The Scottish Chiefs. (I have it to this day.) We finished our excursion by a visit to St. John's Church and burying-ground. Cousin Molly Belle's grandfather had heard Patrick Henry's "Liberty or Death" speech, and she made the scene very plain to us as we strolled along the dim aisles, streaked with flaming bars of sunset, striking through the western window upon the very spot where the great orator had stood.
By the time I had finished my supper, and was settled before the fire with my book, the memories of my jaunt making glad my whole being, I had clean forgotten party and slight, and did not care a fig—for that one night—if I was countryfied and had not a party dress to my name. The real things were mine,—home-loves and the world of books and imagination,—possessions which the scorning of those who were at ease, and the contempt of the proud could not molest or take away.
I was reading The Scottish Chiefs for the second time,—out of school, of course,—and studying with might and main, when something came to pass that altered the tone of my mates, converted oppressors into champions, and made a moderate heroine of me.
There were sixteen of us in the senior Geography Class, I being the youngest. The practice of "turning down" for incorrect answers to questions was common at that date, even in Young Ladies' Seminaries. When the class was formed, we were seated according to age, but thanks to my governesses' drill, I had mounted steadily until I was now but one from the top—or, as we put it, was "next to head." The topmost place had been held for over a month by Mary Morgan, a slovenly and indolent girl of sixteen, who wrote poetry and had a great deal of old blue blood in her veins, as she was fond of informing all who had the patience to listen to her. Her recitations in most of her classes were so imperfect that everybody was surprised at her keeping an honorable place in any until the whisper went around that she smuggled "help-papers" into the class with her.
I am told that the use of "ponies," and much less reputable aids to perfect recitation in school and in college, is not considered dishonorable among the youth of the present age. Unmannerly and cruel as the girls in our seminary appeared to me, they had a certain sense of honor, a respect for truth and fair-dealing that bespoke better things than their surface-conduct indicated. When it was certainly known that Mary Morgan carried into the recitation-room notes of the lesson, written upon bits of paper, and tucked up her sleeve, or hidden in the folds of her dress, popular indignation arose to a bubbling boil. A tale-bearer would have been drummed out of school, and not a lisp of the shameful truth was carried to the teacher, the second Miss Nunham, who was near-sighted and unsuspicious. The geography lesson was the most exciting event of the day,—a prize-ring, in which the two at the head of the class were chief actors. When a question reached Mary Morgan, the class held its breath for a time. When she answered with glib accuracy, the breath exhaled in chagrin audible to all but the teacher. Out of class I was noticed, cheered, and commended, and exhorted to hold on in the course of truth and uprightness—encouragement corresponding to the rubbing down and bracing bestowed by his guardians upon the pugilist. And still the geography questions went around, and Mary Morgan was head and I next to head.
At last, on the fifteenth of December, came the tug of war in the shape of a review of the exercises of the last month, and Mary Morgan was armed for the fray by half a dozen long slips of paper covered with characters in very black ink. Presuming upon the teacher's short-sighted eyes, and nerved by a sense of the gravity of the situation, she boldly laid the papers upon the bench between her and myself, and consulted them from time to time, with coolness that would have been heroic had it not been impudent. The recitation was half over, when the girl who sat next below me "made a long arm" behind my back, and abstracted one of the abhorrent slips without the knowledge of the owner. She perceived the loss as the questions were again nearing her, gave one frightened glance at the floor on all sides of her, colored violently; made a desperate rally of memory and courage when the question reached her, answered so wildly that the teacher gave her a second trial, and, in pity for her distress, still a third.
Such a simple question as it was! I can never forget it. "What large island lies south of Hindostan?"
Nor can I forget the pale dismay of the face turned to me as the teacher said, reluctantly,—"Next."
I had never liked the girl; latterly, I had despised her and regarded her as my enemy. I did not analyze the revulsion of feeling that made me hesitate while one could have counted ten, before saying in a low, constrained voice,—"Ceylon!"
The deposed pupil sank to the middle of the class before the recitation was over, much to the bewilderment of the single-minded teacher. By the morrow she was at the bottom of the line and so far across the outer confines of Coventry that she never got back. That was our way of looking at "cribs" half a century ago.
It is not ten years since I met the banished scholar in a metropolitan reception-room, and a few minutes afterward, another old schoolfellow, who said in one and the same breath, "Do you know that Mary Morgan is here?" and, "I suppose it is uncharitable, but I can never forget that she used to cheat in her recitations at Mrs. Nunham's."
We went home "for Christmas." My father sent the carriage for us. The roomy family coach he never allowed to get shabby. The "squabs," i.e. padded inner curtains to exclude the cold in winter, were in, and there were thick shawls and a pillow apiece and two footstoves for our comfort in the thirty-mile drive, and upon the front seat, gorgeous in a new shawl of many and daring colors, her snowy turban wound about head and ears, was Mam' Chloe, the comfortablest thing there. Hamilcar, the carriage-driver, (we did not say "coachman") had on his Christmas suit, including a shaggy overcoat for which his master had given him an order upon a Richmond tailor, and was spruce exceedingly. To ensure our perfect safety and respectability we had an outrider in the shape of Mr. James Ireton, a young fellow-countryman, who was returning from a business trip to town.
The boxes under the seats—an old-fashioned convenience, capable of containing a gentleman's entire wardrobe and half of a lady's—were brimful of Christmas gifts and "goodies," and parcels stuffed with the same wedged Mam' Chloe in the exact middle of the front seat. A big hair-trunk was strapped upon the rack behind, and a box packed by Cousin Molly Belle was between Hamilcar's feet.
It began to snow before we had left the city a mile behind us, but that made things all the merrier. How we chuckled with laughter as the fast flakes stuck upon Mr. Ireton's hat and overcoat and leggings, until he looked like a polar bear but for his face that got redder as the rest of his body whitened, until, with his shining teeth and powdered hair, he made us think of Santa Claus. When we let down the carriage-window to tell him so, he drew a pipe from his pocket, got behind the carriage to screen it from the wind while he was lighting it, and rode up again alongside of us, puffing away at it to carry out the likeness.
We set out at nine o'clock, and at one o'clock stopped at Flat Rock, a well-known house of entertainment, for an early dinner and a generous feed for the horses. The roads were heavy with winter mud, red and sticky. It looked like strawberry ice-cream as the wheels and hoofs churned it up with the snow. Mam' Chloe laughed until her fat sides quaked when I said that. How good she was to us that day! how good everybody was! and how good it was to be just what I was, and where I was—off on a royal spree in the splendidest snowstorm I had ever seen, and Home and Christmas at the end of the journey.
Darkness fell by four o'clock, and, but for the whiteness of the earth, we would not have been able to see the trees on the side of the road when we came in sight of the house. Not a shutter had been closed, and every window was aglow with fire and lamplight, golden and pink through the snowy veil shifting and swaying between them and our happy eyes.