John March, Southerner
George W. Cable
John March, Southerner
In the State of Dixie, County of Clearwater, and therefore in the very heart of what was once the "Southern Confederacy," lies that noted seat of government of one county and shipping point for three, Suez. The pamphlet of a certain land company – a publication now out of print and rare, but a copy of which it has been my good fortune to secure – mentions the battle of Turkey Creek as having been fought only a mile or so north of the town in the spring of 1864. It also strongly recommends to the attention of both capitalist and tourist the beautiful mountain scenery of Sandstone County, which adjoins Clearwater a few miles from Suez on the north, and northeast, as Blackland does, much farther away, on the southwest.
In the last year of our Civil War Suez was a basking town of twenty-five hundred souls, with rocky streets and breakneck sidewalks, its dwellings dozing most months of the twelve among roses and honeysuckles behind anciently whitewashed, much-broken fences, and all the place wrapped in that wide sweetness of apple and acacia scents that comes from whole mobs of dog-fennel. The Pulaski City turnpike entered at the northwest corner and passed through to the court-house green with its hollow square of stores and law-offices – two sides of it blackened ruins of fire and war. Under the town's southeasternmost angle, between yellow banks and over-hanging sycamores, the bright green waters of Turkey Creek, rambling round from the north and east, skipped down a gradual stairway of limestone ledges, and glided, alive with sunlight, into that true Swanee River, not of the maps, but which flows forever, "far, far away," through the numbers of imperishable song. The river's head of navigation was, and still is, at Suez.
One of the most influential, and yet meekest among the "citizens" – men not in the army – whose habit it was to visit Suez by way of the Sandstone County road, was Judge Powhatan March, of Widewood. In years he was about fifty. He was under the medium stature, with a gentle and intellectual face whose antique dignity was only less attractive than his rich, quiet voice.
His son John – he had no other child – was a fat-cheeked boy in his eighth year, oftenest seen on horseback, sitting fast asleep with his hands clutched in the folds of the Judge's coat and his short legs and browned feet spread wide behind the saddle. It was hard straddling, but it was good company.
One bright noon about the close of May, when the cotton blooms were opening and the cornsilk was turning pink; when from one hot pool to another the kildee fluttered and ran, and around their edges arcs of white and yellow butterflies sat and sipped and fanned themselves, like human butterflies at a seaside, Judge March – with John in his accustomed place, headquarters behind the saddle – turned into the sweltering shade of a tree in the edge of town to gossip with an acquaintance on the price of cotton, the health of Suez and the last news from Washington – no longer from Richmond, alas!
"Why, son!" he exclaimed, as by and by he lifted the child down before a hardware, dry-goods, drug and music store, "what's been a-troublin' you? You a-got tear marks on yo' face!" But he pressed the question in vain.
"Gimme yo' han'ke'cher, son, an' let me wipe 'em off."
But John's pockets were insolvent as to handkerchiefs, and the Judge found his own no better supplied. So they changed the subject and the son did not have to confess that those dusty rivulet beds, one on either cheek, were there from aching fatigue of a position he would rather have perished in than surrender.
This store was the only one in Suez that had been neither sacked nor burned. In its drug department there had always been kept on sale a single unreplenished, undiminished shelf of books. Most of them were standard English works that took no notice of such trifles as children. But one was an exception, and this world-renowned volume, though entirely unillustrated, had charmed the eyes of Judge March ever since he had been a father. Year after year had increased his patient impatience for the day when his son should be old enough to know that book's fame. Then what joy to see delight dance in his brave young eyes upon that volume's emergence from some innocent concealment – a gift from his father!
Thus far, John did not know his a-b-c's. But education is older than alphabets, and for three years now he had been his father's constant, almost confidential companion. Why might not such a book as this, even now, be made a happy lure into the great realm of letters? Seeing the book again to-day, reflecting that the price of cotton was likely to go yet higher, and touched by the child's unexplained tears, Judge March induced him to go from his side a moment with the store's one clerk – into the lump-sugar section – and bought the volume.
TO A GOOD BOY
In due time the Judge and his son started home.
The sun's rays, though still hot, slanted much as the two rose into oak woodlands to the right of the pike and beyond it. Here the air was cool and light. As they ascended higher, and oaks gave place to chestnut and mountain-birch, wide views opened around and far beneath. In the south spread the green fields and red fallows of Clearwater, bathed in the sheen of the lingering sun. Miles away two white points were the spires of Suez.
The Judge drew rein and gazed on five battle-fields at once. "Ah, son, the kingdom of romance is at hand. It's always at hand when it's within us. I'll be glad when you can understand that, son."
His eyes came round at last to the most western quarter of the landscape and rested on one part where only a spray had dashed when war's fiery deluge rolled down this valley. "Son, if there wa'n't such a sort o' mist o' sunshine between, I could show you Rosemont College over yondeh. You'll be goin' there in a few years now. That'll be fine, won't it, son?"
A small forehead smote his back vigorously, not for yea, but for slumber.
"Drowsy, son?" asked the Judge, adding a backward caress as he moved on again. "I didn't talk to you enough, did I? But I was thinkin' about you, right along." After a silence he stopped again.
"Awake now, son?" He reached back and touched the solid little head. "See this streak o' black land where the rain's run down the road? Well, that means silveh, an' it's ow lan'."
They started once more. "It may not mean much, but we needn't care, when what doesn't mean silveh means dead loads of other things. Make haste an' grow, son; yo' peerless motheh and I are only wait'n' – " He ceased. In the small of his back the growing pressure of a diminutive bad hat told the condition of his hidden audience. It lifted again.
"'Evomind, son, I can talk to you just as well asleep. But I can tell you somepm that'll keep you awake. I was savin' it till we'd get home to yo' dear motheh, but yo' ti-ud an' I don't think of anything else an' – the fact is, I'm bringing home a present faw you." He looked behind till his eyes met a brighter pair. "What you reckon you've been sitt'n' on in one of them saddle pockets all the way fum Suez?"
John smiled, laid his cheek to his father's back and whispered, "A kitt'n."
"Why, no, son; its somepm powerful nice, but – well, you might know it wa'n't a kitt'n by my lett'n' you sit on it so long. I'd be proud faw you to have a kitt'n, but, you know, cats don't suit yo' dear motheh's high strung natu'e. You couldn't be happy with anything that was a constant tawment to her, could you?"
The head lying against the questioner's back nodded an eager yes!
"Oh, you think you might, son, but I jes' know you couldn't. Now, what I've got faw you is ever so much nicer'n a kitt'n. You see, you a-growin' so fast you'll soon not care faw kitt'ns; you'll care for what I've got you. But don't ask what it is, faw I'd hate not to tell you, and I want yo' dear motheh to be with us when you find it out."
It was fairly twilight when their horse neighed his pleasure that his crib was near. Presently they dismounted in a place full of stumps and weeds, where a grove had been till Halliday's brigade had camped there. Beyond a paling fence and a sandy, careworn garden of altheas and dwarf-box stood broadside to them a very plain, two-story house of uncoursed gray rubble, whose open door sent forth no welcoming gleam. Its windows, too, save one softly reddened by a remote lamp, reflected only the darkling sky. This was their home, called by every mountaineer neighbor "a plumb palace."
As they passed in, the slim form of Mrs. March entered at the rear door of the short hall and came slowly through the gloom. John sprang, and despite her word and gesture of nervous disrelish, clutched, and smote his face into, her pliant crinoline. The husband kissed her forehead, and, as she staggered before the child's energy, said:
"Be gentle, son." He took a hand of each. "I hope you'll overlook a little wildness in us this evening, my dear." They turned into a front room. "I wonder he restrains himself so well, when he knows I've brought him a present – not expensive, my deah, I assho' you, nor anything you can possible disapprove; only a B-double-O-K, in fact. Still, son, you ought always to remember yo' dear mother's apt to be ti-ud."
Mrs. March sank into the best rocking-chair, and, while her son kissed her diligently, said to her husband, with a smile of sad reproach:
"John can never know a woman's fatigue."
"No, Daphne, deah, an' that's what I try to teach him."
"Yes, Powhatan, but there's a difference between teaching and terrifying."
"Oh! Oh! I was fah fum intend'n' to be harsh."
"Ah! Judge March, you little realize how harsh your words sometimes are." She showed the back of her head, although John plucked her sleeves with vehement whispers. "What is it child?"
Her irritation turned to mild remonstrance. "You shouldn't interrupt your father, no matter how long you have to wait."
"Oh, I'd finished, my deah," cried the Judge, beaming upon wife and son. "And now," he gathered up the saddle-bags, "now faw the present!"
John leaped – his mother cringed.
"Oh, Judge March – before supper?"
"Why, of co'se not, my love, if you – "
"Ah, Powhatan, please! Please don't say if I." The speaker smiled lovingly – "I don't deserve such a rebuke!" She rose.
"Why, my deah!"
"No, I was not thinking of I, but of others. There's the tea-bell. Servants have rights, Powhatan, and we shouldn't increase their burdens by heartless delays. That may not be the law, Judge March, but it's the gospel."
"Oh, I quite agree with you, Daphne, deah!" But the father could not help seeing the child's tearful eyes and quivering mouth. "I'll tell you mother, son – There's no need faw anybody to be kep' wait'n'. We'll go to suppeh, but the gift shall grace the feast!" He combed one soft hand through his long hair. John danced and gave a triple nod.
Mrs. March's fatigue increased. "Please yourself," she said. "John and I can always make your pleasure ours. Only, I hope he'll not inherit a frivolous impatience."
"Daphne, I – " The Judge made a gesture of sad capitulation.